*Cold dark Massachusetts winter, January, 1692.
*Eight young girls began to take il , beginning with 9-year-old Elizabeth Parris, the
daughter of Reverend Samuel Parris, as well as his niece, 11-year-old Abigail Wil iams.
But theirs was a strange sickness: the girls suffered from delirium, violent convulsions,
incomprehensible speech, trance-like states, and odd skin sensations. The worried
vil agers searched desperately for an explanation. Their conclusion: the girls were under
a spell, bewitched — and, worse yet, by members of their own pious community.
*The first to be accused were Tituba, Parris's Caribbean-born slave, along with Sarah
Good and Sarah Osburn, two elderly women considered of il repute.
*Ultimately, more than 150 "witches" were taken into custody; by late September 1692,20
men and women had been put to death, and five more accused had died in jail. None of
the executed confessed to witchcraft. Such a confession would have surely spared their
lives, but, they believed, condemned their souls.
*On October 29, by order of Massachusetts Governor Sir Wil iam Phips, the Salem witch
trials officially ended. When the dust cleared, the townsfolk and the accusers were at a
loss to explain their own actions. In the centuries since, scholars and historians have
struggled as well to explain the madness that overtook Salem.
Ergot is caused by the fungus Claviceps purpurea, which affects rye, wheat and other
cereal grasses. When first infected, the flowering head of a grain wil spew out sweet,
yellow-colored mucus, called "honey dew," which contains fungal spores that can
spread the disease. Eventually, the fungus invades the developing kernels of grain,
taking them over with a network of filaments that turn the grains into purplish-black
sclerotia. Sclerotia can be mistaken for large, discolored grains of rye. Within them
are potent chemicals, ergot alkaloids, including lysergic acid (from which LSD is
made) and ergotamine (now used to treat migraine headaches). The alkaloids affect
the central nervous system and cause the contraction of smooth muscle — the
muscles that make up the walls of veins and arteries, as well as the internal organs.
Toxicologists now know that eating ergot-contaminated food can lead to a convulsive
disorder characterized by violent muscle spasms, vomiting, delusions, hallucinations,
crawling sensations on the skin, and a host of other symptoms — all of which, Linda
Caporael noted, are present in the records of the Salem witchcraft trials. Ergot thrives
in warm, damp, rainy springs and summers. When Caporael examined the diaries of
Salem residents, she found that those exact conditions had been present in 1691.
Nearly all of the accusers lived in the western section of Salem vil age, a region of
swampy meadows that would have been prime breeding ground for the fungus. At
that time, rye was the staple grain of Salem. The rye crop consumed in the winter of
1691-1692 — when the first usual symptoms began to be reported — could easily
have been contaminated by large quantities of ergot. The summer of 1692, however,
was dry, which could explain the abrupt end of the 'bewitchments.' These and other
clues built up into a circumstantial case against ergot that Caporael found impossible
PUBLICATIONS Enzymic Synthesis of L-Ascorbic Acid in Different Animal Species. Arch. Biochem. Biophys. 69 , 458-467 (1957) The Enzyme Conversion of D-Glucuronate to L-Ascorbate and L-Xylulose in Animal Tissues. Biochem. Biophys. Acta 27 , 221-222 (1958) Metabolic Alkalosis, A Specific Effect of Adrenocortical Hormones. Am. J. Physiol. 196 , 135-140 (1959) Biochem. Biophys. A