Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Witches, everybody knows, don’t like to be messed with. Mess with them, and they’ll point their horribly gruelled finger at you and intimate that you will be next.

And no time nor place we know of now was worse than the Salem witch trials of 1762. Fingers were pointed all over the place, and the rope swung on the gallows. It lasted for a season, a miserable spring, and then it ended, but it was not forgotten.

Ergot infested rye – © Shutterstock

In 1976, Linnda Caporael published a paper that pointed the finger for witchcraft in a different direction – into the fields. They mostly contain rye in that part of Massachusetts, and it had been a warm, damp growing season, the kind that breeds moulds and fungus. Caporael indicated one fungus in particular: ergot, an alkaloid-loaded parasite.

At the time, the dark, fusiform fingers that protrude from the rye ears like they’re giving one-up to the heavens were thought to be simply sun-baked kernels, harmless. But this was far from the case, and in 1853 ‘ergotism’ was discovered, a long term cumulative poisoning from eating ergot.

Although they knew nothing of ergotism in Salem, it is possible that the accusers suffered from it.

Ergotism develops two strains of symptoms. The first, gangrenous ergotism, was frequently reported in the Middle Ages. Constricted blood flow to the extremities leads to pain, numbness and eventual loss of bodyparts. In the second, convulsive ergotism, the sufferer experiences fits, painful musclular spasms, vertigo, tingling, trembling, headaches, delusions and hallucinations. This was proposed as a physical explanation for the Salem witch trials.

Ergot had certainly been responsible for deaths throughout history, was used as an hallucinogen by the Aztecs (as it is also found in Morning Glory), and was even used in small doses by midwives to constrict muscles and blood vessels, accelerating childbirth and staunching any subsequent bleeding.

Even in 1762, consumption of tainted rye could have been prevented. Denis Dodart, in a 1676 letter to the French Royal Academy of Sciences, had identified and named ergot, observing the link between the presence of ergot and bread poisoning. But his observations went no further until 1917, when Arthur Stoll isolated the active chemical ergotamine.

Searching for pharmaceutically active substances, Stoll thought ergotamine offered the possibility for respiratory and circulatory stimulants. Albert Hoffman was working on this problem, and it fell to him to derive the nucleus, or common centre, lysergic acid, and synthesise combinations of it with other organic molecules, testing them for medical application. Mostly his results were disappointing, and no medical results were observed in the animal subjects. One particular derivative, lysergic acid diethylamide or LSD, did, he noted, seem to excite the animals, but no useful properties were observed. He shelved the experiment, and went on.

Yet five years later he found himself drawn back to his earlier synthesis, as if possessed by a spell, or haunted by the excited eyes of those animals… ‘I did not choose LSD,’ he later intimated; ‘LSD found and called me.’

And so, in 1943, he began to synthesise it again. Just a few grains of it. It wasn’t long before he started feeling unusual. Dizzy. Somewhat intoxicated. As if he were influenced by something outside of him – or something that had somehow got inside him. Alarmed, Hoffman went home, where he fell into a light-sensitive hallucinogenic trance that lasted a couple of hours.

Determined to discover what he had accidentally ingested, Hoffmann blamed chloroform – and deliberately inhaled plenty of it to test for the affect. He did not experience it. He thought of the LSD, but surely it could not have been the LSD? The only way it could have entered his body was via his fingertips, and then only a very small amount indeed.

He decided to test it. This time, he calculated what he believed would be the threshold dose, the minimum required to be detectable – 250 µg.

Little did he know, this was in fact ten times the threshold dose, and within forty minutes he was experiencing dizziness, anxiety, visual distortions, and symptoms of paralysis. He had literally stuck his finger in it. Wobbling home on his bicycle, pupils dilated to the size of planets, he journeyed through a narrative of paranoia of witchcraft, impending doom, and kaleidoscopic visions.

Although LSD is now illegal, for many years it was used in medicine: as a psychiatric treatment tool. Although in one study by Humphry Osmond in the 1950s, unprogressive alcoholics who had been administered LSD showed a 50% recovery from their alcoholism, it was finally pronounced potentially addictive, with no lasting effect after treatment had ceased. Perhaps it always belonged with the witches.

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