Ergot, Ergo...

Ancient beliefs often linked mental disturbances to evil spirits, supernatural or magical powers. The Salem Witch Trials  of 1692 in colonial Massachusetts, one of the biggest witch hunts ever, were long described as a case of mass hysteria or religious zealotry in history books. However, Linnda Caporael, a behavioral psychologist, theorized that ergot poisoning may be responsible for "bewitched" behaviors of those accused.

The fungus ergot thrives in warm, damp settings, conditions that match those of the swampy meadows of Salem, especially during spring and summer of 1691. Rye, the staple grain, may have become contaminated with ergot due to the warm, moist weather and storage conditions. As a consequence, witch hunters and "witches" who ate rye may have been at least slightly out of their mind at the time.

Ergot is not always bad, however. Like syph-curing penicillin is derived from a fungus, ergotamine, an alkaloid derived from the ergot fungus, has been isolated and made into medicine since Sandoz Pharmaceuticals in 1918. It has properties similar to several neurotransmitters, and causes blood vessels to constrict. Ergotamine is often prescribed for migraines, and can also be used after childbirth to decrease uterine bleeding. Too much ergotamine, however, can lead to blood clots and gangrene.

Ingesting ergot fungus-contaminated food can also lead to  convulsions, vomiting, delusions, hallucinations, and the sensation of things crawling under or on one's skin, symptoms historically reported in the Salem witch trial subjects. Of course, some level of hysteria and leaps of logic are necessary for these cases to escalate into a massive witch hunt, but some might find it reassuring that the extreme persecution of other human beings might be traced to a scientific cause--poisoning--rather than human nature's innate evil or blind self-righteousness.

There are still many mysteries out there, medical or otherwise, some taking place in our world right now, but occasionally, history and science toss us some bone fragments, and a few of those pieces come together almost perfectly.

"That's a fair cop."


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