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May 2016

The Salem Witch Trials—Bewitchment or Ergotism

Author Affiliations
  • 1University of Miami, Miller School of Medicine, Department of Dermatology and Cutaneous Surgery, Miami, Florida
JAMA Dermatol. 2016;152(5):540. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2015.4863

The Salem Witch Trials of 1692 represent not only a dark time in colonial America but also a curious medical mystery. The trials began when several young girls in Salem, Massachusetts, fell ill and developed unexplained symptoms, including temporary blindness, skin lesions, convulsions, and hallucinations. The local doctor, unsure of the etiology of their sickness, diagnosed the girls as having “bewitchment,”1 a clinical judgment that led to the persecution and subsequent prosecution of the accused individuals. Puritan settlers held a firm belief in the supernatural due to a belief, originating in 14th century Europe, that witches existed through the work of the devil.1 This preexisting culture of superstition, along with ongoing warfare against surrounding villages and fear of attack from Native Americans, contributed to the mass hysteria preceding the witch hunt.1 Following the trials, many scholars theorized about the true cause of the mysterious illness; a plausible explanation is convulsive ergotism.

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