Ergotism and the Salem Witch Trials

Some scholars assert that the mass hysteria in Massachusetts in the 17th century could have been triggered by a common fungus.


The events are familiar to most Americans and have been dramatized dozens of times on stage, page and film. The tragic episode was set into motion in 1692 by the strange behavior of two young girls, and snowballed into a panic of almost unbelievable proportions. The Salem Witch Trials, as they came to be known, lacked the staggering body count of many of the European witch hunts; nonetheless the series of events was sufficiently dire to cause many people then and now to question how such a thing could have happened.

An Overview of the Salem Witch Panic

It was February 1692. Nine-year-old Betty Parris and her eleven-year-old cousin Abigail Williams suddenly began displaying bizarre behavior akin to epileptic fits. They screamed and raved, twisted their bodies into strange positions, and complained that an unseen assailant was pinching and pricking them. Doctors were called to examine the girls, but no physical cause could be found for their distress, and what was worse, when word of the girls’ mysterious ailment spread through Salem village, other girls began behaving in a similar fashion.

At this point, authorities had raised suspicions of witchcraft, and Betty and Abigail obligingly pointed accusing fingers at a slave girl named Tituba, who they claimed had taught them spells for seeing into the future. Other accusations followed, and more “victims” came forward, accusing still others. When all was said and done, the hysteria had spread across three counties and resulted in the arrest of more than 150 people, twenty of whom were eventually executed for witchcraft. What possible reason could there have been for such a terrible tragedy to unfold? Many theories have been put forth, but Professor Linda Caporael, in 1976, suggested we need look no further than the Salem villagers’ breadboxes.


Ergot a Poisonous Fungus, Catalyst for Accusations

In a 1976 article inScience, Caporael theorized that the initial catalyst for the witch craze — the seemingly “possessed” behavior of Betty, Abigail, and the other girls — could have been caused by a reaction to ergot. There are about fifty known species of the ergot fungus, but the one Caporael implicated in the witch panic was Claviceps pupurea, which grows on rye plants and can cause poisoning when consumed by humans or other mammals. If indeed the girls had eaten bread contaminated with ergot, they could have experienced symptoms that were perceived as possession: Seizures, a sensation of itching or crawling on the skin, muscular contractions, nausea, and even hallucinations, triggered by an alkaloid called ergotamine, which is similar in structure to LSD.

Caporael argued that not only were the symptoms of ergotism consistent with those noted in the victims of the “bewitchment,” but that the area around Salem grew a great deal of rye, and that climatic conditions were favorable to the growth of the ergot fungus. It would not even have been necessary for all of the “victims” to have been afflicted with ergotism; a few cases might have started the ball rolling, and psychological and sociological factors could have accomplished the rest.

Arguments Against the Ergot Theory

Many scholars have disputed the claims that ergotism played a major role in the witch panic. Historians Jack Gottlieb and Nicholas Spanos, for example, contend that had ergotism been responsible for the accusers’ symptoms, we should have expected to see members of entire households afflicted, rather than just a few individuals here and there. They also argue that ergotism has other symptoms that do not correspond with the recorded behavior of the “bewitched” persons. Finally, they and other scholars have pointed out that ergotism had been a recognized malady at least since the Middle Ages; it even had a name, St. Anthony’s Fire. Anthropologist H. Sidley in particular doubted whether authorities in Salem in the 17th century would have mistaken the supposedly familiar symptoms of ergot poisoning with signs of supernatural possession.

Despite the voluminous research on the subject, the exact causes of the Salem witch panic are still murky. It is not controversial to speculate that the episode was probably triggered by an unfortunate cascade of converging factors—social, political, psychological, and perhaps pharmacological.

Additional Source:

Macinnis, Peter (2004). Poisons: A History From Hemlock To Botox. MJF Books. ISBN 1-56731-814-2.



Counterfeiter William Chaloner, Busted by Sir Isaac Newton

William Chaloner made a fortune forging coins and paper money, but met his match in the greatest mind of the age. The original article I wrote can be found here.


Born sometime between 1650 and 1665 in the English county of Warwickshire, William Chaloner was apparently a natural criminal, and used his amoral wiles and gift for persuasion to (briefly) live the life of a gentleman. In and out of prison several times, adept at playing two sides against one another, the man was finally brought to heel in 1699 by the then Master of the Royal Mint, a man who had also proven himself one of the greatest scientific minds of all time, Sir Isaac Newton.

Anatomy of a Counterfeiter

The adolescent William Chaloner was evidently as incorrigible as his adult counterpart would prove to be, and when his parents found they could not control him, they sent him away to Birmingham to apprentice to a nail-maker. At the time, Birmingham was known for more than making nails, however; it was also a hotbed of coin forging, particularly of the small silver “groat,” worth about four pennies. Chaloner proved an apt pupil and was soon churning out “Birmingham groats” with the best of them.

Such small-time jobs didn’t quite suit Chaloner’s naked ambition, though, so around 1680 he struck out on foot for London. Once there he found it difficult to break into the insular criminal underworld, so he scraped by selling tin toy watches that evidently had sex toys attached. Around this time he might have married and fathered several children, though records are unclear. He also seems to have begun a slightly more lucrative scam of selling quack medicines to desperate tuberculosis, plague, and malaria sufferers. In addition, he started working with accomplices to rob people and then collect a reward from the unfortunate victims for the return of the stolen merchandise. It was robbery, in fact, that marked Chaloner’s first appearance in the arrest record in 1690.

Counterfeiting Coins

Forgery of currency was rampant in 17th-century England, largely because the hand-struck coins issued from the legitimate Mint were non-standard and prone to having metal clipped off their edges. 1662 saw the advent of machine-struck coins whose carefully measured weights and milled edges would ostensibly make them harder to fake. Of course forgers were not discouraged in the slightest, and by the mid-1690s it’s estimated that ten percent of the coins in circulation in England were forgeries. This problem, compounded by an arbitrage market in English silver, eventually led to the establishment of the Bank of England and the introduction of the paper bank note. Its immediate effect, however, was the hiring of scientist Isaac Newton to oversee the Royal Mint. Though he had no particular experience in finance, he took to his new post with his trademark intelligence and rigor.

William Chaloner’s Forging Fortunes

Chaloner, meanwhile, had perfected the fine art of counterfeiting coins from goldsmith Patrick Coffee (or Coffey). Soon he was forging French pistoles and English guineas, and using confederates to pass the fakes into circulation. His clever coins made for a lucrative business, and he was soon able to buy a grand country house in Knightsbridge and pass himself off as a wealthy gentleman. He went on to master the art of forging machine-struck coins using small and easily hidden stamps.

Ambitious and overconfident, Chaloner next tried to undermine to Royal Mint itself. He published pamphlets claiming corruption within the ranks, and gave suggestions for how the institution could overcome its problems. He even attempted to gain a position at the Mint, but was unsuccessful.

Chaloner the Prison Snitch

The counterfeiter’s activities began to draw unwanted attention, especially from Isaac Newton, who Chaloner had directly insulted by implicating him in Mint corruption. In 1696 Chaloner was arrested and sent to the notorious Newgate prison, but he walked free by ratting out several of his counterfeiting colleagues, and by raising doubts about conditions at the Mint.

While Chaloner was petitioning Parliament for a position inside the Mint, Newton happened to spot him, and generated another arrest. This time Chaloner was imprisoned at Newgate for almost two months before walking free once again.

Chaloner’s Other Scams

In addition to counterfeiting coins, Chaloner also had a hand in many other criminal enterprises. In one scam, he would convince reluctant printers to run off copies of Jacobite propaganda, then report the printers to authorities and collect the reward. He also began forging the new Bank of England paper notes, and printing fake “malt lottery” tickets that could be redeemed for cash. During all these shenanigans, he mostly stayed out of jail by turning King’s evidence against his confederates.

Chaloner’s Trial and Execution

Isaac Newton certainly hadn’t taken Chaloner’s accusations of corruption lightly, and by the end of the 17th century he had used his formidable intellect and vast number of contacts in the criminal underworld to build an airtight case against the arrogant counterfeiter. Chaloner finally stood trial in March of 1699, and though he vehemently argued his innocence, Newton had amassed several witnesses who attested to Chaloner’s long criminal history. The judge took little time in finding Chaloner guilty and sentencing him to death; counterfeiting money was considered treason, an offense against the Crown. Chaloner was sent back to Newgate to await execution, and in his desperation he faked madness, and then drafted many self-serving letters to Isaac Newton himself, none of which Newton seems to have answered. All Chaloner’s antics were for naught; he was hanged on March 16, 1699 at the gallows in Tyburn.


Levenson, Thomas (2009). Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist. Faber & Faber. ISBN: 0571229921.