[7:53 p.m.] My first real-time blogging event: PBS is showing Secrets of the Dead: Witches Curse at 8:00 p.m. California time. Tune in and blog along! This is an ideal sequel to my post Hanging Witches from earlier this week. I will give real-time updates as the show progresses, and viewers are welcome to make real-time comments. For added effect, you might also step outside and view the complete lunar eclipse happening as I type, another formerly evil omen now viewed as simply an interesting effect of the natural universe.
[8:12 p.m.] Unexplainable illness was the event that got the ball rolling. The people of Salem, immersed in their pre-Enlightenment religious fundamentalism, were sure it was Satan or his agents who were responsible. The village minister blamed witchcraft. Who was going to speak up and say they were wrong? By the way, this shows that the settlers of America brought their superstitions (including folk magic) along with them, which explains why folk magic was able to play such a prominent role in New England folk religion through the 19th century.
[8:24 p.m.] Drugs and rock'n'roll without the rock'n'roll. Yes, some think the afflicted villagers, struck with awful convulsions and striking hallucinations, were just on a really bad trip. Ergot is a fungus that has chemicals that can induce such symptoms, chemically similar to LSD. The fact that cattle were affected as well as people suggests grain, specifically rye, might be the culprit. And the fungus ergot does grow in rye, grown by the Salem villagers, as well as barley and several other grasses. Relevant chemspeak: alkaloids, ergotamine, neurotoxins, vasoconstrictors. Ergotamine seems to explain many of the recorded symptoms.
[8:40 p.m.] Historical evidence: The 1691 rye crop in Salem was planted in wet, marshy terrain, as required for an ergot infestation, and the summer of 1691 was stormy and wet, too. Those getting sick in Salem were clustered on the side of town where the swampy grain was located. Amazingly, the map of witchcraft crazes in Europe matches up marvelously well with the map of rye-growing regions there, suggesting ergot can explain some European witch campaigns as well and lending confirmation to the ergot hypothesis.
[8:59 p.m.] Hindsight is 20/20: Thus armed with a natural explanation, we might be tempted to criticize the flawed supernatural explanations relied on in Salem. Interestingly, the show went out of its way to show how reasonable it was for the villagers, faced with such traumatic and long-lasting symptoms, to react as they did. In fact, the witchcraft explanation was resisted in Salem until the "witchcake experiment" (soaking a bread cake in an accused witches' urine, then feeding it to a dog) was performed. When the dog went berserk shortly thereafter (due to ergot alkaloids in the girl's urine), the witchcraft explanation was seemingly confirmed beyond any doubt.
[Epilogue] Interestingly, none of the accused admitted to being witches, although that might have spared them the gallows. What finally stopped the executions? Legal process. Appellate courts eventually turned against "spectral evidence" as a basis for the convictions (testimony by villagers about the visions or feelings they experienced, implicating the accused witches), after which there was no substantial evidence against the accused and those still in jail were set free. So pious Protestants and their ministers killed 25 innocent men and women, while lawyers and judges were the ones who managed to put an end to the sad, tragic affair. A fine day for the Massachusetts bar.