LSD: the cause of Salem Witch Trials?

Is magic actually real or is it the result of an accident that led to the sacrifice of so many women back in the day and how does a synthetic hallucinogen fit into the picture of the mass murder that happened in a small village in the United States?

The Salem Witch Trials

The Salem Witch Trials

“In 1692, mental and emotional disorders were not well understood and were often explained as the work of witches or evil spirits. To most people, the devil and his followers were living, breathing creatures. Witches, especially for devout Puritans, were real threats–agents of the devil himself. People believed that by casting spells or “possessing” a person’s body, witches sought to claim that person and their soul for Satan.” (Witch Madness, 2000)

An LSD drop

An LSD drop

Serotonergic hallucinogens are a class of hallucinogens that include LSD, psilocybin, mescaline and others. LSD as a drug is synthetic but many of the others that classify under the serotonergic hallucinogens are plants and have been used from the ancient times for many reasons. Entheogen, a psychoactive substance was used for religious purposes in rituals.

Ergot on the rye plant

Ergot on the rye plant

Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) is synthetic but it is derived from a plant, specifically from the ergot fungus of the rye. The fungal infection infects the crops and within that fungus the chemical, ergotamine lysergic acid, can be found. (Passie, Halpern, Stichtenoth, Emrich, & Hintzen, 2008)

LSD was first found by Albert Hoffmann who accidentally spilled it on his hand and experienced its hallucinogenic effects. (Passie, Halpern, Stichtenoth, Emrich, & Hintzen, 2008)

Albert Hofmann

Albert Hofmann

“Albert Hofmann, a natural products chemist at the Sandoz AG Pharmaceutical Company (Basel, Switzerland) synthesized it in 1938 while searching for pharmacologically active derivatives of lysergic acid. He accidentally discovered its dramatic psychological effects in 1943. Though he synthesized many lysergic acid derivatives, none had LSD’s unique spectrum of psychological effects.” (Passie, Halpern, Stichtenoth, Emrich, & Hintzen,2008)

Back in the day, LSD was considered to be psychotomimetic, that is, useful to psychotherapy. Psychiatrists took it to empathize with their patients who had psychosis. LSD was believed to break down ego defenses; removed filters for sensory input and see a fuller worldview on a whole new level. Of course, later on, the practice of using LSD in psychotherapy diminished, mainly due to the fact that LSD had vivid visual hallucinations while patients with psychosis (schizophrenia) experienced mostly auditory hallucinations.

How does LSD work? It has been found that it works specifically on the serotonin neurotransmitter and that is where the name for the entire class of these types of hallucinogens comes from. All of them have an effect on serotonin which is associated with memory, sleep, mood and learning.  Serotonin affects other neurotransmitters, like dopamine. There is always pleasure when it comes to psychoactive drugs. (Passie, Halpern, Stichtenoth, Emrich, & Hintzen, 2008)

“The predominant hypothesis on how indole hallucinogens affect serotonin (5-HT) is summarized as follows: LSD acts to preferentially inhibit serotonergic cell firing while sparing postsynaptic serotonergic receptors from upregulation/downregulation. This preference is shared in a somewhat limited fashion by non-indole hallucinogens. Nonhallucinogenic analogs of LSD show no such preference.” (Passie, Halpern, Stichtenoth, Emrich, & Hintzen, 2008)

hallucinationLSD has a range of various psychological effects that are mostly associated with visual hallucinations. Users report kaleidoscopic explosions of color; very intense colors, brightness, cross patterns; synesthesia, that is sensing different sound and visual stimuli and also seeing stationary objects moving. The overall sense of happiness and euphoria happens when one is experiencing the effects of LSD; everything seems to be magical and beautiful. The users say they feel contemplative, emotional and dreamy and they report spiritual or religious experiences. LSD users also have impulsive and poor judgment and could experience a bad trip, acute panic or paranoia. The effects of LSD can cause bad trips at any times and LSD is also known to cause flashbacks that if persistent could cause a Hallucinogen Persistent Perception disorder (HPPD).

So what does this synthetic drug has in common with the Salem Witch Trials? In fact, history proves that a year before the Salem Witch Trials happened, the rye crops were infected with ergot fungus in that village.

“In 1976, a University of California graduate student, Linnda Caporael, suggested that a fungus called ergot triggered the witch-hunt. Ergot produces a highly poisonous mold that thrives in certain weather conditions–particularly when a cold winter is followed by a wet, warm summer, as was the case in Salem in 1692. Rye, the main crop grown in Salem at the time, is particularly susceptible to ergot disease. If a person eats bread made from ergot-infected rye flour, the result can be hallucinations, loss of bodily control, delusions, and even death.” (Witch Madness, 2000)

It is not known whether the fungus is actually to blame for the madness that happened afterwards, but one could see a significant correlational link between the hallucinations that the infection causes and the hysteria that had happened afterwards. Could it be that the accusations and the ultimate deaths’ of the girls and women were the result of a simple crop that caused them to have vivid hallucinations and nightmares?

KLI6.06.188“In a 1998 Boston Globe story, Caporael said, “After some research, I discovered the very unusual symptoms of [the accusing girls] matched the unusual symptoms of ergot poisoning.” Caporael’s theory has not been generally accepted.” (Witch Madness, 2000)


Passie, T., Halpern, J. H., Stichtenoth, D. O., Emrich, H. M., & Hintzen, A. (2008). The Pharmacology of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide: A Review. CNS: Neuroscience & Therapeutics, 295-314.

Witch Madness. (2000). Current Events., 2A.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s