Steve Woods

Bad Rye and Eye of Newt – The Salem Witch Trials

In What Day is it? on October 12, 2009 at 10:50 am
Cold winter's snow...

Cold winter's snow...

It was a cold, hard, bitter Winter in 1692.  Many of the tiny lonesome towns along the Eastern seaboard had spent the Summer before fighting off attacks on their borders by neighboring Indian tribes, suffering heavy losses.  The Rye harvests had not been plentiful, as the Summer was a wet one.  It seemed that the shutters were drawn tight against a variety of forces outside.  It was during this time that 10-year-old Betty Parris began to act strangely.  Her father Samuel and mother Elizabeth had moved there only 4 years earlier, Samuel having taken the position of village minister, removing his family from the dangers of their farm in the wilderness. A normally bright, outgoing youngster, Betty took to hurrying about the house, hiding behind and under furniture, seeing hallucinations, and worse.  She would suddenly fall upon the floor in pain, twisting and contorting her body, much to the dismay of those around her.

Arriving at the same time as Betty Parris’ alarming condition was Memorable Providences, a book written by the then-noted Boston-based minister Cotton Mather.  In his book Minister Mather exhorted his readers to be on the lookout for signs of those that had been “bewitched.”  Many of the symptoms Mather described matched young Betty’s, as well as Ann Putnam and Mercy Lewis, playmates of Betty.

It wasn’t long before leaders, some having read and shared the warnings in Memorable Providences, began whispering that witchcraft was beginning to poison the tiny community of Salem Village.  The Parris’ servant Tituba was pushed to use an old “remedy,” baking a rye cake using the urine of the three afflicted girls, and feeding it to a dog that was believed to be associated with dark forces, based on his continued unfriendly behavior.

...bitter cold accusations...

...bitter cold accusations...

The girls began to emotionally feed off of each other, contorting and screaming in the presence of certain individuals, naming them as Satan’s tormentors, including the servant Tituba herself.   What made matters worse and sealed the fate of so many others, was that after having denied any involvement, Tituba acquiesced under pressure, saying she and other townswomen had flown around on brooms.  Tiny Salem Village was now in an uproar, a full-scale battle it seemed against Lucifer himself.

As the months progressed, the girls stated they say witches flying through the air and the spirits of townspeople assaulting them.  Those accused were left to languish under terrible conditions in jail, and many soon admitted guilt just to get out, many receiving harsh punishments and even expulsion from Salem.  Four-year-old Dorcas Good was arrested after accusations that her spirit had bitten the girls.  Dorcas watched and screamed from between her jailhouse bars as her mother was also carted off and subsequently hung.  Dorcas stayed in jail for 8 long months, and ultimately went insane.  As the seven girls enjoyed larger adoring audiences and perfected their fine art of physical demonstratives, the jails began to fill…

On October 12, 1692, Massachusetts Colony Governor William Phipps, after returning from England and hearing about the ensuing chaos in Salem, appointed five judges to find out what was going on there.  Unfortunately, he stacked the new Court with adherents of Cotton Mather, who listened closely to the testimony of Betty Parris and cliqué.  What made matters worse was a belief that the Devil himself was behind the previous, still-smarting military failures against the neighboring tribes.  Many of the judges,military leaders themselves, may’ve wished to deflect anger at them towards others, by supporting the accusations of witchcraft.

...Increase Mathers' call for cold, hard facts...

...Increase Mathers' call for cold, hard facts...

By late 1692, so many respected members of the community were put in jail by other townsfolk that educated people began to question the proceedings.  It just didn’t make sense, as the behavior of the accused were witnessed by nobody but the now-famous girls. Cotton’s own father Increase Mather wrote a very public plea, stating that it “were better that ten witches should escape than one innocent person should be condemned.” Increase Mathers personally wrote to Governor Phipps entreating him to stop allowing spectral evidence in Courts, and to stick with solid, factual evidence.

After reading the pleadings from Increase Mather and a growing list of others, Governor Phipps (a Christian himself) overrode the influence that certain Christian religious leaders held over the court system, declaring that spectral or dogmatic evidence would no longer be admitted in the Massachusetts court system as a means to prosecute others.  Governor Phipps dissolved the 5-judge Salem tribunal, pardoning and releasing the accused.  These overdue acts helped to push our still-new legal system firmly into the principle of legal neutrality, that we all deserved to live our lives under laws based not on another’s dogma or beliefs.  The wisdom of this big step ultimately led to the incorporation of the concept of “freedom of conscience” into our Bill of Rights 99 years later.

Remember that bad harvest the Summer before Betty Parris’ hallucinogenic outpourings?  Research has shown that the Summer was unusually damp, particularly around Rye harvest time, Rye being the staple of food used in Salem.   Convulsive Ergotism can be brought on by consuming Rye that has been stored under these conditions, as fungus often forms and spoils the grain.  The townspeople of Salem at the time were unaware of this issue, or of potential consequences of eating spoiled grains.  Regardless, you ate what you had, in order to survive a bitter Winter….

Research has shown that Rye fungi are particularly harmful to the human mind when eaten. The hallucinogen LSD is derived from Ergot-based fungi, and the symptoms that Betty exhibited (fits, hallucinations, convulsions, etc.) are completely in line with the consumption of Rye fungus.

It is believed that after the original symptoms had passed (the bad grain had been eaten or tossed,) Betty had begun to realize that the townsfolk were seeking a reason for the fits she and her friends had suffered through, and that the popular reasoning was witchcraft and its effects.  Betty and her friends, along with four other girls, formed a clique and began wielding a frightful, new-found power — accusation.  It was only through the sheer fortitude of others that saw through the ruse that the girls were finally stopped.

...cold hard facts on Salem Memorial.

...cold hard facts on Salem Memorial.

Over nineteen people were accused, jailed, and hung.  Hundreds were imprisoned for a time. Many of those that were accused lost landholdings that ultimately seemed to benefit those that accused them. Few dared to question the authority of the newly-appointed court, especially after watching John Proctor and his pregnant wife’s very public example after John questioned the court’s decisions.  (See the movie The Crucible to learn more…)

Freethought Day is to commemorate the decision made by Governor Phipps to end the stranglehold that certain belief systems had previously held over our legal system.  It is a reminder to keep the legal system free of stereotyped biases against others, so that justice can be served, and nobody can be made a scapegoat in order to deflect the true root of the problems we encounter.

The conditions for intolerance and hate are ever-present, growing in dark, damp places.  In our Information Age, look over what you are fed with a careful eye, balancing what you partake of on a daily basis, lest you lose you hold on reality.  Never, ever be afraid to make a stand against what you see as an injustice in the lives of those that surround you, no matter how sweet or innocent the accuser may seem to you….

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  1. Intimidation lies and bullying have been around since the beginning of time. It is sad to see how easily some are persuaded by those who wield the sword of “lack of conscience” power. Whether thru a whisper, a televised announcement, a blog or formal speech, both the teller and the audience have the responsibility to cipher the truth!

    • So true, Holly. We are deluged with information, and it is difficult to take the time to ferret out all of the facts. We have to figure out what are the overarching “truths” we hold, taking the time to tend to the garden of foodstuffs sustaining those beliefs, weeding as necessary.

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