Witches in Your Family Tree

This is the time of year for ghosts, goblins, and other such superstitions. However, perhaps it is also a time to pause and reflect on the horrors of those who suffered in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. The witches of Salem and nearby towns probably have hundreds of thousands of present-day descendants. If you have ancestry from early Essex County, Massachusetts, you have an excellent chance of finding a connection to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.

Circa 1692, The trial of George Jacobs for witchcraft at the Essex Institute in Salem, Massachusetts. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

Circa 1692, The trial of George Jacobs for witchcraft at the Essex Institute in Salem, Massachusetts. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

Salem, Massachusetts, and the surrounding towns in Essex County were amongst the first settled in this country. Most of the towns were established prior to 1640. By the time of the witchcraft trials of 1692, a complete legal system of courts and clerks was well established. Records were written, and many of them have been preserved. Even if your ancestors are not among those accused, it is quite possible that you can find them mentioned as witnesses, those who gave depositions, or perhaps even those who served on a jury.

The reasons for the witchcraft hysteria have been debated for centuries. One modern theory involves ergot of rye, a plant disease that is caused by a fungus, Claviceps purpurea. Anyone who eats bread made with ergot-infected rye can exhibit symptoms of muscle spasms, tremors, and writhing. This may be accompanied by hallucinations. Such afflictions can indicate poisoning by ergot, or “ergotism.” Modern science has documented likely cases of ergotism in the Dark Ages, but the cause was only proposed in 1670 by a French physician, and outbreaks in the 20th century have shed much more light on both symptoms and their cause.

We know much about the lives of the Puritan inhabitants of Essex County in 1692. We know that they were mostly illiterate, and almost all citizens were intensely religious. In their simple lives, they were afraid of the darkness and of many things in this world that they did not understand. They were convinced that the Devil walked amongst them every night and that he had many disciples. This fear was reinforced by the sermons delivered by Reverend Samuel Parris most every Sunday. If the citizens of Salem and nearby towns did exhibit muscle spasms, tremors, writhing and hallucinations, one cannot be surprised that their neighbors felt the victims were indeed possessed by the Devil himself.

Ergot of Rye occurs in hot, humid weather. Warm, rainy springs and summers promote heavier than usual fungus infestation of rye. The pattern of the weather in 1691 and 1692 is apparent from brief comments in the diary of Samuel Sewall of Salem. Early rains and warm weather in the spring progressed to a hot and stormy summer in 1691, perfect conditions for creating hallucinogenic bread in the fall and winter of 1691, well into the spring and possibly very early summer of 1692, before the new crop of rye was harvested. Sewall recorded that there was a drought in 1692; thus, no contamination of the grain would be expected that year.

You can read a detailed explanation of ergotism and the possibilities of its
occurrence in Salem in an article by Linnda R. Caporael at http://www.physics.smu.edu/scalise/P3333fa07/Ulcers/ergotism.html. There is no proof available today that ergot of rye was the cause of the Salem Witch Trials. It does, however, provide an intriguing possibility.

The whole series of episodes began in December 1691 and into January, a time when the people of Salem would be eating bread made from the summer’s rye harvest, rye that had time to become infected with ergot. Two girls – Betty Parris, daughter of minister Samuel Parris, and his niece Abigail Williams – began exhibiting strange behavior. Soon a number of other young girls were also exhibiting the same symptoms. Several historians have suggested that perhaps the girls were simply playing childish games.

Physicians called in to examine the girls could find no explanation for their illness. In February one doctor suggested the girls might be bewitched. A neighbor had Parris’s Barbados slave, Tituba, concoct a “witch cake” in order to determine if witchcraft was present. Shortly thereafter, the girls made an accusation of witchcraft against Tituba and two elderly women of general ill repute in Salem Village, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborn. The three women were taken into custody on 29 February 1692. The afflictions of the girls did not cease, and in March they accused Martha Corey and Rebecca Nurse. Both of these women were well respected in the village and were covenanting members of the church. Further accusations by the children followed. By June the hunt for “witches” expanded beyond Salem to Andover, Ipswich, Gloucester, and other nearby towns.

The accused witches were tried and most of them found guilty, using logic that sounds silly today. However, to the ill-educated citizens of Salem, these were “facts.” Contrary to some stories, none of the witches of Salem were ever burned at the stake. With one exception, all were hanged at a public gallows. The one exception is poor Giles Cory, a church-going member of the community, who was pressed to death with large stones.

The last hangings occurred in September of 1692, and by May of 1693 all accused witches still imprisoned were released. It is interesting to note that the reported drought of 1692 would have meant the elimination of ergot of rye by September, the time of the last execution.

The final count of witchcraft victims was twenty executed and more than a hundred imprisoned. (One died in prison.) In addition, many others fled into exile or hiding places, their homes were broken up, their estates were ruined, and their families were left in desolation. All of this was caused by the leaders in the communities: the magistrates and ministers.

Finding your ancestors’ roles during the Salem Witch Trials may not be terribly difficult. Many of the original trial documents are now both in print and online. You might start at some of these:

The University of Virginia’s Electronic Text Center’s Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project at: http://etext.virginia.edu/salem/witchcraft/ and Witchcraft Archives at: http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/salem/witchcraft/archives/

National Geographic’s Salem Witchcraft Hysteria provides historical insight at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/features/97/salem/

The Salem Witch Trials of 1692, A Brief Introduction: http://www.salemweb.com/guide/witches.shtml

The Salem Witchcraft Trials at: http://www.publicbookshelf.com/public_html/The_Great_Republic_By_the_Master_Historians_Vol_I/salemwitc_dh.html

Salem Witchcraft: the Events and Causes of the Salem Witch Trials by Tim Sutter: http://www.salemwitchtrials.com/salemwitchcraft.html

Salem, Massachusetts, was not the only scene of witchcraft trials in North America. However, it is the one whose history is permanently etched in our memories. You may have ancestors who were eyewitnesses to one of the saddest times in American history.


As I worked backwards in my family tree some time ago (my great-great- grandmother was of pure New England descent), I ran into the Putnams, one of whom it turns out was my ancestor Deacon Edward Putnam, brother of the infamous Thomas, whose daughter was one of the “possessed” girls (Ann). Edward, along with his brother, was one of the main accusers.

I am also descended from Mary Sibley, who taught the slave girl Tituba a bit of witchcraft. Mary’s daughter married into the Marble family, and one of those Marble descendants married into the descendants of the Putnam family. So my relatives were both accusers and accused.

I don’t believe it was the bread that was the main problem, but rather a family feud. You can read about it here:

Liked by 3 people

    Same here. My ancestor, Hopestill Tyler and his brother Moses had some kind of a falling out, and Moses retaliated by naming Hopestill’s entire family as witches. It apparently was an old family tactic. Years earlier, in the 1660’s, Hopestill was an apprentice, and when the mentor tried to collect on a debt owed by the Tyler’s, Hopestill’s father Job accused the mentor of witchcraft. Hopestill and Moses had a falling out over Moses’ choice of a wife, shortly after which Moses named Hopestill’s wife and 2 daughters of witchcraft.


Dick: The victims of the 1692 hysteria were NOT witches. Please take greater care in how you refer to them.


My husband descends from Ann Foster, the “witch” who died in prison. Her son had to pay to get her body back so they could bury it. I descend from the woman she was accused of bewitching, Elizabeth (Phelps) Ballard. Ann was an elderly widow without influential friends, which didn’t help her case at all. Elizabeth Ballard died very shortly after all the hubbub, so she was probably very ill anyway.


I appreciate that the article noted that “witches” were not burned, but, based on what I’ve learned in four decades of researching and writing about the 1692 trials, I do have objections to other statements.
The ergot theory was well refuted soon after Caporal’s article appeared; mainly, the available diet did not cause a vitamin A deficiency so any ergot poisoning would have resulted in gangrene instead of convulsions and none of that was reported. For Spanos & Gottlieb’s entire rebuttal:
People were not largely illiterate. 17th century New England actually had a high rate of literacy. However, as writing was taught after reading was mastered, not everyone could write who could read.
A belief in the reality of a devil and evil magic was not specific to the Puritans. There were 17th cent. witchcraft cases even in New Mexico. New England kept better records (and the Salem outbreak was highly unusual).
More recent scholarship contradicts many of Bancroft’s assertions which show 19th century attitudes more than they explain the 1692 outbreak which occurred in a time of real stress and danger.
While the magistrates and ministers as a whole failed to stop the accusations when they should have, the panic affected the whole society. Accusers and accused came from all classes.
Besides the excellent University of Virginia site, I recommend Margo Burns’ “17th Century Colonial New England” (which includes genealogical links). http://www.17thc.us/


Anyone with that history in the family should also be SURE to read Satan & Salem, The Witch-Hunt Crisis of 1692, by Benjamin C. Ray, published 2015, University of Virginia Press. It’s a scholarly, well researched. AND extremely “readable” work – dispels the ergot myth and many other myths and was a eye-opener. I’m not a descendant (so far as I know) but had a relative who testified in a trial and another connection through accused and hanged sister of a woman who married a distant cousin, so have always been fascinated. Of all the things I’ve read about early Salem/witches, I personally thought this book was the best. But I’ll definitely follow the links you provided, Dick – thank you!


Lucille Williams, Wichita, Kansas October 19, 2017 at 12:22 pm

My daughter and I have done family research for a number of years and have found that we did have a number of the people in that episode is history in our ancestry–on both sides. Probably the most well-known one was Martha Carrier who was in our Ingalls ancestry. We have given several programs locally on the Salem Witchcraft trials. We had ancestors who were accusers and accused and they probably did not even know at that time that they were related. This has always been an interest of ours and we also have a number of the books on the subject.


My husbands 8X g grandmother Susanna Martin was one of the accused who was hung. I think the man who came to the church as pastor did a good job to bring these neighbors back into some sense of reality. It must have been a horrific trauma for all the people.


I have read many articles and books on the Salem trials. One book that is not mentioned is ‘Currents of Malice’ by Persis W. McMillen published in 1990. It was written by a descendant of Mary a Towne Estey, and I also am a descendant of hers. For some reason she is short shifted in many studies although she wrote a selfless and elegant petition before she was hung.


Walter G. Blenderman October 23, 2017 at 10:43 pm

I am descended from Jacob Towne, who was a brother of Rebecca Towne Nurse, Mary Towne Estey (both hung), and Sarah Towne Cloyes (imprisoned/survived). There is an excellent film available from PBS Home Video about these three sisters. “Three Sovereigns for Sarah” originally appeared on American Playhouse in 1986. The story of the trials is told in flashback, as an elderly and ill Sarah argues with magistrates for the exoneration of her and her sisters.


I am a direct descendant of Rebecca Towne Nurse who along with her two sisters were accused as witches. The ergot of rye theory is the first possible scientific explanation which makes some sense as to why this number of Puritans began the strange behavior exhibited. I’ve ordered the book above mentioned refuting the ergot theory, but I’ve read many scientific articles which indicate Ergot of rye does cause hallucinations so will reserve my judgement until I’ve read the book. In the meantime I offer the following from one of the articles I’ve read:

Ergot of rye, caused by Claviceps purpurea (an ascomycete fungus), is the plant disease interacting with humanity in the historical events mentioned above. C. purpurea infects the ovary of rye (or other cereal grains) while the plant is blooming. The fungus colonizes the ovary and begins to replace the plant tissue with hard black structures called sclerotia (Figs. 1 and 2.). In the field, some of the sclerotia drop to the ground as the grain ripens and function as a winter survival mechanism for the fungus. During the following spring, sclerotia produce tiny stalks called stromata (Fig. 3). In the stromata, perithecia form and produce ascospores (a type of sexual spore produced in an ascus or sac). These ascospores are disseminated by wind, infect flowers of new rye plants, and initiate the disease cycle again. However, the problems with ergot for humans and animals begin when the grain is harvested for use in flour and feed. Ergot sclerotia are unintentionally harvested along with the grain. If these sclerotia are not removed, they will be ground into flour along with the grain. Toxic alkaloids contained in the sclerotia are distributed throughout the flour during grinding. Baking does not destroy the ergot alkaloids. When people eat bread or baked goods made with flour containing ergot, they also consume the alkaloids and can develop the symptoms of ergotism. Symptoms of ergotism include: hallucinations, burning or crawling sensations under the skin, miscarriage, gangrene, loss of limbs, and death. Animals are affected by ergotism when they consume grain or hay containing ergot sclerotia.


    Ergot of rye would have affected most everybody as well as the animals, but I don’t recall hearing about either of these scenarios.

    Ralph, the university library where I work actually has ‘Currents of Malice’ so I have checked it out (very large tome!).


A interesting new-ish resource to see if you’re related to any of the people involved in the witchcraft trials is an app developed by college students. http://www.relativefinder.org You access it through the free genealogy site FamilySearch. “Salem Witch Trials” is one of the “Community Groups.” The results will not only tell you who you’re related to, but will also show you the genealogical path. Really fascinating.


    Thanks Marilyn, that is a great resource! Fun to play with, great chart results.


    Do verify your connections by researching events and sources! And you may have closer connections than their software reports.


    Thanks J.M., I spent a fair amount of time with the app yesterday and for the most part it was accurate, except when it was sometimes making a wrong father/daughter connection in the 1700s (brother of the real father). This was not a problem on the male side, but the wife’s line shot off into history in the wrong direction from there. However, this does not affect my connection to Elvis (really)!
    Also, I was able to push known families back several more generations, assuming the results are accurate.


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