Superstition and disease

The current furor over the Ebola outbreak prompted me to consider the role of disease in the past. During the Middle ages there was no conception of the role bacteria and viruses play in the transmission of disease so everything was ascribed to God, the Devil, or witchcraft. The birth of a deformed calf, destruction of crops, soured milk or ale or an outbreak of some disease could mean a witch had set a curse. As I mentioned in a previous post, witch hunts continued in the United States until the middle of the 1800s. (And belief in the supernatural did not end then. There was tremendous interest in spiritualism, attracting no lesser a personage than Arthur Conan Doyle, and belief in fairies encouraged by faked photographs. But I digress.) Paradoxically, it is believed that some of the worst incidents of witch hunts and trials were magnified by poor harvest (so people were hungry and scared) and by the growth of ergot on the grains (so people were also tripping). Talk about a perfect storm.

I suspect Granny medicine – the old wise women who knew treatments from trial and error – like that certain kinds of mold could cure infection also played a part in tarring these women with the taint of witchcraft.

A host of measures to counter spells were in use. Some of the measures employed to keep a witch out of a house: storing apples (really!), a bag of salt under the master bed, a horseshoe or a clove of garlic hung over each entrance. Of course, if a spell was cast upon you, you had to employ certain methods to counteract that spell. To counteract a spell one would put seven drops of vegetable oil in a dish of water with some iron and rub the outside of the dish clockwise for three minutes. Doing so seven days would completely break the spell.

Of course such treatments had no effect on diseases. Diptheria, cholera, smallpox, the list of diseases is long. Smallpox, although us moderns have never seen a case, has been around so long scientists are not sure when it began. The theory is, though, that this disease also came out of Africa (like Ebola) and spread via trade routes.. Mummies with smallpox scars have been found in Egyptian tombs so it has been around for millennia. By my character, Will Rees’s time, advances in treating disease were beginning. At the beginning of the 1700s, vaccination as a treatment for smallpox was spreading. ( Live smallpox virus from an infected person was used – Yipes!!) The death rate for vaccination was 2%, unvaccinated and infected naturally = 14%. Edward Jenner, an orphan, was vaccinated as a boy. He had heard tales that dairymaids infected with cowpox never got smallpox. A few experiments later and in 1796 vaccination with cowpox as a treatment for smallpox was born. Rees would have seen many people with the characteristic round scars left by smallpox.

Except for some vials that are in storage, smallpox has been eradicated. I suspect Ebola will be also, eventually.

Saddest day of the year

I love the fall. In my opinion, it is the most beautiful of all the seasons.

But I hate taking down the garden. still, it has to be done. We are beginning to see frost at night. The cucumber plants all died and the tomatoes are starting to exhibit dead leaves, curled in the characteristic ‘I am too cold” manner.

So I picked all the green tomatoes and brought them into the house to ripen. All the pepper plants and beans are gone. I left one tomato plant that is gamely trying to survive and flower, the broccoli – I think we might have a late harvest -, the turnips and the swiss chard. Even they will have to be cut down in a few weeks. The compost will be spread on the ground and the whole thing covered with black plastic for the winter.

empty garden

everything but broccoli and swiss chard are gone.

A word about the beans. I love green beans and always plant a lot of them. Beans are the plant that keep on giving. This year, somehow, I ended up with pole beans and they really keep giving. I cannot even guess how many pounds I froze. Anyway, I have always planted the bush variety. And after seeing the stalks on the pole beans I have a whole new feeling about Jack and the Beanstalk. The little tendrils that clung to the fence, the strings, the poles, thickened into strong green vines. I had to cut them off the supports. I now believe that if a bean plant grew that tall, the stalks would indeed support a giant.


Salem, witchcraft and religious freedom

A visit to Salem offers numerous opportunities to see dramatizations of the witch hysteria.


Numerous theories have been put forth to explain this frenzy, including one I mentioned in an earlier post – ergot.

However, I think it important to remember that the Puritans who came here for religious freedom, came out of a history of witch trials. In Europe there were recurring trials and burnings. Some of these outbursts seemed to have roots in ordinary human nature – heirs who accused a wealthy widow to obtain property for example. But the strong religious fervor clearly played a large part. One only has to look at the Spanish Inquisition to see to what lengths men will sink, convincing themselves all the way that they are operating for some higher purpose.

And magic was already a part of the culture. Witch balls, glass balls with elaborate designs inside to capture the witch’s essence, had been in use in Britain for years. I mentioned the witch cake in a previous post. But there was also other beliefs. an egg dropped in a glass of water could help determine one’s future husband. Dried apple faces were used to keep away evil spirits. An ear of corn on a woman’s belly as she gave birth would protect her and the baby.  The effect of spells could be lessened by dry apple seeds. Of, if one was in the woods, witches could be frightened away by the clacking to two sticks together. And so on.


witch ball

So the residents of Salem were already primed to believe in the existence of witches. When Tituba recounted stories and spells from her religion to the girls, they took root and helped inspire the hysteria.

Witch hunts and trials continued in the United States until well into the 1800s.


One last comment: I don’t think we can sneer at these poor superstitious fools from this earlier time – not when shows such as Ghost Hunter on the SYFY channel are so popular.

The witches of Salem

October is an appropriate time to discuss this part of our nation’s past. In fact, when people think of Salem, they think of the witch trials in 1692. Salem has a much longer and interesting history. My character, Will Rees, visits Salem slightly more than one hundred years later. But the memory of those trials and the witches are present in physical reminders even today.

First, I want to note that reparations were made to the families in the early 1700’s. This does not mean that belief in witches and witchcraft ended. It did not. Accusations and trials continued to the early 1800’s. Mother Ann Lee, the spiritual force behind the Shakers, was arrested on a charge of blasphemy in the 1780’s and could have been hung as a witch. However, it was upstate New York, and almost exactly one hundred years later and she was eventually released.

What happened in Salem?

Well, it is believed the witch hysteria began in the household of Reverend Samuel Parris. A slave called Tituba told stories of her religion which featured voodoo and folk magic to the girls in the  household. One of the practices was the baking of a Witch Cake (one of the ingredients being the urine of the girls – yuck) that was then fed to a dog. Another ingredient was rye.

Since a fungus grows on rye during wet conditions and that fungus produces a toxin that is similar to LSD, rye has been implicated in not only the witch hysteria here but in Europe as well. Perhaps I am looking at it from the perspective of a twenty-first century woman but my first question when I was going on the tours was why these so called responsible adults were listening to a bunch to teenage girls. I’d be instantly suspicious I can tell you.

In any event, before it was over, 150 people were imprisoned and 19 people – and two dogs- were hanged. One man, Giles Corey, was pressed to death. He cursed all future Sheriffs of Salem to die of some chest (respiratory) illness. Apparently most have, but in an era without antibiotics (forget about good hygiene or healthy food) I don’t think that is surprising.IMG_2520 IMG_2555

Salem offers a number of dioramas and costumed reenactments of this period.

Salem, Past and Present

One of the things I like to do when researching a book is visit the location where it is set. I did that with Salem when I was writing Death in Salem.

death in salem









I like getting the feel of the place and a sense of the geography.

Salem is a good place to research since they have kept a lot of their past. Not all of it but enough. And a number of reminders of Salem’s past. and the past of the United States, are still present. The Burying Point, the cemetery, is there. I like that you can still visit this place and see the headstones from the distant past.

Not the accused witches, however. Witches were not allowed to be buried in consecrated ground so  were dumped. Families, although forbidden to do so, frequently found the bodies and buried them properly. This meant a great deal in this religious past. But the burying point does have memorials to these men and women. (even two dogs were accused and executed!)









The witch trials are well remembered and some of the houses were built in that time, 400 years ago.







Salem still has many houses from the period of the merchantmen also. Below is the Derby house, built within sight of Derby wharf. Although there are many fine houses on the waterfront, a short walk to Chestnut Street reveals a block of beautiful houses, many from the late 1700’s.


As the merchantmen grew wealthy, they built houses on Chestnut Street. And many of these houses are still occupied.

Although the 1790’s are not ancient compared to Europe and their long history, for these United States it represents the early part of our history and so I find it exciting.


I’ve set up pages for both A Simple Murder and Death of a Dyer and have started thinking about Cradle to grave. I want to add pictures of various types that represent the book. Most of them have played a part in my research and I’ve based my descriptions upon them. They are listed under Eleanor Kuhns A Simple Murder and Eleanor Kuhns Death of a Dyer.

Salem Merchantmen


In 1797 Salem was the wealthiest city in the new United States and the sixth largest city. The customs duties were basically supporting the new Federal government.Salem had always been a whaling city, along with New Bedford and Nantucket. And whaling continued. But, once the restrictions on shipping with the Orient were removed (as long as we were a colony of Great Britain, they called the shots) the merchants of Salem headed out to open new markets. And, in 1783, the Grand Turk brought back a cargo of pepper from Sumatra and earned a profit of 700%.

That is not a typo. It was 700%.

So even the cabin boys who signed on to the ships carried something they could trade. If they survived, for this was a dangerous profession, they could earn enough to begin investing in other ships. As a consequence, vast fortunes were made.

Some of the captains were barely in their twenties.

The wharves, of which only a few remain, were bustling with warehouses and imports of exotic fruit, opium, tea, textiles – you name it. (The Derby wharf, shorter than it was during the 1790s is home to the Friendship – the reproduction of a merchantship, and the Union wharf, now called the Pickering)  Salem became one of the first truly cosmopolitan cities, a fact often forgotten in the fascination with the witchcraft trials, and home to one of the first East Indian immigrant populations.

Derby wharf and Friendship with a sample of a warehouse

Derby wharf and Friendship with a sample of a warehouse