Early American Witches: Seized
By Cathy Hartt, RN, CNM, MS
"Their arms, necks and backs were turned this way and that, and returned back
again, so as it was impossible for them to do of themselves, and beyond the power
of any epileptic fits, or natural disease to affect," wrote Reverend John Hale during
the witchcraft hysteria of 1692 Salem, MA. When confronted with symptoms so
inexplicable, most physicians of the time considered the diagnosis to be witchcraft.
If it was not in their medical books, what else could it be?
Such was the case when Dr. William Griggs of Salem Village was summoned by
Reverend Parris to examine his (Parris') own daughter and niece in December of
1691. The two girls were among the first afflicted in the village and had not
responded to Parris' attempts to cure them through prayer and fasting.
Beyond the initial "fits" of these young girls, there were alarming community-wide
symptoms described in the literature. Symptoms such as temporary loss of hearing,
speech and sight; a choking sensation in the throat, and a loss of appetite. There
was also a loss of memory, so most girls could not remember what had occurred
during the seizure. Later the afflicted and accused both developed horrific
hallucinations of specters that came to torment their souls. They frequently felt the
specters had bitten or pinched them. Sometimes there were even physical marks
on their skin.
There are several theories about what caused the witch crisis in Salem. Mass
hysteria fueled by zealous Puritan faith (along with culturally born fears of the time)
is one of the predominant theories of historians. Another theory is that there was
jealousy related to ownership of land and inheritances. To this day, some religious
sects believe the crisis was spiritually induced. Lastly, there is a theory that the rye
was contaminated with a mold that caused both seizures and hallucinations. For the
purpose of this article, we will focus on the two theories above which offer the most
scientific reason for the contagious seizures that gripped the community: Hysteria
and rye mold contamination.
Hysterical seizures are now referred to as non-epileptic seizures in the medical
literature. Non-epileptic seizures can originate from psychological factors and seem
to be caused by stressful experiences or emotional trauma. These seizures are
thought to be one way that the body indicates excessive stress. This type of seizure
may result from incest, rape, sexual or physical abuse, either recent or in the past.
Others may have experienced a major life event such as divorce or the death of
someone close to them.
It is interesting to note that hysterical seizures were seen frequently in soldiers
during combat until the early 20th century in Western civilizations. During World
War II, only six cases of hysterical seizures were diagnosed out of over one hundred
and fifty cases of hysteria requiring treatment in British soldiers. At this same
hospital, soldiers from India displayed seizures as the most common symptom of
hysteria. The symptoms in Western civilization may have died out as our culture
stopped respecting non-epileptic seizures (Hansen, 1969). Perhaps the seizures
were replaced with the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms so prominent in
Vietnam War era veterans.
There are a couple of interesting facts about Salem, which seem to support the
hysteria theory. The first is that most those who confessed to witchcraft were, also,
thought to be having hysterical hallucinations. In fact, most gave unsolicited,
lengthy and detailed confessions in writing. The second is that once the accused
person was arrested, the accuser (afflicted) person would almost immediately have
full relief of the symptoms (at least until visited by another specter).
Another theory arose in 1976 in an article written by Linnda R. Caporeal in the April
issue of Science: the theory of the contaminated rye grain. The rye is thought to
have been contaminated by a fungus called ergot. Those who are midwives or
women's health professionals will recognize ergot as part of a family of medications
we use to treat hemorrhage in childbearing women. It has other modern day
medical uses, as well, such as treatment of migraine headaches. This fungus is
also chemically related to LSD, a hallucinogen. Symptoms of overdose include
diarrhea, numbness in the extremities, itching, seizures, headaches, drowsiness,
nausea and vomiting.
In favor of this theory is the fact that several households where the seizures began
also had access to fresh rye grain. During 1691 and 1692, the climatic conditions in
Salem were favorable for ergot poisoning. The timing of the outbreaks also
corresponds to when the grain would have been harvested and eaten.
Also supportive of this theory is that in 1951, in Pont-St. Esprit, France, there was
an outbreak of ergotism similar to what Caporeal proposed happened in Salem.
Though more modern than Salem, this town had only one bakery and there were no
preservatives in use there. During the French occurrence, people developed
burning sensations in their limbs and had hallucinations that they could fly.
Modern day EEGs and blood tests would put short order to the question about what
caused the seizures in the young Salem girls and the hallucinations that became
wide-spread in their community in 1692. What we know is that the seizures looked
like epilepsy. We can also surmise from the literature that the symptoms started
with one girl and, over a few months, spread to a large percentage of the
population. We recognize that the afflicted girls were often reported to be physically
well between seizures, which opposes the ergot poisoning theory.
Lacking the ability to go back in time, it is left to us from a different culture and in a
different time to try to piece together the cause of the frightful fits and hallucinations
that swept 20 convicted "witches" to their death by hanging. We will conclude with a
statement made by the author of the ergot theory herself: "No single explanation
can ever account for the delusion; an interaction of them all must be assumed."
Editor's note: Our next issue of Empower! will look at the role that the actual
midwives in Salem played during the witch crisis of 1692.
Seized in Salem
Pearl Lake State Park