The Salem witch trials LSD theory and the fascinating evolution of mummification in ancient Egypt

Tiny Matters

Happy spooky season, Tiny Matters listeners! In today’s episode, Sam and Deboki tackle two Halloween themed topics: The Salem witch trials and mummies.

In 1692 and 1693 a series of hearings and trials took place in Salem, Massachusetts, leading to 19 people being executed, marking the last executions for witchcraft in the United States. Sam and Deboki speak with a researcher who has spent over a decade piecing together what did and probably did not happen during this time, helping unpack a popular (and highly flawed) theory that LSD from a fungus caused the Salem witch trials. She also offers up the more likely forces behind the hysteria.

Sam and Deboki then travel back thousands of years to ancient Egypt and delve into the science behind mummification — from the 'grand experimentation' of the Old Kingdom mummies to the 'ideal' mummies of the 18th and 21st dynasties that look like they could wake up at any moment. Mummies were an integral part of the ancient Egyptian belief in divine transformation after death, but today there’s contention surrounding how they should be treated and if they should even be displayed for viewing.

Transcript of this Episode

Sam Jones: Happy spooky season, Deboki! I can’t remember, are you a Halloween person?

Deboki Chakravarti: That’s a great question because I don’t know. I love candy, I love dressing up. But I feel like the older I get, the lazier I get about Halloween. I do love shopping the candy sales the next day. What about you?

Sam: I would say yes, although I grew up in New England, specifically Massachusetts, where Halloween is big. So comparatively I’m not a huge Halloween person. But I will be bringing a taste of spooky New England to today’s episode with something that has become a Halloween staple: the Salem witch trials.

Deboki: Welcome to Tiny Matters, I’m Deboki Chakravarti and I’m joined by my co-host Sam Jones. In today’s episode, in addition to the Salem witch trials, we’ll be speaking with an Egyptologist about another very popular Halloween topic: mummies. There’s a lot of very cool science behind the preservation of human and animal remains in ancient Egypt that I can’t wait to share. So let’s hop right into it.

Sam: We’ll begin in Salem in the late 17th century. This is Puritan times, about 70 years after the Mayflower arrived. I wouldn’t call it a particularly happy time. You have British colonizers warring with the Native people whose land they’ve stolen. A lot of settlers have either died from conflict or disease. There is just a lot of unrest. And before the century draws to a close, you have the Salem witch trials.

Margo Burns: The Salem witchcraft trials were a series of hearings, trials and executions that took place in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 and 1693. Nineteen people were executed by hanging and one was pressed to death. It's the last executions for witchcraft in the United States. And it has had this attraction by so many people because it's such a bizarre instance.

Deboki: That’s Margo Burns, the project manager and associate editor of Records of the Salem Witch Hunt, which is the most recent and most comprehensive collection of legal papers from the Salem Witchcraft trials.

So how did it all get started? It began with two girls accusing three women of being witches. Those women were Sarah Goode, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba, an enslaved woman from Barbados, and they were the first of many residents to be charged with the capital crime of witchcraft.

Margo Burns: The people they were accusing of witchcraft had “powers from the devil” to be able to send their specters through the air. And those specters could then go to victims and choke them and pinch them and almost press them to death, that kind of thing. And they would see visions, they would have sensations, and the afflicted people or so-called afflicted people were claiming this was evidence that these other people were witches.

Deboki: People accused of being witches would be jailed and often put through a series of tests. Margo told us that in Salem they did something called the “touch test.” Witches were believed to send what they called “effluvia” from their eyes into the body of a victim.

So for the “touch test,” the authorities would force the person accused of being a witch to touch the person who was allegedly afflicted, and if the affliction stopped, the idea was that all the malevolent particles were sucked back into the witch. Yeah. Lot to unpack there.

Sam with Margo Burns: I would love to hear what sparked your personal interest in the Salem witch trials.

Margo Burns: Well, everybody tries to see if they've got an ancestor or something like that. And I do have an ancestor who was involved. Her name was Rebecca Nurse, and she was one of the 19 people who was hanged. However, that wasn't as significant to my grandmother who did the family genealogy, so in her notes, Rebecca Nurse's Life was just an asterisk. There was her name asterisk at the bottom. It said, “executed for witchcraft July 19th, 1692 in Salem.” And I sort of went, oh, that's interesting. And then went right by it.

Deboki: It wasn’t until much later, after taking a graduate linguistics course, that Margo really became interested. She wrote a paper on the Salem witch trials, returned to New England, and then decided to go down a rabbit hole.

Margo Burns: The rabbit hole I went down to was all of the Salem Witchcraft trials. Rebecca Nurse is part of that. But the whole of it just fascinated me. Within a couple of years, Bernie Rosenthal, the general editor of Records of the Salem Witch Hunt, was just starting out, and he invited me to be his project manager.

Deboki: Twelve people, including Bernie Rosenthal and Margo, ended up working on Records of the Salem Witch Hunt. It was a huge undertaking that took a decade to complete. It was hard enough for them to find all of these documents, but even once they were found, there was the question of what they actually said.

Margo Burns: Where do you find people who can read old handwriting? I mean, how many paleographers do you actually know?

Sam with Margo Burns: I would say zero personally <laughs>

Margo Burns: Well, paleography is the science of reading old handwriting. And it turned out there was a group, about a half a dozen linguists, historical linguists in Helsinki, so they were half of our team, and it meant going to all these different archives.

Deboki: Going through tons of archives across Massachusetts and elsewhere and pulling everything together has been essential for understanding what happened in Salem Massachusetts … and what likely did not happen. There’s a theory that has circulated for decades, especially around this time of year. And it’s that a fungus caused the Salem witch trials.

Margo Burns: The notion is that it was possible that these girls had consumed bread that was made from rye grain that was tainted by a naturally occurring toxic fungus called ergot. And I call it the moldy bread theory. And the important piece here is that when LSD was discovered, it was derived from ergot. So that sort of lends itself to explaining all these visions, hallucinations, and the sensations.

Sam: We talked about the history of lysergic acid diethylamide — or LSD — and other psychedelic use in an episode of Tiny Matters earlier this year, if you want to deep dive on that. But in the case of the Salem witch trials, you’re probably wondering where this possible LSD connection came from in the first place.

Margo Burns: When I ask people how they know about this and they give me some kind of answer, I must have read it. I must have seen it on TV. I decided I wanted to find out everything I could about this. Most people who'd sort of looked into it a little bit knew about an article in Science Magazine in 1976 by Linnda Caporael.

Sam: As an undergraduate, Linnda took a course on colonial American women and was assigned a paper on the girls who kicked off the Salem witch trials. Being a science major, Linnda began wondering if there could be a scientific explanation for why the girls reported seeing these visions and feeling like the specters of the women they were accusing were harming them.

Linnda started thinking about what could have been in the environment at that time. Remember, this was the 1970s. The Environmental Protection Agency had just been created and it was becoming increasingly clear that environmental toxins have a huge impact on human health.

Margo Burns: In talking to a medical student that she knew, he reminded her about LSD and ergot, and she said, hmm. So her hypothesis was that the girls could have been consuming bread that was made from rye that was tainted with this naturally occurring fungus ergot.

So she went out and looked at everything she could to see if she would find things that would support this explanation.

Deboki: So after establishing some degree of similarity between the girls’ symptoms and a bad LSD trip, Linnda looked into how ergot grows. She found that the fungus flourishes in marshy areas during hot weather. Based on diary entries from that time, the weather conditions could have been right for ergot to grow. Then Linnda started looking at maps of the area where the girls making these accusations lived.

Margo Burns: And she noticed that the accusers were in a part on the map that was near a river. So she's got the weather and the conditions that are perfect for growing ergot on things. So she's saying, okay, all the stuff fits. And so her results were: It's possible. Now those of us who do a little bit of science know that just because it's possible doesn't mean that it really did happen.

She wrote that as an undergraduate paper, passed it in. The teacher was less than impressed. Next year she goes into a graduate program at UC Santa Barbara. At that point, somebody said, you know that paper you wrote last year, you should try and get it published. So she decided to send it to Science Magazine, and she told me that one of her professors said that there's no way they're going to publish that.

Deboki: But they did publish it. And it blew up. It was all over the front pages of newspapers and people really latched onto the idea. Even though there were scientists who came forward and refuted the paper point by point, Linnda’s theory stuck.

Margo Burns: Could this have happened? She couldn't eliminate it, but does it explain the Salem witchcraft trials? It's a single bullet theory. The other part of this is that, if so, we only are having evidence from the first teenage girls who were making this claim, and that generally got the authorities to go out and start arresting people and interrogating them and putting them in jail. The problem is there were over 150 people who were ultimately arrested, and they were arrested in all sorts of towns up and down through Massachusetts and into Maine. And they weren't necessarily always being accused by this small set of so-called afflicted girls.

Sam: Margo told us that, more likely, the afflicted people accusing women of being witches already had some sort of conflict or issue with them. And, ultimately, a person’s reputation within Salem played a huge role in whether or not they were accused.  

Margo Burns: If you ask me what's to blame for the Salem witchcraft trials, it was the credulity of the magistrates who are arresting these people, who are putting them in jail, putting them on trial. And the chief magistrate, William Stoughton, actually really promoted this to the point that my own ancestor, Rebecca Nurse, was found not guilty by the jury, and he sent them back twice until they came up with a guilty verdict.

Sam: William Stoughton was a notoriously harsh Puritan magistrate, a judge in the Salem witchcraft trials who allowed for reports of specters to be considered legal evidence.

But there was also an event before the Salem trials that could have planted the seed.

Margo Burns: A few years before the Salem witchcraft trials erupted, there was a case in Boston where a man whose children started behaving bizarrely — again, we got this idea of children behaving bizarrely — and it was interpreted that they had been afflicted. Reverend Cotton Mather had gone in to investigate. Because when these things happen, once you say, well, maybe it was witches, you would get doctors and you would get clergy coming in. And Cotton Mather had examined the Goodwin children, and they finally came up with somebody to accuse of witchcraft. And that was Goodie Glover. She was the mother of an Irish washerwoman, and they managed to convict her. She couldn't say the Lord's Prayer in English. Well, Gaelic was her native language. So there were a lot of tests they would put people through, and this older woman, Goodie Glover, was convicted of witchcraft with the help of Cotton Mather's assessment of it. And she was executed. And even more, Cotton Mather wrote about it and published the story.

So it was already in people's mind that these were the kinds of afflictions, and they'd already been somebody who'd been convicted and executed for witchcraft based on that. So Cotton Mather's book really set the stage for credulity and all of these things in Salem Village and beyond.

So do I think that these accusations by teenage girls caused it? It may have given a little spark, but you really want to know what caused the trials to run as they did? It's the adults, it's the parents, it's the ministers, it's the doctor, it's the judges. They all took that information and interpreted it as witchcraft and witchcraft was a capital crime. So they followed through on all of it.

Deboki: So next time someone tells you ergot caused the Salem witch trials tell them it’s highly, highly unlikely. The evidence points to a whole lot more than moldy bread.

In July, 2022, the final remaining person convicted during the trials had their name cleared. It was actually a middle school class in North Andover, Massachusetts who brought the case to the Massachusetts legislature. The remaining person was Elizabeth Johnson Jr. She was convicted in 1693 and sentenced to death. She fortunately avoided the death penalty but it took 329 years for her to be officially exonerated.

Sam: Three hundred twenty nine years. That is a long time… typically. But in the context of our next story, not so much. We’re heading to ancient Egypt a cool, uh, 5,000 plus years ago.

Salima Ikram: They had a very firm belief in life after death. And so they thought that once you died, you would be reborn in your own body, basically, except a very good version of it.

Deboki: That’s Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at The American University in Cairo who has worked as an archaeologist all over the world.

Salima Ikram: So they came up with the idea of mummification because it preserved the body, and therefore your soul could re-enter it, it could reanimate it, and you could have a fantastic time in the afterlife.

Sam with Salima Ikram: And when you say you could be even better in the afterlife, what do you mean? Were there certain things that were done so that you would come back and be wealthier, come back and be happier, better in some way?

Salima Ikram: Absolutely. I was just talking about your physical self because what you put into your tomb, of course, often are things that you might not have had every day or the drawings on the wall of the tomb portray what you would like to have in an ideal life every day. It's a bit like many people's curated lives on Facebook or Instagram. They look as if they never had anything bad happen to them and never a pimple marred their face. And the ancient Egyptians basically were the ones who invented that.

So there were fake eyes put in, false hair, makeup. So you really looked your best or what was conceived as the ideal at that time for the afterlife.

Deboki: Salima first fell in love with mummies as a kid and then again when she was working at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Salima Ikram: There was an animal mummy room in the Cairo Museum and it needed a bit of refreshing, and it had been one of my favorite rooms when I was a kid. And so I went back there and I started to work on mummies all over again. They're so fascinating because this is a chance we actually have to be with the ancient Egyptians and to be with their landscape and their animals.

So it's an unique opportunity to get to know them a bit better, to have a certain kind of relationship that only objects will never give you. And this is a way of learning more about people, what they did, what jobs they might've had, what diseases they might have suffered from, and you can really flesh out a life for them. I think that’s also one of the loveliest things about studying mummies. It's really cool because there's all the science, but there's also all of the humanity. And I, of course, really just love the ancient Egyptians. So for me, it's being with them on a daily basis, and that's what’s a treat.

Deboki: The practice of mummification in ancient Egypt is thought to have started around 5,000 years ago, in 3,000 BCE or “before the common era,” which is often also referred to as just BC. And mummification rituals lasted for over 3,000 years in ancient Egypt, petering out around the first century. And over those thousands of years, what mummification looked like evolved. It was dependent on the time period, which we will talk about more in a moment, but also who prepared your body and how much money you had.

Salima Ikram: Different embalming houses had different recipes. And of course, it depended on how rich or poor you were, as well as your own personal taste. So nowadays, you don't always go for the oak coffin with the silk interior because you can't afford it, even if you want it. It would've been the same for the ancient Egyptians.

Sam: So, how do we know how old mummies are? Salima told us that aspects of the texts or pottery or artwork in the tomb can help indicate the age of a mummy, unless the grave has been disturbed.

Salima Ikram: Sometimes what the Egyptians did was they said, this is a nice tomb, let's use it for all of our family. And then they would take people out of their coffins and move them aside and sometimes even reuse the coffins. So you would wind up having all these mummies in the burial chamber, probably from the same family, not always, but over a period of a hundred years.

Deboki: Another way then to determine age is radioactive carbon dating, also known as carbon-14 dating, which relies on the amount of radioactive carbon in tissue. Because carbon-14 decays at a constant rate, you can use the amount of radiocarbon left in the tissue to estimate the year an organism died. But materials used to preserve the mummy, like resins, can be older than the mummy itself, and that can complicate things.

Salima Ikram: Unless you get every bit of resin off, you might get someone who is buried in 500 BC dating to 2,500 BC. So we do rely a lot on style as well as context. And then obviously if you're going for carbon-14 from something that's like a tooth or something that doesn't have any resin on it, then you have a better chance at using that as a tool for dating.

Sam with Salima Ikram: Is there anything that when you first learned about how people were mummified, you thought, wow, that is incredible that they came up with that 3,000 years ago or however long ago?

Salima Ikram: Well, I mean, I find mummification completely fascinating. And also the more I study it, the less I feel I know, because there's always a new surprise, a new twist.

Deboki: Salima told us that she’s particularly fascinated by Old Kingdom of Egypt mummies which would be from around 2,700 to 2,200 BCE, because you see what she calls “grand experimentation.” Sometimes they would cover the body in plaster, but the heat of the plaster would melt the mummy’s flesh… which was not ideal. So then they’d try other things like linen, and then even add fake eyebrows or mustaches.

The Old Kingdom had a few different mummification styles but none were what you'd call classic mummification because they did not eviscerate people. That began after 2,000 BCE.

Sam: Salima told us that the ideal mummies, which include many of the royal mummies of the 18th Dynasty — from around 1500 BCE — into the 21st Dynasty, which was around 1,000 BCE, are in such incredible condition because their lungs, liver, intestines and stomach were removed, as well as their brains. All of their insides were then washed out with palm wine made from sap, and then dried out by being stuffed with little packets of natron, which is a mix of mainly sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate.

Deboki: Natron also pulls fat cells out of tissues. So to make the mummies look a bit more plump and lifelike, Salima told us the ancient Egyptians would stuff their cheeks or make incisions in the arms and legs, and fill them with sawdust. Embalming materials were applied to the mummies to form a water-resistant seal and keep away insects and bacteria. These included things like beeswax, a petroleum-based mixed called bitumen, and viscous, sticky resins that often came from trees. Some resins would leave a gold hue.

Salima Ikram: And of course, what a mummy is doing is you're changing from being a human being into a divine being, and this transformation is physically manifested by this anointment where you become like the gods whose flesh is of gold. And then in some later periods, you would also get the mummies turned much more blackened. The oils and resin turn into this black color, which evokes the God of Osiris, because his flesh was either green or black because he was the land of Egypt. And after all the wrapping and so on is done, and amulets are put in, you're in your coffin and off you go.

And most mummies, they look like they're asleep, but the ones from the 21st Dynasty, they sort of are looking at you, which is most unnerving, but you do really then expect them to start speaking to you.

Deboki: Salima had some incredible stories about archaeological finds. For instance, she was working with a Sudan road survey team to do quick excavations ahead of a road that was being built. They needed to uncover and save anything that might be buried by the new road, including mummies.

Salima Ikram: I remember opening up a grave and it was extraordinary because I thought, I'm going to be the first person to touch the blocking stone since it was put into place. And I removed it and I put my head in, and you could still smell the incense that had been burnt at the funerary rituals. The body had been on a bed and was laid out. And it was just so extraordinarily poignant because suddenly the time between the burial and the time between the discovery had vanished, and one felt so in touch and in contact with this person and their poor family.

Sam with Salima Ikram: And about how old do you think that tomb was?

Salima Ikram: Oh, that was only about 500, 400 BC, so 2,500 years ago.

Sam with Salima Ikram: It's so funny that you say only, but yes.

Salima Ikram: The cutest mummy that I have ever, ever had the joy to encounter was an animal mummy. And that was when we found a bunch of these little packets and animals were mummified and given as offerings to the different gods. And this was a teeny weeny packet. I thought, what is it? And luckily it was disintegrating so badly that I could remove the dust and some of the bandages. And inside on a little bed of textile, there was nestled this tiny, sweet, adorable shrew that was all curled up, and you could see the fur and everything was perfectly preserved.

Sam: Over the millennia, mummies have been treated in a number of ways. They’ve been revered. But they’ve also been ground up and sold as a medicine or turned into a brown paint called mummy brown. They have been studied for medical insight but also been destroyed in unwrapping parties, which were popular in Victorian times, thrown by the wealthy, white societal elite.

Deboki: And Salima reminds us that even in ancient Egypt, often a few months after death, tombs might be respectfully reused or even completely pillaged. It feels pretty obvious that we should not turn mummies into paint or unwrap them for sport, but there’s also a more complex conversation happening about whether or not we should even be putting mummies on display. So we asked Salima for her take on things.  

Salima Ikram: I think that they should be treated with respect, but I don't think they should be hidden away. I think that they should be put on display, but in a decent way with a covering of some sort. You can see their faces, why not? I think this is what helps people connect with their past. And I don't think they should be turned into something scary. I mean, for Halloween, one will have that no matter what. You know it's like this desire to separate yourself from death — it's going to happen. The ancient Egyptians embraced it. We should embrace it too. And I think that as long as one treats mummified remains with respect, then they can be put on display in museums respectfully, as long as there's an explanation as to why you're doing that, what you can learn from it, and a way of commitment of education between those who are viewing the mummies and the people who are putting them on display.

Sam: We hope you all have a wonderful Halloween and maybe even share a science story or two that you learned from today’s episode.

Time for a Tiny Show and Tell. I feel like I'm first this time.

Deboki: I think so. That sounds right.

Sam: So today, my Tiny Show and Tell is about a new prediction by researchers, which is that up to 92% of Earth could be uninhabitable to mammals in 250 million years. I'm not here to be a bummer, I actually find the reasoning behind this prediction very fascinating. So Earth, unknown to me, is currently thought to be in the middle of a super continent cycle. So the last super continent was Pangaea, which I feel like we all learned about in school, that massive combo continent is how I think of it. And it broke apart about 200 million years ago. The one that is predicted to be 250 million years from now has been named Pangea Ultima, and is expected to form at the equator. So the Atlantic will shrink, and Africa and Europe and Asia will combine with the Americas. So this will obviously drive a lot of volcanic activity, volcanic activity leads to tons of carbon, mostly carbon dioxide, being spewed into the atmosphere, and a lot of species, including mammals, cannot survive that.

So it's fair to say this is of course a bit depressing, but I do think this idea of Pangaea Ultima and this cyclical movement of our continents is really interesting. I don't know why I thought you have Pangaea and then you have this break and then the continents move. And even though I know that the continents are always moving because we have volcanic activity and earthquakes and all of that, I just didn't really think, oh, we could end up with another Pangaea one day.

Deboki: Yeah, that's so wild. That's super cool. It's also, like you said, a little bit depressing. To be honest, it was a little bit less depressing than I thought, because I was expecting it to be another like, oh, we messed up the environment again. But it was like, oh, no, no, no. The environment is also a function of many, many things and we are just one of those big things.

Sam: Right. I mean, also it's like this isn't to say that we won't have wiped out mammals way before this ever happens, anyway.

Deboki: So for my Tiny Show and Tell, this is actually a follow-up on our flu episode because I saw this article and it was like, oh, this is interesting. So I thought I would bring it to the Tiny Show and Tell in case anyone wanted to kind of follow up on some of the stuff we talked about in the flu episode. So this is an article in Undark called The Race to Protect Endangered Condors Against Deadly Bird Flu. We talked a little bit about bird flu vaccines, and we also mentioned that they're kind of difficult to implement for a lot of reasons. And so if you're curious about the application of bird flu vaccines in a specific context and how scientists go about dealing with the fact that you're trying to vaccinate a wild population of birds, this is a really interesting article.

Basically, biologists in Arizona, they realized that the condor population, which is endangered, was also starting to get pretty sick with bird flu. They saw one condor, they thought at first it was lead exposure because apparently that's a common issue for condors if they're eating animals that were killed by lead bullets. But eventually the scientists realized that actually, no, this was bird flu and it was taking out a really, really big chunk of the California condor population in Arizona and Utah. But it's also just really complicated to be able to know, are we going to be able to give this vaccine to the birds? Is it going to be safe for them? So this article talks more about how they went about making sure that they could give the vaccine to the condors and also more about how they actually go about doing it. And I just really thought it was an interesting article and I hope the condors are okay.

Sam: Yeah. Yeah, same. Thanks Deboki.

Deboki: Thanks for tuning in to this week’s episode of Tiny Matters, a production of the American Chemical Society. This week’s script was written by Sam, who is also our executive producer, and was edited by me and by Michael David. It was fact-checked by Michelle Boucher. The Tiny Matters theme and episode sound design are by Michael Simonelli and the Charts & Leisure team.

Sam: Thanks so much to Margo Burns and Salima Ikram. If you have not rated and reviewed Tiny Matters, please do! We’re trying to grow and that really, really helps us. If you want another way to support the show and look really cool drinking your morning cup of coffee, tea, juice, whatever, we have left a link to our Tiny Matters coffee mug. You can find me on social at samjscience.

Deboki: And you can find me at okidokiboki. See you next time.