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Thursday, October 18, 2012

Was Diet Responsible for the Salem Witch Trials?

Posted By on Thu, Oct 18, 2012 at 4:45 PM

All this could have potentially been avoided on a gluten-free diet. - WITCHCRAFT AT SALEM VILLAGE, 1876

Because Halloween is coming up and we're all feeling extra-spooky this time of year, Bon Appetit has dredged up the original thesis from the 1970s that suggested a bad crop of rye was the culprit behind the "bewitched" villagers during the Salem Witch Trials.

See also:

- Yes, the Gluten-Free Movement Has Finally Reached Your Halloween Bucket

- Best S.F. Neighborhoods for Trick-or-Treaters

- Halloween Hangover: Candy's Hateful History

Historians have long disputed the cause of the mass hysteria in 1692 that left more than 20 villagers dead and dozens more accused of witchcraft. Possible explanations over the years have ranged from medical hysteria to teenage boredom, but in the seventies an undergraduate named Linnda Caporael linked the villagers' symptoms to ergot, a fungus that grows on rye -- which happened to be the main grain grown by Salem Village at the time.

Caporael had previously read about ergot poisoning in the Middle Ages, and when she heard about the villagers' symptoms, including hallucinations, convulsions, and skin-sensations, something clicked in her brain. Ergot contains similar chemicals to LSD, and symptoms from ergot poisoning include crawling skin sensations, vertigo, hallucinations, mania, and psychosis. Additionally, the weather patterns in Salem that year (early rains, warm spring, hot and stormy summer) and the marshy location of the rye that the afflicted girls were more likely to eat both lend themselves to increased likelihood of ergot growth on rye.

We may never know what happened in Salem Village that summer, but it's a good reminder that what we eat can have long-lasting implications, even hundreds of years later.

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About The Author

Anna Roth

Anna Roth

Anna Roth is SF Weekly's former Food & Drink Editor and author of West Coast Road Eats: The Best Road Food From San Diego to the Canadian Border.


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