Ergotism and the Salem witch panic: a critical analysis and an alternative conceptualization

J Hist Behav Sci. 1983 Oct;19(4):358-69. doi: 10.1002/1520-6696(198310)19:4<358::aid-jhbs2300190405>;2-g.


The controversial hypothesis that the Salem witchcraft panic of 1692 resulted from ergot poisoning was recently defended by Mary Matossian. She argued that (a) weather conditions in Salem were conducive to the growth of ergot, (b) new evidence concerning the age distribution of ergot sufferers is consistent with the ages of those who exhibited symptoms at Salem, and (c) the symptoms displayed and reported at Salem were those of convulsive ergotism. Each of these propositions is critically examined and rejected, and the events purportedly explained by the ergot hypothesis are accounted for within a social psychological framework. This perspective views the Salem crisis as a sociopolitical drama played out in terms of the worldview shared by seventeenth-century Puritans. The symptoms of demonic affliction are conceptualized as role enactments learned in and legitimated by the community, rather than as the results of disease.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Animals
  • Child
  • Ergotism / history*
  • Female
  • Food Supply / history
  • History, 17th Century
  • Humans
  • Magic*
  • Male
  • Massachusetts
  • Religion and Medicine