It would not be going too far to say that the eruption of irrationality and hysteria in America during the COVID-19 period of 2020-2021 most resembled not 1954, when Senator McCarthy set the nation looking for communist moles behind every government desk, or 1919, when the notorious raids of Attorney General Mitchell were rounding up purported Reds in their tens of thousands, but the winter of 1691-1692. That’s when two little girls—Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams of Salem, Massachusetts—fell into the demonic activity of fortune-telling, which soon found them getting strangely ill, having fits, spouting gibberish, and contorting their bodies into odd positions.
The rest became history, of course, when a malpracticing local doctor claimed to have found no physical cause for the girls’ problems and diagnosed them as being afflicted by the “Evil Hand,” commonly known as witchcraft. Other ministers were consulted, who agreed that the only cause could be witchcraft and since the sufferers were believed to be the victims of a dastardly crime, the community set out to find the perpetrators.
Within no time, three witches who were famously accused —the Parris’ slave, Sarah Good, an impoverished homeless woman and Sarah Osborne, who had defied conventional Puritan society. Many more followed, and as the hysteria spread, hundreds were tried for witchcraft and two dozen hanged.
But there is a lesson in this classic tale that is embarrassing in its verisimilitude. Namely, one of the best academic explanations for the outbreak of seizures and convulsions which fueled the Salem hysteria was a disease called “convulsive ergotism”, which is brought on by ingesting rye grain infected with a fungus that can invade developing kernels of the grain, especially under warm and damp conditions.
During the rye harvest in Salem in 1691 these conditions existed at a time when one of the Puritans’ main diet staples was cereal and breads made of the harvested rye. Convulsive ergotism causes violent fits, a crawling sensation on the skin, vomiting, choking, and, hallucinations—meaning that it was Mother Nature in the ordinary course working her episodically unwelcome tricks, not the “Evil Hand” of a spiritual pathogen, which imperiled the community.