The Salem witch trials tried and convicted a series of supposed witches in the spring and fall of 1692. Puritan religious beliefs and fears about the devil helped create an atmosphere of suspicion. When women began to convulse and act deliriously, a hunt ensued for people responsible for bewitching numerous residents. Evidence from today, however, suggests that these women may have been infected by a toxic fungus that caused such "witch-like" behavior.

Puritanism and Social Background

The Salem witch trials came after a series of wars between the English and the French, and between English colonists and Native Americans. In addition to these security concerns, the late 1600s were characterized by a fervent Puritanism in New England. Fear of the devil was central to these beliefs, with many believing that the devil chose loyal agents who hurt believers in God. Furthermore, some Puritans saw constitutional changes in the Massachusetts colony in the 1600s as anti-religious, and feared that they were losing a grip on their insular Puritan communities.

Suspected Causes in 1600s

In 1692, two girls in Salem -- 9-year old Elizabeth Parris and 11-year old Abigail Williams -- began having violent fits of hysteria. At first, their parents sought medical advice, but a doctor offered a diagnosis of bewitchment. Later, a series of other young women began to experience similar symptoms, and were also considered to be bewitched. As Salem began looking for causes of bewitchment, they focused on the poor, like Parris' family slave Tituba, a homeless begger named Sarah Good and a poor elderly woman named Sarah Osborn. The witch trials were thus partly caused by fear of the poor and disadvantaged.

Witch Trials and Victims

On March 1st of 1692, three women were arrested in Salem and charged with possessing the young girls into witchery. One accused witch -- Tituba, a slave -- admitted to practicing witchery, and a search for accomplices ensued across Salem. By April of that year, many more women and some men were accused and tried. Because the number of cases was so overwhelming, Governor William Phips created a special Court of Oyer and Terminer, which consisted of eight justices. The witch hunt then spread to neighboring towns, with hundreds of people being charged with witchcraft. By the end of 1692, a total of 19 people were hanged for witchcraft. Another was tortured to death.

Ergot Poisoning

While fear of the devil and social unrest seemed to cause the witch trials in the 1690s, modern sciences has revealed another possible cause: ergot poisoning. In the 1970s, Linnda Caporeal, a scientist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, considered the idea that the ergot fungus had caused the symptoms seen in Salem in the 1690s. An infested batch of rye might have been the true cause of the Salem witch trials. By the later months of the trials, however, Caporeal suspects mass popular hysteria, which was a reaction to the initial instances of hysteria, was more to blame than ergot.