Were the Salem witch trials caused by ergot-induced hysteria?

Happy Bicycle Day! On April 19th, 1943, Albert Hofmann ingested and discovered the effects of LSD. His strange bicycle ride home is what gave this day its name, and the rest is history! But if we look even further back into the strange story of the fungus that LSD was synthesized from, things get even wilder than a trippy ride on two wheels! In honor of these weird times, let’s sit down for a weird history lesson about the role of ergot during the Salem witch trials.

Ergot is a psychoactive fungus that can grow on contaminated grains, and inadvertently consumed in bread. While ergot itself does not contain LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), it contains lysergic acid, a precursor for the synthesis of LSD. It’s important to make the distinction that ergot and LSD have very different effects on the human body; unlike LSD, ergot is poisonous, leading to illness and even death. It has been discovered that the Salem witch trials followed an outbreak of rye ergot, which causes hallucinations, delusions, and other disturbances. Witches were especially persecuted in areas where there were outbreaks of ergot poisoning in the 1600s. The symptoms caused by this fungus were blamed on witches for “witchcraft”: seizures, delusions, hallucinations, and “fits of hysteria.”

Legend has it that’s where the imagery of a witch flying through the night sky came from: people tripping balls after ingesting hallucinogenic fungus. Interestingly enough, during years when the weather conditions did not create ergot, no “fits of hysteria” were reported. When ergot ceased to become an issue, the hysteria ended. Today, ergot contamination is rare thanks to modern storage and cleaning techniques, thank goodness. But the various compounds in this fungus are still studied today for their strange effects on the human body.

That’s it for our weird witchcraft history lesson today, folks! Stay happy, safe, and magical this weekend and always!

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