Forensics in History: The Salem Witch Trials

salem witch house

Reverend Parris and his wife Elizabeth were appalled. Their daughter, 9-year-old Betty and her 11-year-old cousin Abigail Williams, were clearly possessed. The girls threw things, uttered strange sounds, vomited, contorted themselves into strange positions and began to have spasms described as “beyond the power of epileptic fits or natural disease to effect”. Examined by doctors, the girls were found to have no evidence of any familiar ailment.

In the winter of 1692, Rev. Parris was minister of Salem Village Church, and having a controversial term. He had constant battles with the town council about his salary, so it is assumed that in order to secure his position and importance; he began to preach that Satan was prospecting Salem Village. Unfortunately, his attempts at job security had an unintended consequence.  The bizarre behavior of Betty and Abigail were determined to be brought on by demon inspired witches.


A bewitching contagin: neighbors accusing neighbors.

Soon, other young people exhibited the same unconventional symptoms, and the hunt for an explanation was on. The first women arrested for witchcraft were: Sarah Good, an unsavory, unconventional beggar; Sarah Osborne, at odds with influential people in the township;  and Tituba, a slave who was beaten into a confession. Ultimately, Tituba’s elaborate and imaginary revelations implicated dozens of other people (and some animals), and endorsed Rev. Parris’ opinion that Satan was among them.

A court was convened, and by the time the Salem witch trials ended in the Spring of 1693, almost 160 people had been accused, dozens tried, 19 were hung, five died in jail and one stoned to death.


Magic debunked: forensic science finds a less haunting explanation.

In the early 1970’s Linda Caporael had been studying the Salem witch trials.  A behavioral psychologist at New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, she linked symptoms and strange behaviors of the ‘afflicted’ girls to the hallucinogenic effects of drugs like lysergic acid diethylamide. Since LSD is a derivative of ergot, a fungus affecting rye grain, and a documented cause of a similar outbreak in Pont-Saint-Esprit, France in 1951, she decided to look at the environmental conditions around Salem around 1691-93.  Her discoveries helped explain why the bizarre behavior was wide-spread, and why it did not repeat after the trials had concluded.

Ergot is produced by the fungus Claviceps purpurea, which grows on rye and cereal grasses in extremely moist conditions.  The flowering head of the grain produces ‘honey dew’, a yellow colored mucus containing the fungal spores which invade the kernels. Sclerotia forms in the kernels, now resembling impotent discolored grains, so it was not uncommon for stained kernels to be allowed into flour and baked into food.  Loaves of bread accidentally laced with these ergot alkaloids containing lysergic acid — LSD — were then consumed by the family, although only certain, younger members were highly susceptible.


Science trumps the supernatural: a modern causation theory.

By examining diaries of Salem residents at the time and pinpointing homesteads on primitive maps, Ms. Caporael found that the spring and summer of 1691 was warm, damp and rainy. Most of those afflicted lived in the western section of Salem, which were covered with swampy marshes and wetlands adjacent to farmers’ rye fields.  These conditions were unsurpassed for this fungus to thrive. The rye crop was harvested in 1691 and consumed over that winter, just when the ‘bewitchments’ began to take place. Without ‘spirit guides’ like Timothy Leary of the 1960’s and 70’s to explain that LSD was simply a mind-expanding drug that would wear off if a person stopped consuming it, the pious population of Salem was left to draw their own conclusions.


Superstition trumped logic: suspicious spectral substantiation.

Unfortunately, back in the courtroom of 1692, a lot of improbable and unscientific evidence was introduced, including ‘spectral evidence’ – the testimony of the afflicted who swore that their hallucinations included seeing apparitions.  The Court tried to understand this phenomenon in the rationale of the times. Defence attorneys explained that the Devil could use anyone’s shape to afflict people, attempting to draw away guilt from their clients, but this backfired when the Court contended that the Devil could not use a person’s shape without their permission, therefore when the afflicted told of seeing apparitions that they could identify, this was ‘evidence’ of complicity with the Devil.

Finally bowing to rational thought, several judicial ministers including Mr. Increase Mather urged the court that convictions should not be determined on spectral evidence alone. Ultimately ruled completely inadmissible, the remarkable decrease in the rate of convictions hastened the end of the trials.


Fungus drought: no more psychedelic tripping.

The summer of 1692 was dry, many of the marshes around Salem dried up and the rye crop did not produce ergot fungus. Although the Salem witch trials were likely caused by jealousy, ignorance, religious fervor, fear and politics, any procedure for sorting out the truth by using logically explained physical evidence was painfully absent in the late 1600’s. While forensic science has come a long way since colonial times in America, the need for rules based on evidence were spawned in this little Massachusetts village.


Your Turn: Did we miss an important part of this story? Just read The Crucible and have something literary to add? Let us know in the comments. We’d love to hear from you.




  • Katherine says:

    Reverend Parris never had a wife named Elizabeth…he had no wife. She died. You may want to read the play. John Proctor had a wife named Elizabeth.

    • Dear Katherine,

      Thanks for your comment. We appreciate both that you read our article, and that you gave us your comment. We love that people are reading our articles earnestly, and challenging us. It takes brains and guts to do that – and heart.

      You are referring to play ‘The Crucible’ by Arthur Miller, but you must realize that Arthur Miller took a lot of liberties in developing the characters and storyline for the sake of drama. That tragedy is therefore not necessarily true to history.

      For example, the main character, John Proctor was actually born in England in 1632. He had three wives; Martha Giddens, with whom he had four children and who died in childbirth in 1659; in 1662 he married Elizabeth Thorndike, they had seven children and she died in 1672. John Proctor moved to Salem and married Elizabeth Basset in 1674. They had 6 children. By the time of the witch trials in the winter of 1692, Proctor would have been 60 years old.
      Abigail Williams was actually born in July, 1680, so she was 11 when the witch trials began (on the basis of her and Betty Parris’ accusations). In The Crucible, Abigail is described as 17 years old. One key element of the play is an affair she supposedly had with John Proctor the year before. Since Proctor would have been 59 and Abigail would have been 10, it is unlikely that this romantic liaison happened, and I could find no historical evidence of such an affair, other than the fictional account in the play. John Proctor was hanged as a witch in The Crucible and also in real life on August 19, 1692.

      If I remember the play correctly (it has been quite a while since I read it, and I do not use historical fiction for research), Reverend Parris’ wife may not be mentioned, so you may have assumed that she was not around during the witch trials, but I assure you, she was.

      There is a lot of historical information available online about the Parris family, the Proctor family and Abigail Williams, including Wikipedia and others. I just did a quick search and my top search results (including Wiki) – all agree about the historical facts I provide here, and which support our version.

      As for Reverend Parris and his wife, Elizabeth; Reverend Samuel Parris married Elizabeth Eldridge in Boston after he returned there from Barbados in 1860. She was the mother of his three children; Thomas, Betty and Susannah. In July of 1689, the family moved to Salem Village, where the Reverend became the minister of that township. The Salem witch trials began with the incidents I discussed in the article between 1691 to 1693. Elizabeth Parris, wife of Rev. Samuel and mother of Betty died in 1696, a few years after the trials, and Rev. Samuel then married Dorothy Noyes (24 years old) in 1699 in Sudbury, MA. The Reverend died in Sudbury on February 27, 1720.

      Once again, thank you again for keeping us on our toes.

  • Allison says:

    You wrote that the summer and spring of 1691 was warm, damp and rainy which explains the growth of ergot, but then says that the symptoms surpassed after the trials because the summer of 1691 was dry…I am confused. Was this a typo?

  • Thank you for this great pace of writing you have really helped me with my ancient history assessment (Were the Salem witches really involved in witchcraft?). I read your Orther blurb and I would like to find out more about your career as I am interested. I hope to hear from you .

    • The Forensic Outreach Team says:

      Hi Stacey,

      Thanks for your interest. We’re actually a team of people with very diverse careers within forensics. If you’re intrigued by this discipline, we’d urge you to read the articles in our SYWTBA section (search for this on our site).

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