This is the time of year for ghosts, goblins, and other such superstitions. However, perhaps it is also a time to pause and reflect on the horrors of those who suffered in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. The witches of Salem and nearby towns probably have hundreds of thousands of present-day descendants. If you have ancestry from early Essex County, Massachusetts, you have an excellent chance of finding a connection to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.
Salem, Massachusetts, and the surrounding towns in Essex County were amongst the first settled in this country. Most of the towns were established prior to 1640. By the time of the witchcraft trials of 1692, a complete legal system of courts and clerks was well established. Records were written, and many of them have been preserved. Even if your ancestors are not among those accused, it is quite possible that you can find them mentioned as witnesses, those who gave depositions, or perhaps even those who served on a jury.
The reasons for the witchcraft hysteria have been debated for centuries. One modern theory involves ergot of rye, a plant disease that is caused by a fungus, Claviceps purpurea. Anyone who eats bread made with ergot-infected rye can exhibit symptoms of muscle spasms, tremors, and writhing. This may be accompanied by hallucinations. Such afflictions can indicate poisoning by ergot, or “ergotism.” Modern science has documented likely cases of ergotism in the Dark Ages, but the cause was only proposed in 1670 by a French physician, and outbreaks in the 20th century have shed much more light on both symptoms and their cause.
We know much about the lives of the Puritan inhabitants of Essex County in 1692. We know that they were mostly illiterate, and almost all citizens were intensely religious. In their simple lives, they were afraid of the darkness and of many things in this world that they did not understand. They were convinced that the Devil walked amongst them every night and that he had many disciples. This fear was reinforced by the sermons delivered by Reverend Samuel Parris most every Sunday. If the citizens of Salem and nearby towns did exhibit muscle spasms, tremors, writhing and hallucinations, one cannot be surprised that their neighbors felt the victims were indeed possessed by the Devil himself.
Ergot of Rye occurs in hot, humid weather. Warm, rainy springs and summers promote heavier than usual fungus infestation of rye. The pattern of the weather in 1691 and 1692 is apparent from brief comments in the diary of Samuel Sewall of Salem. Early rains and warm weather in the spring progressed to a hot and stormy summer in 1691, perfect conditions for creating hallucinogenic bread in the fall and winter of 1691, well into the spring and possibly very early summer of 1692, before the new crop of rye was harvested. Sewall recorded that there was a drought in 1692; thus, no contamination of the grain would be expected that year.
You can read a detailed explanation of ergotism and the at http://www.physics.smu.edu/scalise/P3333sp08/Ulcers/ergotism.html. There is no proof available today that ergot of rye was the cause of the Salem Witch Trials. It does, however, provide an intriguing possibility.
The whole series of episodes began in December 1691 and into January, a time when the people of Salem would be eating bread made from the summer's rye harvest, rye that had time to become infected with ergot. Two girls - Betty Parris, daughter of minister Samuel Parris, and his niece Abigail Williams - began exhibiting strange behavior. Soon a number of other young girls were also exhibiting the same symptoms. Several historians have suggested that perhaps the girls were simply playing childish games.
Physicians called in to examine the girls could find no explanation for their illness. In February one doctor suggested the girls might be bewitched. A neighbor had Parris's Barbados slave, Tituba, concoct a "witch cake" in order to determine if witchcraft was present. Shortly thereafter, the girls made an accusation of witchcraft against Tituba and two elderly women of general ill repute in Salem Village, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborn. The three women were taken into custody on 29 February 1692. The afflictions of the girls did not cease, and in March they accused Martha Corey and Rebecca Nurse. Both of these women were well respected in the village and were covenanting members of the church. Further accusations by the children followed. By June the hunt for "witches" expanded beyond Salem to Andover, Ipswich, Gloucester, and other nearby towns.
The accused witches were tried and most of them found guilty, using logic that sounds silly today. However, to the ill-educated citizens of Salem, these were "facts." Contrary to some stories, none of the witches of Salem were ever burned at the stake. With one exception, all were hanged at a public gallows. The one exception is poor Giles Cory, a church-going member of the community, who was pressed to death with large stones.
The last hangings occurred in September of 1692, and by May of 1693 all accused witches still imprisoned were released. It is interesting to note that the reported drought of 1692 would have meant the elimination of ergot of rye by September, the time of the last execution.
The final count of witchcraft victims was twenty executed and more than a hundred imprisoned (One died in prison.). In addition, many others fled into exile or hiding places, their homes were broken up, their estates were ruined, and their families were left in desolation. All of this was caused by the leaders in the communities: the magistrates and ministers.
Finding your ancestors' roles during the Salem Witch Trials may not be terribly difficult. Many of the original trial documents are now both in print and online. You might start at your favorite search engine.
Salem, Massachusetts, was not the only scene of witchcraft trials in North America. However, it is the one whose history is permanently etched in our memories. You may have ancestors who were eyewitnesses to one of the saddest times in American history.