The beginning of the crisis

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The coffin and the egg

On January 20, 1692, the girls were experimenting with one of Tituba's voodoo fortune-telling tricks. They dropped an egg white into a glass of warm water, then waited for the egg to turn into the face of the man a certain girl would marry. But when Betty looked into the glass she saw the shape of a coffin instead of a man's face. She immediately flew into hysterics. She started ranting and raving, at times crouching on her hands and knees and barking like a dog. She also had severe convulsions (spasms) and seizures. Betty's symptoms were so extreme that ripples of fear spread quickly throughout the village: the devil was afoot and threatening to destroy Salem from within the very heart of their religious community.

Betty never recovered from her sickness and other girls, including Abigail, fell ill with similar symptoms. Within several weeks suspicions of witchcraft turned into accusations. Par-ris wrote in his diary, quoted in Entertaining Satan, that "When these calamities first began, which was in my own family, the affliction was several weeks before such hellish operations as witchcraft were suspected." Dr. Griggs examined the girls in early February, when it became clear that the afflictions were not going away. He announced that the girls were physically healthy but were "under an evil hand," thus making the first formal claim of witchcraft as the culprit in this bizarre behavior. News of the girls' "bewitchment" quickly spread through the region. The panic was heightened by the recent publication of Mather's 1693 book Wonders of the Invisible World, which reported his observations of the Goodwin children in Boston (see Chapter 2). The symptoms were similar enough to make people believe that the same fate was being visited upon Salem.

On February 25, 1692, Mary Sibley, the aunt of one of the afflicted girls, enlisted the help of Tituba and John Indian in determining whether witchcraft was at play in Salem Village. She ordered them to bake a "witch's cake" consisting of a batter mixed with Betty and Abigail's urine. The cake was to be fed to the Parrises' dog, which would prove a witch's spell if he turned into a "familiar," an animal inhabited by the spirit of a

Many Puritans had visions of witches standing over cauldrons, mixing up potions and casting spells.

Reproduced by permission of Archive Photos, Inc.

Many Puritans had visions of witches standing over cauldrons, mixing up potions and casting spells.

Reproduced by permission of Archive Photos, Inc.

Possible Culprit in Salem: The Ergot Fungus

Contemporary scientists may have found a new culprit in the Salem witchcraft trials: ergot (Claviceps purpurea), a fungus that grows on rye wheat. This fungus can withstand freezing temperatures and may be taken into the body either through contaminated wheat in bread or in milk from cows grazing in contaminated fields. In small doses ergot can cause muscle contractions that result in such symptoms as spontaneous abortion and minor damage to the central nervous system. In large doses it can cause ergotism, a condition in humans characterized by disorientation (not knowing who or where you are), hallucination (imagined visions), muscle cramps, convulsions (spasms), seizures, vomiting, and even a deadly form of gangrene (rotting of the flesh). Since the Salem trials, more specific symptoms have been recorded during outbreaks of the fungus. Among them are depression, psychosis (mental derangement), delirium

(confusion), a crawling sensation on the skin, and a sense of being pinched all over the body. LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), a drug known for its hallucinatory effects, is chemically related to the ergot fungus.

Scientists began investigating ergot in 1951, when the fungus contaminated wheat used for making bread in a small town in France. Almost all the affected villagers claimed to feel burning sensations in their limbs, had hallucinations that they could fly, and were gripped by other symptoms. These reactions have led some scientists and historians to speculate on the witch trials in New England. It is possible that the Puritans' belief in witches, the stresses of frontier living, and outbreaks of ergotism converged to create a crisis. It would help explain how people may have genuinely believed that witchcraft had caused their suffering. Perhaps a small fungus changed the course of history for an entire population.

witch. No record remains of the dog's reaction. It is known, however, that Parris found out about the witch's cake and became infuriated by attempts to use witchcraft in his own home. He publicly denounced Sibley for getting the devil's attention, thus playing on the fear that evil was breaking loose into the village through prominent people. Sibley confessed to the crime of using witchcraft, and perhaps the girls realized they could deflect some of the blame onto others. Terrified that their own "crimes"—such as mixing the egg-white potion— would be discovered, the girls began pointing fingers.

Once the witchcraft hysteria started no one was safe from being accused.

Reproduced by permission of the Corbis Corporation (Bellevue).

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