The Witches Curse

Behavioral Psychologist Linnda Caporael Interview

Linnda Caporael may have solved one of the biggest mysteries of early American history — the cause of the Salem witch trials — but she stumbled onto the case quite by accident. “I actually started this project as a senior in college,” recalls Caporael, now a behavioral scientist and full professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

Linnda Caporael Behavioral Psychologist

Linnda Caporael
Behavioral Psychologist

“I had one of those standard senior problems where you are going for graduation check-out and find you are missing a critical course. Mine was a history course. I enrolled in one, and had to immediately write a paper, which I decided to do on Anne Putnam because I’d seen Arthur Miller’s play THE CRUCIBLE. My goal was to demonstrate that women could be as wicked as men. As I began researching, I remember having one of those kind of ‘ah-hah!’ experiences, where I was reading a book in which the author said he was at a loss to explain the hallucinations of all these people in Salem. It was that word ‘hallucinations’ that made everything click. Years and years ago, when I was a little kid, I had read about the French case of ergot poisoning, and I made the connection between the two.”

“The curious thing is that I went back recently to take a look at that reference and the author doesn’t use the word hallucination at all. I must have hallucinated the word as much as anything else! Now I’m not too sure what the click actually was, but something said to me ‘maybe it could be ergot poisoning.'”

Her detective work, first published 25 years ago, brought Caporael instant fame, worldwide recognition — even a front-page story in THE NEW YORK TIMES. That’s quite a heavy load for a student. “When it first came out it was quite sensational,” Caporael recalls. “I sort of thought that was my 15 minutes of fame and went on to do my more usual work.” But the allure of the trials and Caporael’s intriguing explanation — that the “bewitched” accusers of Salem had in fact suffered hallucinations, convulsions, bizarre skin sensations and other unusual symptoms because they’d been poisoned by a crop of fungus-infested rye — is still fascinating 25 years later.

Caporael sees the allure. “It has all the elements of a good mystery story. I’d never worked on a project that was as well defined — we were talking about one event at one particular point in time,” she says. “Plus, it was a lot of fun to do!”

Although she has long since moved on to other work, Caporael keeps her nose in the ergotism case file, following research that suggests the role of ergot in other historical events. She doesn’t buy into all of them. “Some of these ideas are skating on thin ice,” she says, such as the theory that ergot poisoning may have influenced the outcome of the French Revolution. “I do think there is a lot of work that can be done on the historical incidence of ergot, but not all of these cases will end up being ergot poisoning. Many of them could be attributed to the same kind of mass hysteria hypothesis that described Salem at one time.”

Ergot poisoning can’t even explain all of the events at Salem, Caporael concedes. Some of the behaviors exhibited by the witch accusers probably were the result of mass hysteria — or outright fakery. “At the end of June and the beginning of July, 1692, I think there was more imagination than ergot. But by that point in time three people had already been hung, and the trials had taken a path that people felt they had to stay on,” Caporael says. “One of the clearest examples is the young accuser who, in the late summer, said ‘wait a minute, I don’t think that there are witches after all.’ At that point, the other girls began accusing HER of being a witch, and she immediately seemed to understand what was going on and began being a vociferous accuser again.”

And yet Caporael believes that the role of ergotism in history might still be underappreciated. “I just got a fascinating email from a scholar in England who noticed that the fits of Caliban — the character in Shakespeare’s THE TEMPEST — matched the description of those of people with ergot poisoning. She wondered would this kind of poisoning been possible in the 16th century when Shakespeare was writing. And the answer, of course, is yes. There were claims of outbreaks in both Great Britain and Europe then,” says Caporael. “I think it’s a fascinating idea that this would have been picked up in literature. In fact, it should have been if there was some kind of consistent physiological response.”