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Ergotism Debate and The Salem Witch Trials

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Alan Woolf Disagrees
Woolf, Alan. "Witchcraft or Mycotoxin? The Salem Witch Trials." Journal of Toxicology. Clinical Toxicology 38, no. 4 (2000): 457.

In 2000, a year after Carlson introduced her new theory regarding Salem, Dr. Alan Woolf published an article, “Witchcraft or Mycotoxin? The Salem Witch Trials”.  In the introduction, Woolf introduced the recently debated ergotism theory to Salem and stated that he would discuss the pros and cons to the theory in his article.  When looking at the pros and cons, Woolf concluded that it would seem unlikely that ergotism could explain Salem.  Some of the arguments for the theory of ergotism include, a cold winter in 1691 – the perfect climate conditions for growth of ergot, crop failure forcing Puritans to eat rye, the afflicted living along rye routes, age and sex of afflicted resembling other epidemics, animals afflicted, and symptoms resemble convulsive ergotism. Arguments against it: no data to prove Salem had a cold winter, no verification of crop failure, the ages of the afflicted were older than in other epidemics, symptoms could be turned on and off depending on audience, symptoms were different, and the question: why were so many people suffering from ergotism? Woolf said that despite so many questions that are still left, it would seem highly unlikely that ergotism caused Salem.  He thought it was more because of social, political, and economic divisions in the town. 
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Bernard Rosenthal Disagrees/offers new theory
Rosenthal, Bernard. 1993. Salem Story : Reading the Witch Trials of 1692. Cambridge [England] ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Four years after Matossian published her book and resurfaced the debate again, Bernard Rosenthal wrote a book, Salem Story, and included his thoughts on the heated argument of ergotism.  In discussing the debate, Rosenthal mentioned the different responses the leading theorists drew from the causes of Salem; Caporael’s being a physiological response and Spanos and Gottlieb’s being a psychological one.  However, he doesn’t agree with Caporael.  Instead, he suggested that new theories are produced that reflect the common times.  Rosenthal concluded, “Our guesses, of course, are governed by the cultural interests of our day. With the ascendance of Freud, we offered complex models of hysteria. When we learned about hallucinogenic drugs, we discovered ergot. why not try out current concern with child abuse?” When Rosenthal wrote his article in 1993, it was reported that the number of child abuse cases in America rose from 861,000 to 1,032,000 during the years of 1990-1994(website). This may have prompted him to see the abuse that was occurring in Salem and how some individuals, such as Ann Putnam Sr., used witch accusations as a scapegoat. Rosenthal referred to when Ann Putnam Jr. testified John Willard in court; contesting that he had beaten her six-month-old sister to death; when in reality, Putnam Sr. had done so and was uses witches as a scapegoat.  Rosenthal admitted that even though he would never defend this child abuse theory to Salem, children do get abused, and other theories have been promoted with less evidence. 
 

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Gordon Rutter Agrees
Rutter, Gordon. "Witches, Madness and a Little Black Fungus." Field Mycology 4, no. 2 (April, 2003): 44-48. 

In 2003, a year after Norton wrote her book, Gordon Rutter published an article, “Witches, Madness and a Little Black Fungus”.  In his article, Rutter discussed ergotism, the symptoms, and the two different types of disease.  Rutter mentioned that hallucinations were one of the symptoms that ergot could produce, and that the connection wasn’t made until the early 20th century with the research of Dr. Albert Hoffman.  Rutter devoted the last half of his article to connections between Salem and ergotism. He wrote, “Many of the symptoms of ergotism could be interpreted as possession by evil forces and some of the hallucinations would lend credence to this (the victims often believed they could fly)”.  Rutter then examined the case by seeing if ergot really did have a part in Salem.  A couple of similarities he pointed out were the symptoms, the fact that the victims were typically teenagers (known fact that they are more susceptible to ergotism due to greater intake, by body weight, of rye bread), weather conditions, and delayed harvest of crops; all of these points mirroring Caporael’s.  Rutter concluded his article by asking if ergotism was responsible for the hysteria.  He admits that despite the evidence being circumstantial and distant, “if it looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck….Ergot has caused, among other symptoms, hallucinations (including the sensation of flying), accusations of witchcraft and death”. *Not explicitely agreeing with Caporael, but definitely seems to side more with her opinions. 
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H. Sidky Agrees
Sidky, H. Witchcraft, Lycanthropy, Drugs, and Disease. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1997. 
 
Ecological anthropologist and professor of anthropology, Dr. Sidky, wrote a book around ten years after Matossian’s book and devoted a chapter to ergotism and the Salem affair.  Unlike many historians and scientists, Sidky supported Caporael and her theory in that it could be a possible explanation for the trials.  When discussing various medical theories to Salem, Sidky stated that ergotism could be the one most likely to be confused with demonic possession.  He said that upon examination, a close look at the areas that were rampant with the witch hunts were also areas that previously had been wild with ergotism.  Sidky also pointed out that the social class most prone to ergotism were the peasants and the poor, because they couldn’t afford ergot-free grains, and their standard bread was made from rye. Drawing a lot of evidence from Barger, Sidky reveals that due to an ignorance of natural causes, many people blamed ergot on witchcraft.  Sidky also directly discredited Spanos and Gottlieb, calling their evidence ill-founded. Using evidence from Barger, Sidky argues that ergotism really depended on climate and local geography. It could be random and affect certain people.  Sidky debated their argument by saying that in both cases of gangrenous and convulsive ergotism, certain family members could get it while others wouldn’t. After debating their other points, Sidky concluded that it wasn’t a question of whether or not ergot could or could not account for the symptoms in Salem, but whether or not there was an outbreak. He also debated Matossian on some of her points, but ultimately concludes that ergotism shouldn’t be excused as a possible explanation. 

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Julian Goodare Disagrees
Golden, Richard M. Encyclopedia of Witchcraft. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 2006.

A year after Norton published her book, the encyclopedia, Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, was published in 2003.  Historian, Julian Goodare, wrote a section about ergotism and mentioned the debate.  After explaining ergotism and its symptoms, Goodare warned to tread with caution when discussing the theory.  In his opinion, the evidence for the case was weak, and there were many reasons why the theory falls short. He explained that there aren’t any medical records to give a good view of the symptoms in Salem, and only a few are recorded at most. Similar to other scholars who disagree with the theory, Goodare pointed out many reasons why this theory wouldn’t work; ergotism couldn’t explain the seizures people were having, it doesn’t explain why the girls were healthy on the outside, and it usually affected entire villages and not just a small group of girls as in Salem. Goodare believed that Salem could be best explained through a psychological and cultural analysis, and the theory of ergotism should officially be considered disapproved. He concluded, “The strength of the ergotism theory is also its weakness; it is difficult to disprove but impossible to prove”(322).  

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Laurie Winn Carlson Disagrees/offers new theory
Carlson, Laurie Winn. A Fever in Salem. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1999.

Two years after Sidky wrote his book and affirmed the ergot argument, Laurie Winn Carlson wrote, A Fever in Salem, and challenged that the Salem episode wasn’t caused from an ergotism outbreak, but instead by the disease, encephalitis lethargica.  Carlson briefly discussed the debate between Caporael and Spanos and Gottlieb and sided with Spanos and Gottlieb, saying, “Ergot was never seriously considered as the cause of problems at Salem, even by the colonists themselves who knew what ergotism was (it had been identified sixteen years earlier) and were trying desperately to discover the sources of their problems”(124). Carlson believed that a more satisfying explanation was the disease, encephalitis.  The symptoms of the encephalitis outbreak of 1916-1930 and the symptoms of Salem are very comparable, and both cases include similarities, such as the fact that most of the afflicted were young women and children, the afflictions appeared in late winter and early spring, and they share similar symptoms.  
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Linda Caporael Agrees
Caporael, Linnda. "Ergotism: The Satan Loosed in Salem?" Science 192, no. 4234 (April 2, 1976): 21-26. 

Linnda Caporael presented a new theory to the causes of the Salem Witch Trials in 1976 as a graduate student at The University of California, Santa Barbara.  Her theory concluded that the Salem hysteria was a result of the fungal disease, ergotism.  Ergotism is a disease that results from eating rye bread that has been contaminated by the fungus, ergot. When Caporael developed this fresh perspective, she was living on the tail end of the enormous drug culture in America. The sixties created a counterculture of drug experimentation, especially with hallucinogens, and LSD became popular until it was officially banned from the States in 1968 .  As a result of living during this time, Caporael was able to see the connections between the drug, LSD, ergotism, and the symptoms of the victims in Salem.  Ergot has “ten percent the activity of LSD-25, making it an exceptionally potent psychotropic” . There are two types of ergotism, convulsive and gangrenous. One of the first to offer a biological perspective, Caporael believed that the evidence of Salem revealed that convulsive ergotism had caused the witchcraft hysteria.  She concluded this based on the similarities of the symptoms in both Salem and from ergot, the climate conditions of Salem, and the localization of Salem. Caporael’s bold theory instantly became a forerunner in the debate of the Salem trials and created different camps of people who agree with her, disagree, and disagree while suggesting their own theory.  
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Mary Beth Norton Disagrees/offers new theory
Mary Beth Norton, In the Devil’s Snare (New York: Vintage Books, 2003).

Three years after Carlson debuted her encephalitis theory, acclaimed historian, Mary Beth Norton challenged the Salem debate with a theory of her own.  After acknowledging the many interpretations to Salem, Norton believed that the Salem witch trials could only be understood when relating them to the political and military matters in the area, specifically the Indian Wars.  She believed that God let the devil punish the people of Salem through both the invisible world through the witches and through the visible world through the Indians.  Norton admitted that while her research builds on prior research and interpretations, she disagreed with many points in those interpretations.  Specifically to medical theories and ergot, Norton believed, “Major flaws in hypothesis involving disease, food poisoning, or drug-induced hallucinations are that even if they are correct they cannot explain the content of the girls’ visions, and that they cannot explain contemporary observations that the girls appeared healthy whenever the specters were not tormenting them (that is, most of the time)”(327). 
After reviewing the debate between Caporael, Spanos, and Gottlieb, Norton discussed Carlson’s theory as well. She agreed with Prof. Maurice White of Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in that there “is no realistic single explanation for the signs in the animals and people consistent with our present scientific knowledge of human and veterinary medicine”(327). Norton disagreed with both Caporael and Carlson and looked to a military explanation to the episode. 
 

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Mary Matossian (1982) Agrees
Matossian, M K. 1982. “Ergot and the Salem Witchcraft Affair”. American Scientist. 70, no. 4: 355.

Following Spanos and Gottlieb’s rebuttal of Caporael’s theory, historian, Mary Matossian defended Caporael in 1982.  After reviewing the debate, she wrote in her article about Spanos and Gottlieb’s rebuttal, “I have concluded, after examining the Salem court transcript, the ecological situation, and recent literature on ergotism, that this objection is not as valid as originally perceived”.  Matossian first rejected Spanos and Gottlieb’s rebuttal on the basis that if the girls were just pretending with their symptoms, that couldn’t have explain the symptoms of the animals that suffered.  She also argued about the age issue, saying that “children and teenagers are more vulnerable to ergotism than adults because they ingest more food per unit of body weight; consequently, they may ingest more poison per unit of body weight”(355). Matossian defended Caporael and agreed that the symptoms shown reflected cases of ergotism.  The symptoms that weren’t shown, such as headache, nausea, diarrhea, chills, and a ravenous appetite may not have been shown in the court records, because they weren’t typically associated with bewitchment.  Matossian also challengeed Spanos and Gottlieb’s argument about the age of the victims. Even though they stated that the amount of children affected was lower than in a typical ergot outbreak, Matossian mentioned the epidemic in Ethiopia; stating that the ages in the Ethiopian outbreak were not much different than that of Salem. Matossian concluded that despite a limitation of records, the evidence remaining suggested that the Salem affairs were caused by ergotism and that the trials may have been caused by a disguised health problem. 
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Mary Matossian (1989) Agrees
Matossian, Mary. Poisons of the Past. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989.

Matossian wanted to have the last word in her debate with Spanos and Gottlieb. Six years after publishing her article, Matossian wrote a book, Poisons of the Past, in 1989,  In her book, she included her journal article as a chapter. 
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Nicholas Spanos Disagrees
Spanos, Nicholas. 1983. “Ergotism and the Salem Witch Panic: A Critical Analysis and an Alternative Conceptualization”. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. 19, no. 4: 358-369. 
 
A year after Matossian’s defense of Caporael’s theory, Nicholas Spanos decided to challenge the theory yet again. This time, proving Mattossian’s defense as invalid.  In regard to Matossian’s defense, he called the new information in her article “irrelevant to the ergot hypothesis, incorrect, or presented in a highly misleading manner”(358). Spanos claimed that there wasn't a single piece of evidence that supported Caporael’s claim, and the Salem trials were much better explained through a political or economical way.  In his article, he argued each one of Matossian’s three points. For her point about crop failures and food shortages, he argued that she included no citations, no diary entries, no sermons, and no evidence of this whatsoever.  She claimed that the food shortage was a result of a colder winter, yet her only piece of evidence was a diary entry saying that winter was “very cold”.  He also called her out on her statement that convulsive symptoms began in December. According to him there were no such records. On her argument about the Ethiopian outbreak, Spanos argued that it was actually a case of gangrenous ergotism, and the symptoms for the two are different. Spanos also defended his earlier position about the symptoms and said that Matassian didn’t have evidence for convulsive ergotism in Salem. 

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Nicholas Spanos & Jack Gottlieb Disagrees
Spanos, Nicholas, and Jack Gottlieb. 1976. “Ergotism and the Salem Village Witch Trials”. Science. 194, no. 4272: 1390-1394.

Nicholas Spanos and Jack Gottlieb directly refuted Caporael on December 24, 1976; only months after her publication.  They argued that “the records of the events of 1692 do not support the hypothesis that ergot poisoning was involved”(1390).  In their article, they tried to show how Caporael’s argument wasn’t well grounded.  Using the research of George Barger, the psychologists explained that the victims of an ergot outbreak typically live in a community that lacks vitamin A, which is found in fish and dairy products. Considering Salem was heavy in both, they didn’t see how her argument would be valid.  They also attacked Caporael on the age of the victims.  Also, according to Barger, young children were more susceptible to convulsive ergotism than adults were. Records show that only 3 of the 11 girls who were affected in Salem were under 15, and there aren’t any documents showing a high rate of children being affected.  Spanos and Gottlieb also challenged Caporael on the grounds of the symptoms shown.  Symptoms of convulsive ergotism include, vomiting, diarrhea, change in the skin color, itching, tingling, and convulsions, among many others (1391). However, they couldn’t find any evidence of these given symptoms in the case of Salem. Finally, they refuted Caporael’s statement that “the Salem witchcraft episode was an event localized in both time and space”(25). They stated that the accusations happened in many places besides Salem. They concluded that based on the evidence given, it doesn’t support Caporael’s theory that ergotism caused the craze. 
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William E. Burns Informational
Burns, William E. Witch Hunts in Europe and America. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003. 
 
In his encyclopedia entry on “Medical Interpretations of Witchcraft and Witch-hunting”, William Burns claims that many of the medical theories have been the subject of people outside the historical establishment and are often flawed by “hasty generalizations from a small number of cases”(193).  After discussing the main debate between Caporael, Spanos, and Gottlieb, Burns concludes that Spanos and Gottlieb won the debate. He believes had a more convincing argument with the vitamin A aspect and the symptoms of the victims.  Burns also mentions Carlson’s encephalitis lethargica theory and calls it the more convincing argument. He mentions how she saw similar evidence of symptoms between Salem and the outbreak in Ethiopia during the nineties.  Despite this, Burns believed that “although her attempts to expand this theory into a generalized explanation of why witch-hunting appeared in certain places in Europe and America and not in others rests on little evidence and is not convincing”(194). Overall, he doesn’t believe that medical theories are the most convincing. 

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Source Link Target Date
Alan Woolf Disagrees with theory Linda Caporael
Bernard Rosenthal Disagrees and offers new theory Linda Caporael
Bernard Rosenthal Disagrees and offers new theory Mary Matossian (1982)
Bernard Rosenthal Disagrees and offers new theory Nicholas Spanos & Jack Gottlieb
Gordon Rutter agrees with theory Linda Caporael
H. Sidky agrees with theory Linda Caporael
H. Sidky disagrees with some issues Mary Matossian (1989)
H. Sidky challenges rebuttal Nicholas Spanos & Jack Gottlieb
Julian Goodare Disagrees with theory Linda Caporael
Laurie Winn Carlson Disagrees and offers new theory Linda Caporael
Laurie Winn Carlson agrees theory is wrong Nicholas Spanos & Jack Gottlieb
Mary Beth Norton Disagrees with theory Laurie Winn Carlson
Mary Beth Norton Disagrees and offers new theory Linda Caporael
Mary Matossian (1982) agrees with theory Linda Caporael
Mary Matossian (1982) challenges rebuttal Nicholas Spanos & Jack Gottlieb
Mary Matossian (1989) challenges rebuttal Nicholas Spanos
Nicholas Spanos Disagrees with theory Linda Caporael
Nicholas Spanos challenges rebuttal Mary Matossian (1982)
Nicholas Spanos defends original rebuttal Nicholas Spanos & Jack Gottlieb
Nicholas Spanos & Jack Gottlieb Disagrees with theory Linda Caporael