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Ergot Poisoning

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Problems in Salem started in January 1692, during the cold winter in Massachusetts, when eight young girls started getting ill. The first one was Elizabeth Paris who was nine years old, followed by eleven-year-old Abigail Williams. Their symptoms were an odd skin sensation, violent convulsions, deliriousness, and incomprehensible speech.  The village said the girls were bewitched, after desperately searching for an explanation to no avail. After this, they started accusing people, beginning with Tituba, a slave from Parris’s Caribbean. Together with Tituba, were Sarah Osburn and Sarah Good, whom the village arrested on 29 February. After that, the village arrested more than one hundred and fifty witches.

The village had put to death more than twenty men and women by September 1692, without a confession from them, while others died in jail. These trials ended in October 29, after an order by Governor Sir William Phips of Massachusetts.  Ever since then, historians and scholars have struggled to explain the problem in Salem. Some thought it was sexual repression, mass hysteria or dietary deficiency, while others blamed a simple fungus, Ergot, for the conditions. Linnda Caporael, presently a behavioral psychologist made the latter realizations. Linnda detected a link between certain drug’s hallucinogenic effects and the symptoms the eight Salem accusers reported. The drug she identified was LSD, which is Ergot’s derivative, and affects rye grain.  Ergotism refers to poisoning that result from this fungus. Earlier, the poisoning had been accused in the bizarre outbreaks of behavior in several areas such as Pont-Saint-Espirit. Caporael raised questions over the possibility of Ergot being the causes of those conditions in Salem.

Toxicologists confirm that consuming ergot-contaminated meals may result into convulsive disorders (Douglas 175). Among the symptoms that characterize the disorders are delusions, vomiting, crawling skin sensations, hallucinations, and violent muscle spasms. It could have been possible that this was the cause of the girl’s conditions as they all reported these symptoms. Additionally, the fungus flourishes in warm and damp rainy summers and springs. These were exact weather conditions in 1691. Almost all of the accusers resided in Salem villages’ western section, a place of swampy meadows. Swampy meadows are an ideal breeding condition for the fungus. Keeping in mind that almost all the accused resided in this area, it is ordinary to conclude that they may have been innocent in their accusations, and that the death sentences were unjust.  During this, rye was also a staple in the village, and was first consumed in the 1691-1692 winter, when the village reported its first symptom. This could have been an easy explanation for the symptoms as there were large consumptions at the start of the season. In the 1692 summer, the village experienced a dry spell, after which the “witchcraft” suddenly stopped (A Chronology of Events).

A number of theories have merged to explain mental illness relating to the above symptoms. Psychologists classify the symptoms that the girls exhibited under hysteria. However, scholars from various fields suggest illness such as mass hypnosis, mass hysteria, and delusions as possible explanations of the girls’ conditions. Mass hypnosis is highly questionable because it does not affect everyone. One other theory that scholars contended for this explanation was that the villagers wanted to get rid of merchants from Salem town. This is not a plausible argument because most of those people who were accused of witchcraft resided on the western villages of Salem. Other theorists said that the Puritan Church had started to feel as though it was losing its management over the parishioners. Because of these, the church needed to accuse people of the happenings in order to stay powerful. Though it is true that the church was gradually losing its power, the theory does not explain why the church would incriminate poor women such as Sarah Ousborne. Other suspicions pertain to the common individual greed at that time (Hall 89).

The theory argues that those who accused the “witches” were jealous of the witches’ social positions and their possessions, and the only way for them to acquire their possessions or taint their popularity was to accuse them of the witchcraft. Jealousy, especially over wealth, has always been present in societies hence, could explain some for the accusations. However, this argument remains incredible in other cases, especially against the poor accusers such as Sarah Ousborne.  Other theories relay the conditions to the Puritan lifestyle, which was extremely strict. This theory argues that the girls are overwhelmed with certain emotions but lacked outlets for releasing them. During that time, normal life meant working harder and harder, with little recreation time. Due to this rigorous routine, it could have been possible for the girls to unleash the overwhelming feeling through hysteria. However, this argument also holds little doubts because if that was the routing, then most girls could have been affected. Additionally, the conditions seem to have started appearing at a particular time, and ended almost immediately. The lifestyle had been present even before the conditions, therefore, cannot explain the symptoms.

An interesting realization that one makes by analyzing these theories is that none, except Egortism. Poisoning, exclusively explains Salem’s situation. Most of the theories relate the events with the happenings in the world of psychology and human services. It would be feasible to combine two or more theories in the explanation of the occurrences. This would yield a better and comprehensive explanation of the condition in Salem. The understanding derived is important in building of the future concepts. For example, Ergot poisoning could have affected the victims’ sound judgment. Consequently, there were good chances that the girls were overwhelmed, therefore, seeking a release of their emotions. The theories would hold more weight when they are incorporated into one another and viewed as a whole (Malcom 76).

Despite these theories, the most credible explanation has been the Ergotism as it contains facts that coincide with the seasons and symptoms. However, this theory also has loopholes. Considering that a family contains other people other than the girls who could have consumed the grain, how could it be that they were the only ones who got ill? For example, in the Parris’ household, there were eight people. Despite the family consuming the same meals, only the poison affected Abigail and Betty. Additionally, it is confusing how all the girls hallucinated, without any of them getting back to their senses. It is hard to believe that the condition would spread as it did, and fail to get better. 

In conclusion, it is important to note that some of the current explanations of Salem’s conditions such as hysteria, physiological explanations, psychiatric disorder and fraud could have meaningful importance in understanding the case. However, there have been monumental reasons and proof that point to the credibility of Egotism as the primal explanation of the situation in Salem. Amongst them are the localization and growing conditions of the village and its weather conditions. Other theories contain major loopholes, some explaining instances that have no proof or those are difficult to control. For example, the issues of jealousy are a difficult one to evaluate. However, the issue of different growing seasons, staple food, weather and the symptoms, are verifiable facts, which add credibility to the ergotism theory. 

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