4 Disturbing Facts about the Salem Witch Trials

Salem witch trials

If you thought you knew what happened at the Salem witch trials, these facts may shock you. 

The infamous Salem witch trials began in colonial Massachusetts in February of 1692 when two young girls, Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams (aged nine and 11), began experiencing strange fits and delusions. When a doctor examined the girls and concluded they had been cursed by a witch, a general sense of paranoia ensued. Pressured by local magistrates, the girls blamed three women for afflicting them: Sarah Osborne, an elderly woman; Tituba, the Parris’ slave from Barbados; and Sarah Good. After an extensive interrogation, which lasted several days, Tituba confessed, testifying that the devil had approached her and requested that she “sign his book with her blood.” In addition to submitting to the devil’s requests, Tituba also confessed to communicating with supernatural animals and flying on a pole. As a result of Tituba’s confession, all three women were placed in custody, and gradually more girls began exhibiting strange behavior, namely screaming fits and convulsions. As additional accusations surfaced, a general hysteria gripped the community, eventually leading to the execution of 20 Salem citizens. Though the events surrounding the trials have been researched and publicized extensively over the years, a number of surprising details are often overlooked. Here are four facts you may not know.

1. Dogs were executed.

Salem witch trials

Photo by E.G. Merrill, 1904. Salem State Archives via Flickr

Because it was believed that witches used animals to bewitch their victims, dogs (two in total) were accused of witchcraft and executed during the trials. The general consensus among villagers was that witches kidnapped animals and rode them at night, which they believed caused strange behavior and even injury to the animal. As a result, if an animal exhibited peculiar behavior or suddenly appeared tired or sick, it was suspected of being “hag-ridden” the night before. Such animals were thought to be victims of witchcraft and were generally executed. In one case, when a dog in Salem Village began behaving strangely, local girls accused the dog of being “affected with the spirit,” and the dog was executed. In another case, an afflicted girl accused a neighbor’s dog of attempting to bewitch her, and based on the girl’s accusation, the dog was shot.

2. Ergot poisoning (not bewitchment) may have been to blame.

Salem witch trials

Trial of George Jacobs of Salem for witchcraft. Photograph of a painting by T. H. Matteson, 1855, at Essex Institute, Salem, Massachusetts. Photo by Douglas Grundy / Three Lions / Getty Images

Though the true cause of the bizarre behavior in Salem remains a mystery, many prevailing theories exist. One of the most common suggests that ergot poisoning (as a result of the community’s infected rye crop) may have been partially to blame. Rye grass, which is often susceptible to a particular ergot fungus called Claviceps purpurea, causes all the symptoms that were reported in Salem (vomiting, hallucinations, convulsions and even delusions), and because it was a staple in the Puritans’ diet, many researchers have suspected ergot poisoning was responsible. Behavioral psychologist and professor Linnda Caporael was the first to link the effects of ergot poisoning to the bizarre behavior in Salem, pointing to the fact that the swampy conditions of the village, as well as the damp, rainy weather required for ergot to thrive, were all present in Salem in 1691. While many researchers and historians support the Ergotism Theory, others like Nicholas P. Spanos and Jack Gottlieb dispute the belief, asserting that “the symptoms of the afflicted girls and of the other witnesses were not those of convulsive ergotism, emphasizing villagers received their food from the same place, and that symptoms would have been exhibited by all citizens, rather than a select few.” Whichever theory you believe, both opinions lead to further investigations into the bizarre happenings in Salem during the time.

3. Accusers baked witch cakes to identify guilty citizens.

Salem witch trials

‘Giles Corey of the Salem Farms’ (1868), illustrated by John W. Ehninger

Though accusers used a variety of methods to determine if those suspected of witchcraft were guilty, the use of witch cakes was by far the most bizarre method of all. Based on New England folklore, the process essentially involved the accusers baking a cake (or biscuits) made with rye flour, ashes, and the urine of the afflicted person. Scholars disagree on precisely how witch cakes were used to identify witches. In some accounts, the cake was fed to a dog, and witchcraft was proven if the dog exhibited the same symptoms as the victim. In other cases, the witch would experience pain as the dog consumed the cake, reportedly screaming out the name or names of the guilty party. Though the concept may seem absurd to contemporary readers, the Puritans believed that magic directed toward a particular person would manifest itself in the particular person’s bodily fluid (namely their blood and urine) and that the magic could be passed on to anything that consumed those bodily fluids, even a dog. Though the concept of the witch cake had long been part of traditional English countermagic, Mary Sibley, a neighbor of the Parris family, was the first person to suggest using the method after Parris’ daughter, Betty, had become afflicted with a strange malady. According to reports, Mary provided a recipe and directions to two of Parris’ slaves (Tituba and her husband, John. After John collected urine from Tituba and the girls, another slave baked the witch’s cake and fed it to a dog that resided in the Parris household. Though there are no reports of the dog’s behavior after ingesting the cake, Parris’ daughter’s condition worsened and the increasing paranoia led to the eventual arrest of Tituba, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne.

4. The devil’s mark may have been simply a rash.

Salem witch trials

‘Examination of a witch’ by Tompkins Harrison Matteson (1853)

Because many accused witches in Salem bore red marks and rashes that resembled the bulls-eye rash associated with Lyme disease, many scholars believe a tick, not the devil, may have been to blame. Lyme disease, a bacterial infection primarily transmitted by ticks, often affects the brain, nervous system, muscles and joints and, when it becomes chronic, includes symptoms similar to those exhibited in Salem (namely, cognitive impairment, depression, mood changes, hallucinations and delusions). The theory suggesting that the bewitched in Salem suffered from Lyme disease (an acute form of encephalitis) was initially proposed by Laurie Winn Carlson, who pointed to the similarities between the symptoms of Lyme disease and the behavior of accused witches, also asserting that round red marks associated with the disease were startlingly similar to the so-called “Devil’s marks” that often convicted suspected witches. This theory was further supported in Disguised as the Devil: How Lyme Disease Created Witches and Changed History, when Mary M. Drymon asserted that many of the witches in Salem lived in tick-infested areas and often exhibited a variety of rashes and red marks on their skin similar to those seen in patients with Lyme disease. Interestingly, she also emphasized that notions established in Europe after 1500 dictated that the “devil sealed the compact he made with a witch by giving him or her some mark of identification on the skin” and that “the bulls-eye rash associated with the bite of a tick carrying the disease was called by several names in the past, including the ‘mark of the devil’ or the ‘diablo stimata.’” end


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