By Lucille Berliant
I consider myself a highly skeptical person. I don’t believe in ghosts, goblins or anything in between. The shadows in my room are just shadows. I do, however, have one fatal flaw. I love the stories that come from the horrors of the night. Folk-lore especially, I will study for hours. Since I am a skeptic, however, I have found myself constantly searching for the nuggets of truth hidden within the folk lore. What really happened, oftentimes, is far scarier than the monsters we create. My personal favorite explanation is one for the Salem Witch Trials and what really sent the town into madness. The cause of the horror and mass murder was bread.
As humans, we like to think that we are in full control of our minds because the alternative is horrifying. In today’s society, we like to think that something like the Salem Witch Trials would never happen again. But what if I told you that a town could undergo a mass hallucination. If you saw the walls bending in on you and your skin felt like falling off, would you really make the wisest decisions? Before I continue, I want to make this clear; what happened was not the result of witchcraft and, unfortunately, many innocent lives were lost. Learning from history is how progress is made and, while the subject is fascinating, keep in mind these were real people.
It was 1691, the winter was brutal. It was followed by a damp spring bringing food and hope. Little did the town know that it was those conditions that started everything. The fungus Ergot began to grow within the grain. Rye was harvested and stored for food in the upcoming year in the dark damp cellars and the Ergot was still growing, replacing the shoots of the grain with sclerotia poisoning. The compromised grain was ground and baked into bread; eaten by everyone in the town, shared at churches and bakeries. No one knew what Ergot did or that it was even there. The fungus Ergot causes a disease called “Ergotism” which can result in Saint Anthony’s fire symptoms of, which according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, are “severe convulsions, muscle spasms, delusions, the sensation of crawling under the skin, gangrene of the extremities, as well as severe hallucinations… as lysergic acid is the substance from which the drug LSD is synthesized.”
The town was poisoned and strange things began to happen. Young women who’s immune systems hadn’t fully developed were hit the hardest. In many accounts, the evidence of Ergot poisoning is clear. Mary Daniel on September 15th of 1692 claimed her feet felt a crawling sensation. As she saw a girl convulsing and behaving strangely, she wrote “I was taken very ill again all over & felt a great pricking in ye soles of my feet, and after a while I saw apparently the shape of Margret Scott, who,… pulled me with ye chair, down backward to ye ground.” (indictment: Mary Daniel v. Margaret Scott, for afflicting Mary Daniell)
More accounts like this began to swell. Abigail Williams testified on May 31st in 1692 claiming that Martha Carrier saw ghosts, a man who wasn’t there, and felt pinpricks along her skin. All of this leading her to kill 13 people by infecting them with diseases. Of course it was likely that these 13 people died because of Ergot poisoning, but since this was unknown Martha became the target. Abigail in her testimony she states “You see you look upon them & they fall down. It is false the Devil is a liar.” Mary Walcot testified after backing up Abigail’s claims saying “ there lay.13. Ghosts. All the afflicted fell into most intolerable out-cries & agonies.” (Examination of Martha Carrier) All these accounts mention convulsions, hallucinations, and a crawling feeling under the skin. The answer to a riddle seems so obvious only after you know it. Unfortunately the town didn’t. They knew of their devil and demons, and that seemed to explain what was happening. Martha, as well as, Margret met the same fate. Too many voices spoke against them and their lives were cut short. It’s hard to think of something like a fungus could ever lead to such terrible things, but this was not the first time Ergot drove a town mad, or even the last.
L’affaire du pain maudit (The Case of the Cursed Bread) poisoned the little town of Rhone. It was the summer of 1951 and it was very rainy. The crops grew less than the should have for summer and the government, which already strictly controlled distribution, rationed it off to the only two bakeries in Rhone. The town relied on the bread from those stores, and even though the flour was grey, the bakeries proceeded business as usual. Then everything went wrong. Over 200 people were inflicted, and the stories that came out of Rhone were biblical in horror.
The New York times article can still be found online depicting the accounts from that horrible day. How a little girl ran from invisible tigers, how she screamed that she could feel them eating her skin. Many shared this delusion like a wealthy man who owned a vineyard and he threw chairs against the wall defending himself from these roaring beasts. He was restrained to a hospital bed with large leather straps which he destroyed his teeth chewing through with wild ferocity. Outside on the streets a woman wailed claiming she saw a butcher slaughter her children. She thought their bodies were hanging in the windows ready to be made into sausages. Her screams may have carried up to a poet who madly scribbled hundreds of pages of neat writing, because when he stopped he felt an overwhelming urge to throw himself from the window. A woman ran from the doctors because, as he leaned over to examine her, all she saw grinning back was a skull. The visions caused violence, death, and fear. Luckily, this time, there was a scientific explanation and it was not witches. All the reports led scientists to connect the dots of what caused this mass hysteria: Ergot. Suddenly, the symptoms seemed to line up with what happened in Salem. The question of what really happened seemed to have a plausible answer.
Was it the work of an angry God? No. It was because of sickness, not just from the mold the mob mentality was present and it attacked many young innocent women, the mold was just the kindling to the bonfire. What happened will never be excused, but it can be explained. The Salem Witch Trials killed innocent women and men because of hallucinations, death, and seizures caused by Ergotism. Mob mentality, as well as, religion lead them to execute and excuse their actions. There was no witchcraft involved, and the lives lost were innocent ones taken by a town that had gone mad. Somehow, that explanation seems even more chilling than a devil no one ever sees. As I said I am highly skeptical, shadows are just shadows, but sometimes they are far darker than they seem.
- The Salem Witch Trials, 1692, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/salem.htm.
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Ergot.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/science/ergot.
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/topic/Rensselaer-Polytechnic-Institute.
- Lohnes, Kate. “How Rye Bread May Have Caused the Salem Witch Trials.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/story/how-rye-bread-may-have-caused-the-salem-witch-trials.
- “SWP No. 013: Bridget Bishop Executed, June 10, 1692.” SWP No. 013: Bridget Bishop Executed, June 10, 1692 – New Salem – Pelican, salem.lib.virginia.edu/n13.html.
- “SWP No. 024: Martha Carrier Executed, August 19, 1692.” SWP No. 024: Martha Carrier Executed, August 19, 1692 – New Salem – Pelican, salem.lib.virginia.edu/n24.html.
- “The Salem Witchcraft Papers.” Swp – New Salem – Pelican, salem.lib.virginia.edu/category/swp.html
- “3 Die, Many Stricken by Madness From Poison in Bread in France; Mayor Describes Attacks.” Nytimes.Com, 2019, timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1951/08/29/84684398.pdf.
- “FOURTH DEATH LAID TO POISONED BREAD.” Nytimes.Com, 2019, timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1951/08/30/84858495.pdf. Accessed 26 Oct. 2019.
- “It Blew Their Minds; THE DAY OF ST. ANTHONY’S FIRE. By John G. Fuller. 310 Pp. New York: The Macmillan Company. $5.95.” Nytimes.Com, 2019, timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1968/09/08/90037999.pdf.
- Rhodes, Jesse. “How Deadly Bread Bewitched a French Village.” Smithsonian, Smithsonian.com, 27 Oct. 2011, www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/how-deadly-bread-bewitched-a-french-village-123126177/. Accessed 26 Oct. 2019.
- “The Idyllic French Village That Went Insane.” Tootlafrance, 29 July 2014, www.tootlafrance.ie/features/the-idyllic-french-village-that-went-insane. Accessed 26 Oct. 2019.
- “SWP No. 119: Margaret Scott Executed, September 22, 1692 – New Salem – Pelican,” 2009
- “SWP No. 024: Martha Carrier Executed, August 19, 1692 – New Salem – Pelican,” 2019
- “It Blew Their Minds; THE DAY OF ST. ANTHONY’S FIRE. By John G. Fuller. 310 pp. New York: The Macmillan Company. 2019
I really enjoyed this story. It captured me from the beginning. The suspense had me wanting more and excited for what was to come. The details are written so well, I felt I was in the times of 1691 and 1951. I found it easy to place a face and a voice to the characters. I would definitely read more from Lucille Berliant. Very well written.
I really love this analysis of history. I liked hearing it in class. It is captivating and sheds new light on an old topic. Comparing multiple countries broaden our view and makes it more meaningful. Plants and fungi are always so fascinating and this goes over that well. I hope to never eat this fungus.
Great essay Lucille–I had never heard of an Erogoticism diagnosis associated with the strange occurrences demonstrated by citizens of the Salem Witch trails in the 17 century. That french title definently grabbed my attention as well.
Oh my goodness thank you so much.