2 May 2011
The Secret War of Salem
Exposing the Culprit behind the Mass Hysteria
The Salem Witch Trials were a series of infamous events that demand an explanation for their occurrence. The trials that took place in 1692 caused neighbors in the community of Salem Village in the colony of Massachusetts to turn on one another out of paranoia, accusing one another of witchcraft. According to Carol Karlsen, a longtime author of the subject, nineteen people were hanged and about 200 others were imprisoned (40). A few theories have been offered in order to explain the root of this mass hysteria. The theories in question need to be examined to see which holds the most credibility.
Most historians who have studied the subject agree on the chronological order of events that set this dark episode of history into motion. They believe it began in the household of Reverend Samuel Parris. Reverend Parris owned a West Indian slave named Tituba. Tituba would tell the young girls stories of her experiences in sorcery when the reverend was away. This small group of girls started with Abigail Williams, the reverend’s niece, and Elizabeth Parris, his daughter. Soon, a few girls from neighboring homes joined. Eventually, the girls began to exhibit exceptionally erratic behaviors. They would have hallucinations and convulsions. A physician checked the girls, but he failed to find a natural cause for their behavior. He attributed their ailments to a supernatural cause (Salem Witch Trials). The girls began to claim they were being afflicted by witches and started making accusations. Thus, the panic ensued. Those who have studied the subject of the Salem Witch Trials have very few disagreements on these events.
Though history may have documented the events, it has not presented a clear underlying cause to their occurrence. Why did the girls act in such a manner? Scholars have presented their own theories for this mystery. One theory that attempts to explain the hysteria is that there was a fungal poisoning such as ergot in the bread that the girls ate. This would be an ideal explanation for their convulsions. Another theory is that witchcraft was actually being practiced. This theory states that the incredibly odd behavior of the girls was attributed to the practices that Tituba was teaching them. A final theory that draws much interest is that the girls were acting. Scholars have looked at these events from a political perspective and suggest that Reverend Parris persuaded the young girls to act in an odd manner. The theory that answers the most questions without raising an equal number of new questions is the best explanation. The theory that Reverend Parris used the girls to gain wealth holds such a status.
The theory that there was an ergot infestation is advocated by a professor named Linnda Caporeal. Caporeal has argued that a fungal poison known as ergot, which grows on rye, had been ingested by the girls, causing their behaviors. She goes on to explain that “all the symptoms [of ergot poisoning] are alluded to in the Salem Witch Trials” (Caporeal). This theory does not make sense when considering why the only ones affected were the young girls in the Parris household. Convulsive ergot poisoning most often affects small children, but the Salem Village had hundreds of residents. The whole village ate grains harvested from the same fields and this theory does not have an account of anyone else exhibiting the slightest convulsions. It is far too coincidental that the only ones affected were a few young girls.
This theory has also been attacked by researchers such as Spanos and Gottlieb. They address the point previously mentioned as well as the nutritional condition of the villagers. In another article, they responded to Caporeal’s arguments regarding the afflicted girls as well as the villagers’ nutritional susceptibility. Spanos and Gottlieb state that “the fact that most...
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