Margo Burns, AB, MA

The Salem Witchcraft Trials and Ergot, the “Moldy Bread” Hypothesis

On April 2, 1976, Science Magazine published an article by Linnda R. Caporeal which posited that during the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692, the visions of specters and painful physical sensations described by the girls who claimed to be afflicted by witches could have been caused, instead, from eating bread made with flour tainted by ergot, a naturally occurring fungal hallucinogen that grows on rye grain under certain growing conditions. It was debunked immediately and soundly by experts because the historical and medical data used to support the hypothesis was cherry-picked.

More than four decades later, however, this interpretation is still pervasive. In this session you’ll learn where this explanation of a lurid chapter in American history was born and how it became cemented in the public imagination. It’s a case study in how people come to believe myths about historical events.

Margo Burns, AB, MA

Margo Burns, AB, MA, ( | is the Project Manager and Associate Editor of Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt (, published in 2009 by the Cambridge University Press, the definitive comprehensive record of legal documents pertaining to the Salem witchcraft trials, organized in chronological order.

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