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Witch Hunt

The Devil’s Trumpet

History is an imperfect science—the truth often weaves within nuance and mystery. For those playing the role of historian, the trick is knowing what you’re looking for.

Anne Siems, Plant Tattoo (Drawing), 2011. Courtesy the artist and David Lusk Gallery, Memphis.

Hysteria. Lyme disease. Jimsonweed overdoses. Encephalitis. Fungal poisoning. PTSD. Religious awakening. Fear of American Indians raiding the village. If it makes you shake, scream, or hallucinate, it’s probably been cited as a cause for the Salem witch trials.

Two months ago I wrote an article outlining eight stories of peculiar female gatherings in Massachusetts’s North Shore, the 1692 witch trials among them. I mentioned a theory that the girls accusing others of witchcraft had been poisoned by ergot, a hallucinogenic fungus that might have infested the village’s rye that year. After the article was published, Salem enthusiasts started emailing me to criticize the ergot poisoning explanation and tell me that they, in fact, had the correct explanation for the girls’ fits. Do tell, I said when I wrote them all back.

It fascinated me that people were still dredging up the Salem girls from the past and diagnosing them. Amateur scholars, writers, producers, conspiracy theorists, descendents of Salem folk, and all the sophomore American History classes across America, including mine, once upon a time, have taken a crack at solving the riddle: What happened 320 years ago, and why? Year by year our recollection of the trials grows in scale and the cast of characters offering their two cents keeps the curtain from closing on this seemingly unending drama. By 2012, the year 1692 in the little village of Salem has been fully peopled with witnesses, detectives, and gossips.

Suzy Witten is among them. After writing her own Salem novel, The Afflicted Girls (2009, self-published under the imprint Dreamwand), she’s been trying to garner support and attention for her theory. She wrote to me a day after my article was published.

Along with a suggestion that I read her book, she sent two links to articles on jimsonweed, the plant in the nightshade family that infamously poisoned Jamestown soldiers in 1676 after they put it in a salad. It has coronet-shaped blooms, little trumpeting flowers, and alkaloids that can make you hallucinate, or, if you’re a child, sink into a coma or even die.

I called Witten on a cold winter night while I was visiting my parents in Massachusetts. It was just after sunset and appropriately close to the shortest day of the year. A heavy wind battered the windows.

Witten lives in Los Angeles, about as far away from Salem as one can get and still be in America.

She was on the computer when she picked up the phone.

“I want to get all the articles together,” she said, “So I can read you the symptoms of the afflicted girls.” Her voice was soft, almost motherly.

She’s been in LA since she graduated from USC with a film degree. Since then, she’s worked on COPS and Fox News Undercover and as a researcher and writer for FEMA. Throw Salem witchcraft theorist in there and her job history seems oddly uniform.

“While you do,” I said, “why don’t you tell me about how you came upon jimsonweed.”

“It began 20 years ago,” she started. She was in a bookstore gathering ideas for a screenplay when she found a book about Salem. Seeing the potential that we all do in Puritans muddling with witchcraft, she pitched a screenplay that would feature the “afflicted girls.” (This wouldn’t be the first movie about Salem. A movie edition of Arthur Miller’s 1952 play The Crucible had been released in 1957.) There was interest from an executive, so she started researching and compiling notes on all the girls’ symptoms: Their bodies were contorting, their eyes were bulging, and their mouths were snapping open. They were going on all fours, shrieking uncontrollably, barking like dogs, bellowing like cows, and hallucinating strange visitors.

Every year several dozen teenagers in Southern California alone either stuff jimsonweed seeds in cigarettes, brew the leaves and flowers in tea, or eat parts of the plant. They hope for a good high, but end up dizzy, scared, and hospitalized.

During the time she was compiling the symptoms she read an article in the Los Angeles Times about four teenagers who had brewed jimsonweed tea. Their symptoms closely matched those in her document, and her theory was born.

“A light bulb went off in my brain. ‘Oh my God, I bet that’s what happened there.’ I knew what the theories were of what it could be: ergot, hysteria, and none of it made sense.”

For the next 18 years she collected all the articles she could find in medical journals and newspapers about jimsonweed poisoning, which turns out to be a lot of articles. Every year several dozen teenagers in Southern California alone either stuff jimsonweed seeds in cigarettes, brew the leaves and flowers in tea, or eat parts of the plant. They hope for a good high, but end up dizzy, scared, and hospitalized.

In the course of our conversation Witten emailed me no fewer than 25 articles on jimsonweed poisoning. Some of the victims weren’t so delinquent: In 2008 a family of six in Maryland made a stew with jimsonweed. An hour after they ate it, a relative making an after-dinner visit found them, like the Jamestown soldiers, rolling on the floor, laughing, dizzy, and hallucinating.

In further support of her theory, Witten found evidence that Tituba—the American Indian slave whom the girls first accused of witchcraft—was an Arawak, a member of a tribe from the Caribbean and South America that used jimsonweed for medicine and in ceremonies. It was Tituba, Witten posits, who gave the girls the “Jimson cakes,” a recipe that the girls later botched and thus convulsed and hallucinated in the same violent manner recorded in Salem documents.

“I think it’s important to get the cause of the fits right, Whether it’s Lyme disease, or ergot, or jimsonweed, it changes the way we understand what happened, and what still happens today.”

She’s so confident about her theory that she’s added the information to a Wikipedia page about Salem witch trial medical explanations, and credited herself.

“It turns out not much has changed,” she told me. “Teens are still taking drugs. All that’s different is now we don’t believe in the devil and witchcraft with the same level of fear and reactivity. We’re more rational than they were.”

Up to this point, I agreed with most of what she said. It seemed like jimsonweed was not such a wild theory. It’s a common plant across North America. It’s no secret that adolescent girls were experimenting with potions and brews around that time. In fact, it seemed to me that jimsonweed poisoning is, as Witten found, very similar to what was recorded.

But there’s a whole other side of Witten’s theory that she says fueled the accusations after the original, jimson-induced fits: rape, which gives cause to exact revenge.

This part of her theory, which features in her book, is what most blogs and Amazon reviews criticize. One woman, who Witten told me has “made it her mission to destroy my book,” wrote that the book’s main character, Mercy Lewis, has the rare ability to get raped by every man she encounters: “If you left her alone in a waiting room for an hour,” the reviewer wrote,she’d find a way to get raped by a chair.” The critic then went on to list 27 instances of non-consensual sex in the book, page numbers included.

“I just had a sense that sexual abuse was happening while I wrote the book,” Witten explained. “I’m trying to figure out, what was really going on? So I included any element that was going on in any society. You just have to be real. I was just trying to be really real. The most important thing here is the logic.”

I asked her if she had documents of abuse in Salem.

“No, I didn’t look for documents of sexual abuse.”

“So you’re unsure of the sexual abuse part?”

“No, I’m not unsure of sexual abuse. It was happening elsewhere during that time.”

Confused, I pressed. “So if a reader picks up your book, what percent should be believed, and what percent should be read as fiction?”

“All the facts I include are the actual facts.”

Seeing we were going nowhere, I took another approach, asking what separated her theory, her sense of having ‘solved it,’ as she wrote in her first email, from a historian’s or critically accepted theory.

“Listen, I’m not a historian. I'm writing fiction. You pick your people. You make them. I condense time, combine characters. This is fiction, and it’s speculative. I’m telling a drama. Historians get locked into facts that are recorded. Facts that weren’t recorded don’t get into their narrative. What really happened was 99 percent not recorded. Historians are afraid to postulate, afraid to theorize.”

It may seem unproblematic to speculate, to flesh out the unrecorded 99 percent when selling your book as fiction, but by tacking on a claim to have “solved” a real mystery complicates credibility. Couching nonfiction in speculative fiction is not the way to present whatever kernels of truth you might have dug up. This is why there’s only one citation for Witten’s theory on Wikipedia, and why it comes from her own book.

I started noticing weaknesses her argument that are absent from academic theories. She did most of her research with books written about Salem instead of going to the primary sources. She wouldn’t admit that any of the other theories might be at least in part right. She was defensive about criticism of her book. She made at least one claim that wasn’t true: “Jimsonweed is actually considered the most toxic plant on the planet,” she said early in our conversation. But in an email exchange I later had with plant toxicologist and Cornell University professor Dan L. Brown, he told me, “Jimsonweed is not even close to the most poisonous plant. For foliage, it’s oleander. Seeds? A battle between rosary peas and castor beans. But too many jimsonweed seeds can kill you, there is no doubt.”

Feeling like I was caught in fiction/nonfiction purgatory with sexual abuse in Salem, I tried to return to the jimsonweed theory Witten had pioneered, the original reason for our call.

So why hadn’t her theory caught on? Why didn’t I learn about it high school?

“Everybody who’s read my book thinks that it is the answer. But nobody’s written an article about it. I tried to get it reviewed by the Boston Globe, the LA Times. But if you’re not a big publishing company, they’re not going to review the book. Period.”

“Is that why you contacted me?”

“I contacted you because you were wrong. You thought it was ergot.” Noted.

I had been talking to her for over an hour. Though still light in Los Angeles, it was getting late in Massachusetts. Before I ended our conversation to read through the articles she had been emailing me, I asked her one final question. I wondered if she’d shared her discovery with any other theorists, like Linnda Caporael or anyone at the Salem Witch Museum.

“I had been in touch for years with Mary Beth Norton. She’s a famous Salem historian.”

It may seem unproblematic to speculate, to flesh out the unrecorded 99 percent when selling your book as fiction, but by tacking on a claim to have “solved” a real mystery complicates credibility.

The name Mary Beth Norton might be familiar to anyone who has read about Salem or colonial America. Her fifth book, Founding Mothers and Fathers: Gendered Power and Forming of American Society (Vintage), was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1997. Her sixth book, In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 (Vintage), was praised by the New York Times Book Review, where she is a contributor, as “stunning.” She got her doctorate at Harvard and is now a history professor at Cornell University, where she teaches a course on how to deal with crime resource materials using Salem’s records.

If Witten represents one side of theorists—those self-publishing and posting their own theories on Wikipedia—Norton represents the other: Those accepted by the institution, critically praised, careful historians with all the academic degrees under their belts to prove it, the crests of old and prestigious schools stamped on their letterheads. Even the U.S. government has endorsed her. A new film showing in the National Park Service’s Salem visitor center includes Norton explaining how and why the trials took place.

She was in South Carolina doing research for her next book when I called her. I introduced myself and explained how I had been led to her.

“Do you know Suzy Witten?” I asked. “She said she’d been in contact with you.”

“Suzy’s been trying to get me to read her book, which I must admit I haven’t read.

It just seemed so crazy. I try to avoid Salem fiction.”

We talked for a few minutes about the history of the Salem records, the centuries of historians who’ve deciphered the accounts. Norton’s sentences were tidy, stripped of unnecessary words and exclamations, almost crystalline. She even paused a beat after each sentence to acknowledge punctuation. More, she spoke in enormous and uninterrupted paragraphs, as if she were reading from a script, so tight-knit in logic and framework that I’ve pretty much transcribed them here without break.

“So, why do people like Suzy contact you?” I asked after she finished leading me through examples of how researchers over the years have introduced errors to transcriptions of Salem court records.

“Salem is such an iconic event and it seems so mysterious to people that everyone wants to have a go at it. People get in their heads that they have the answer. There are several descendents of witches who have decided that it was all conspiracy of one group of families against another group of families—hateful neighbors who made everything up and attacked them. Then you have the people who want to make a medical explanation. These are all modern people: Suzy Witten, Linnda Caporael [ergot], and Laurie Winn Carlson [encephalitis]. I would point out to you that medical explanations are modern. That Americans today want medical explanations for things that in the 19th century would have been explained by hysteria, and in the 18th century would have been explained by religious conversion experiences in the context of the Great Awakening, when people were having these types of fits, and in the 17th century by witchcraft.

“Let me remind you that the 17th century was a pre-modern society. This is a society before the scientific revolution. Nobody knew that hurricanes were coming because there were no satellites; nobody understood animal illnesses. When strange things happened—and many things in the 17th century were strange because nobody understood the germ theory—the default explanation became witchcraft. That is, if you didn’t have way of explaining something, you would say to yourself, ‘I bet this person or this animal was bewitched.’”

She paused, but before I could break in with a follow-up question, she capped off her assessment.

“Here is what I’m saying to you: There is the same behavior over time, and that each time period has different ways of interpreting it. I would confidently predict that 50 or 100 years from now there will be a completely different explanation.”

I pointed out that Witten might agree, but she would say what started it all, the fits and hallucinations, was jimsonweed.

“I don’t believe in any of that. People get bees in their bonnets about one aspect of Salem, and so look for that in the records. They don’t understand that you need to consider and understand the whole context in order to interpret it. For example, any of these things that propose that people have ingested something don’t take into account the contemporary reports that say that the afflicted are well most of the time. They also don’t take into account the fact that if people are ingesting something in a household, how come some people in the household have fits and some people don’t? They’re presumably all eating the same food. If they’re all eating the same bread, how come some people are affected and some people not?

“I don’t think there is a medical explanation for what happened. I really don’t. It has to do with the context of the time. It has to do with the Indian war that was going on. It has to do with the tremendous fear that people had of the Indians.”

Here Norton is talking about the series of Indian wars ravaging settlements in Maine, Massachusetts’s backyard. There was lots of bloodshed. Mercy Lewis, one of the most vocal accusers and main character in Witten’s novel (the victim of sexual abuse), came to live as a servant in Salem with the Rev. George Burroughs and later with her distant relatives, the Putnams, after her parents were killed in an Indian raid.

“It also has to do with the belief of the people in the 17th century that the invisible world was just as real as the visible world. I like to ask students at the end of the semester, ‘What’s the most important thing you learned in this course?’ The most satisfying responses I’ve gotten have been from students saying they learned that people in the 17th century really believed these were witches.”

I asked if there’s a chance one of us non-academics might get it right someday, combing through records and noticing details she and other historians might have missed.

“I doubt the academic establishment will ever be open to medical theories.” There are no bodies to examine. No autopsies that could prove anything. And that is what the historians are looking for: proof.

But Norton doesn’t dismiss anything without looking into it. This, again, is the difference between her work and Witten’s: Norton is willing to spend the time and energy testing other theories, while Witten is quick to dismiss them and push her own point. After Norton read about the encephalitis theory, that animals spread the disease to humans, she consulted a faculty member at Cornell’s Veterinary College and sent him all the evidence. He said it made no sense.

When she said “mentalité,” she had me hooked. I was eating out of her hand. I can bear cleverness for only so long before I cave in to its charms. She was right—so, so right.

Listening to Norton talk about the allure of medical theories for amateur historians, I thought back on my own education of the witch trials in history class. She was right. It was the scientific explanation—the ergot theory when I was in school, maybe something else now—that made the most sense, the one that excited us most, the one that seemed finally solve the puzzle. I remember looking at maps of granaries in Salem village and being told why certain granaries were affected by ergot and others not. I remember reading photocopies of diaries from 1692 that told of a particularly wet spring and summer. All of us, raised on science, were hungrily grabbing at the ergot theory. And after reading through Witten’s jimsonweed articles, I was fully convinced that the girls must have been yamming down fistfuls of jimsonweed. It seemed so tidy, a satisfyingly easy explanation. Just some poisonous plants that only the dim-witted succumb to.

But Norton was converting me. She was diagnosing my exact reaction, articulating why and how I believed something. This, I believe, is called the trump card.

“Whenever I go and lecture about Salem these days, one of the first questions I get is about ergot. That has sunk into the modern mentalité of people.”

When she said “mentalité,” she had me hooked. I was eating out of her hand. I can bear cleverness for only so long before I cave in to its charms. She was right—so, so right.

“In any event, I will go beyond this and say what I’ve said in my book. Even if people like Suzy Witten are right, it doesn’t tell you anything significant. That’s because the most important thing about the fits was what the people said they saw in their fits. Not the fact of the fits themselves. Whatever they might have ingested, if they ingested anything, doesn’t determine what they saw in their fits. And, you see, what they say they saw in their fits are the specters of particular women and particular men. Even if they ingested ergot or jimsonweed, that tells you nothing about why they said what they said. And what they said is to accuse certain people of being witches. What I’ve written about is why they accuse those certain people of being witches. It’s not the fact of the accusations themselves.”

Norton had just pinpointed what separated Witten and her gang of theorists from herself and the academics: Why do we care? Who gains from the historical investigation? Focusing on ‘solving’ the puzzle, what made the girls hallucinate and shake, is deeply misleading. The take-home from the trials shouldn’t be that poisonous plants can make you hallucinate, but that a perfectly capable, religious, and law-abiding community that laid the roots for American justice legally and conscientiously executed 20 of its own innocent citizens; that over 150 people in Salem that year who were charged as having consorted with the Devil. In Witten’s theory, the girls went crazy. In Norton’s, the town went crazy.

I asked Norton if she had any idea of how we’d explain the Salem witch trials in the next century, once we move out of the medical thought-period.

She only laughed. “Historians don’t predict the future; we’re very bad at it. We’re very good at predicting the past.”

Ben Shattuck has written for The Paris Review Daily, Salon.com, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, ReadyMade, and Once Magazine, among other publications. More by Ben Shattuck