Header graphic for print

Food Safety News

Breaking news for everyone's consumption

Did the Salem Witches of 1692 Suffer from Food Poisoning?

Opinion

Rumors of witchcraft began spreading through the Salem Massachusetts colony prior to 1692 and helped fuel the turmoil between the different religious sects in the area. Life at that time was strictly governed by the church. Music, dancing and the celebration of holidays were forbidden because the belief was this activity was Pagan. Ironically, the only celebrating tolerated was for the agricultural harvest.

The children of John Goodwin, a local mason, apparently were tempted by the Devil himself to steal linen from an old woman named Mary Glover who was miserable and often described as a “Witch”. She allegedly retaliated and was accused of casting a spell on the Goodwin children for their crime. When four of the six kids began to suffer from the “Disease of Astonishment,” with symptoms of hallucinations, back and neck pain, random outcries and loss of neurological control over body functionality, witchcraft was implicated and so began the craze of 1692.

Crops of rye were grown in the Salem vicinity around the time when many individuals were deemed “Possessed” by the Court of Law. The cold winter followed by a wet spring caused “Claviceps” (a group of fungi) to grow on some of the grains. The “Ergot” fungus blight, which formed an alkaloid producing mold was toxic and actually caused the strange behaviors exemplified by the people who were thought to be affected by witchcraft. A foodborne intoxication occurred when the contaminated rye was consumed and this theory was not discovered until 1976 by Linda Caporael.

Adulterated food can kill you in more ways than one.

Nineteen of the accused witches were hanged to death. Their bodies cut from the trees and throw into shallow ditches only to be recovered by family members under the cover of darkness and buried in unmarked graves. Others refused to testify in court and were subject to “Peine Forte Et Dure” where they were placed under rocks and pressed with the heavy load until information was disclosed or in one case, crushed to death.

Most of the evidence used to convict the witches in 1692 was “Spectral,” where the accused admitted to seeing a ghostly apparition, shape or Devil afflict them with the loss of body control, delirium and odd speech.

This tragic case of American history can repeat itself in the sometimes complacent food service industry in regards to food safety. Just like in 1692, some people are unaware of the ever changing, “Emerging” pathogenic dangers that are out there. Education through training is paramount in protecting the health and well-being of today’s consumer.

Unfortunately in some cases, it is the liability — not the witchcraft — that motivates compliance.

© Food Safety News
  • Rollingsworth_T_Vestibule

    This “theory” is full of holes. The “Ergot” fungus blight” that happened in France was linked to a Government experiment with LSD and not rotten rye. The children in olde Mass. who caused that old Woman to be burned as a witch later recanted their accusations and admitted to “making it all up” because they were angry and thought they would be punished because she (the old woman) “told on them’ You might as well speculate that actual Witches caused it or Aliens.

    • abraxasMN

      I do not believe anyone in ‘Olde Mass.’ was burned at the stake. Hanged or squashed with stones, yes, but not burned.

  • Jeffrey Ehrlich, M.D.

    What (if anything) do you plan to do differently now that you discovered this information?

  • Dave Walpuck

    Dr. Ehrlich-Thank you for your comment. I plan on continuing to do what I have done for the past decade: teach, coach and counsel food handlers about the dangers of potential naturally occurring mycotic chemical intoxications in food.

    Marge-Thank you for your comment.