December 1692
Salem, Massachusetts.

The tension in the courtroom is so thick, it could be cut with a knife. The crowd stands ready with the stones, baying for blood. Are they united, in their hatred or fear? Alas, I cannot pen down emotions as well as I pen the letters.

His Honour repeatedly taps me against the paper he is about to sign…the constant movement is perturbing…they say a pen is mightier than a sword. I believe it. I occupy the place of pride at the judge’s table. One stroke by me on paper can either mean acquittal or conviction.

Today’s is the third case in this month. The evidence against her is mounting strong with every testimony. She is standing in the box trembling like a leaf. Wearing a white pinafore over a black corset, she has covered her hands with old gloves, probably to make a good impression on jury. Her coffee coloured skin, however indicates her mixed heritage..it will certainly work against her..

Over the last few months, young women from various parts of country are being accused and executed for practicing the witchcraft. I have seen them as young as sixteen and as old as forty. Neither master nor myself were fully convinced of the crime; but we are helpless.

I pause my pondering as the prosecutor opens the trial….

“Your honour and the jury, Ms Bahati John is in service at the Parris household. She does the cooking, cleaning and looks after their two little girls aged seven and nine. Two days ago, the girls saw Miss Bahati chanting nonsensical words to an invisible entity. (I gasped and so did the crowd)

Realising, she was caught in the act. Bahati fed them a bread she had hexed and sent them away to their chambers.

The girls started behaving strangely since then. Both got delirious and fell gravely ill. Last night, both the girls had convulsions. One of the girls had a moment of clarity after the fit and told her mother that they fell sick after eating the funny tasting bread Bahati fed them. She also told her mother that Bahati was chanting something when they visited her room. A clear case of witchcraft, your honour…

I call upon Mrs. Allure Samuel Parris, the mother of the ailing kids as a witness.”

Mrs. Samuel is a stout lady. She arrives in the witness stand, wringing her hands and narrates her account.”

“Miss Bahati has been in our service since the last year. I have seen her storing strange things in her cupboard and reprimanded her from time to time. Two days ago, the girls raided her cupboard and found some strange looking coloured stones and a star. The girls asked about it and Bahati knew her game was up. She hexed my girls.” Mrs. Parris was inconsolable.

The audience stared at the accused. Some started chanting…witch…witch…

Desperate to escape her fate, Bahati pleaded “Please, I mean no harm to young mistresses. The cupboard contain my memories from my land. My mother things. The bread, it is rye bread I stored in cupboard. I eat it when I am still hungry and Mistress no give me food….I gave because girls wanted taste.”

The prosecutor pounced on the statement.

“So you accept, you fed the tainted bread to the girls. You accept you had the bread.”

“Me…I…”

“Your honour, her belongings were confiscated as evidence in the trial. They are presented as evidence A on the table.”

I glanced at the tray. Some strange roots, a wooden star, a loaf of bread. The bread looks strange though…darker than usual…and those spots on it…

I heard the jury discussing. The decision was going to be unanimous.

********

And she entered the door. So mesmerising were her looks, I stood suspended on the paper, drooling ink at her sight. Her glance swept the courtroom…her eyes were as green as moss. Auburn tresses were untamed, touching her slender waist. Her mouth was full.

Directing her gaze at his honour, she began “I am Jade Goody, I am employed as a nurse in St.Pious infirmary in the neighbouring village. I heard of this trial at the Village Inn. I would like to give a testimony as an expert witness and represent Miss Bahati as defendant.

Several people moved restlessly. Mr. prosecutor regained his voice.

“You cannot barge in an ongoing trial Miss Goody. The accused has admitted to feeding tainted bread to the girls. The evidence of witchcraft was recovered from her belongings.”

” Mr. Prosecutor, I respect the court proceedings as much as you do. But at the same time, I know that lordship and the jury agree that an innocent life is more valuable than the minor breaches in the court decorum. In fact, I have been travelling from village to village since last two moons, trying to present facts and save innocent lives who would be otherwise convicted and punished as witches.

The jury granted her permission.

She smiled charmingly. “I would like to present the same table A as evidence for my case.”

She carefully approached Bahati and touched her hand. Bahati flinched as if slapped.

“Miss Bahati, do not worry. Just answer honestly.” Her voice was kind but strong.

“Are you a maid in Parris household Bahati? Since how long have you been working for them? How much do they pay you?”

“I a slave. I was bought by Mr. Samuel from my husband John year back. I no paid.”

“So Bahati, you have no money?”

As Bahati shook her head in denial, I looked at the judge. He was frowning and looking at Miss Jade curiously…

“Tell me about the possessions that are recovered from your cupboard..What are those?.”

The star is me gift from Mama. Me mama a healer in me home. She give me the star as her memory.”

“What do you do with the star Bahati?”

When I have to go hungry, me clutch the star and cry.”

“Do you stay in servant quarters?”

“I live in the small back room.”

“What are those roots you stored in cupboard?”

Those be herbs, mama gave me for my…monthly curse. For pain. I powder them and drink in water”

Mr. prosecutor, I would like to ask Mrs. Parris a few questions…

************

” In a year, she stayed with you has she ever been caught performing black magic or hexes?”

“No..But….”

” Did you know about the herbs she possessed?”

” Yes, I did.”

” But you never told anyone before?” Jade asked.

” Well…”

” Well, you didn’t want to lose your slave to witch hunting rumours. Also, it kept her occupied when she was in pain, saving your trip to infirmary…Is that right?”

“But that is immaterial now. Miss Bahati has admitted to feeding the girls the bread.” roared the prosecutor…

“Aah, yes the bread…Miss Jade smiled again.”

“Mrs. Parris, Miss Bahati John was your slave. How did she manage to buy the bread? I assume you did not pay her wages…”

Mrs. Parris was quiet.

“Answer the question Mrs. Parris…” The jury member said.

Mrs. Parris fidgeted with her sleeves.

“Two months ago, me forgot to wash Mrs. Parris’s clothes. She beat me bad. After, she give me bread so I feel good.” Whispered Bahati.

“So Mrs. Parris, you beat your slave black and blue and then gave her some stale bread as compensation?”

“How does it matter madam? The girls fell sick after she fed them the bread. Before that she was talking to someone no one can see. It is enough proof.”

“Your honour, I request you to look at the bread in exhibit closely. Exhibit A you say?

I present exhibit B and C; B has fresh rye bread. Exhibit C, stale rye bread, one month old..which I carry with me..

I snuck a peek. Exhibit A and Exhibit C looked similar. Same darker shade, and mottled black spots…fresh bread looked lighter.

“What is your point?” Prosecutor was restless…

” Your honour, the bread in Exhibit A and C is the culprit, not Bahati.”

“Stale rye breads stored in closed cupboards for long time are infected by a poisonous fungus called ergot. If consumed in sufficient quantities, it can cause hallucinations, vomiting, and fits…Miss Bahati has been unknowingly eating this infected bread since two months whenever she starves. She probably has chronic ergot poisoning and hence was hallucinating and talking alone when kids found her. In trance, she may have fed the bread to the girls which they tasted out of curiosity and fell sick. Fever, delirium and fits are the acute side effects of ergot poisoning.”

“This is preposterous and completely circumstantial my lord…how can you be sure she has not hexed the kids?” prosecutor jumped…

“Your honour, we had a patient in our infirmary with complaints similar to the Parris’ kids. Luckily, his wife gave history of him living off the stale bread as he was travelling. Our physician Dr Chanterley studied the bread and diagnosed this condition as “Convulsive Ergotism.” He deduced that people exhibiting similar symptoms were wrongly accused of witchcraft and sent to gallows.

Since then, he along with his few trusted staff have been trying to travel to towns near Massachusetts and create awareness regarding the condition. I am carrying the piece of bread with me for evidence. Here.

Also, these are our patient’s case papers and this is reference to the past literature. The hallmark of chronic Ergot poisoning is blackening or bruising of finger tips.”

“Bahati, can you please remove your gloves..

The jury turned to Bahati as one and craned their necks to see her hands.

We all gasped in Unison. Her fingers were black as soot.

“But she does not appear demented now..” A jury member remarked.

“Your honour, the severity and duration of poisonings differ in different people. The kids are hit the hardest and take longest to recover. The adults have intermittent episodes of delirium…She might have had acute pain episodes initially which Mrs. Parris did not notice.”

“What is more, I am carrying antidote for the fungus. I can administer the same to the kids and Miss Bahati. If the kids and her fingers get better tomorrow, my claim stands true. Otherwise, you can convict me along with her.”

**************

Next day

The court was waiting anxiously for an update from the Parris house. Miss Jade sat in the front row, with Sheriff.

Mr. Samuel Parris walked up the courtroom in the morning. His face reddened as he answered, “The kids are better. No fever and no headache. No fits too. In fact, they had a bowl of soup this morning.”

Bahati’s hands were still black but the lesions were smaller than yesterday.

The jury gave the verdict.

“We are thankful for Miss Jade Goody’s testimony and evidence. Miss Bahati is cleared of charges.

I was immensely satisfied as the judge signed the verdict.

I heard his honour whisper a message to orderly. “Retain Miss Jade till the room is empty. I want to ascertain some facts off paper.”

The orderly never found her. A jury member said, he saw her slip out of crowd with Bahati, who was also never seen again.

The judge made me scribe a letter to St. Pious infirmary with a token of thanks.

Dr. Chanterley’s reply came three weeks later. The Judge read it to the stunned jury.

Your Honour,

The contents of your letter have left me flummoxed. I do believe the symptoms of Miss Bahati were caused by ergot poisoning. I was in fact, planning to dispatch a batch of nurses with my case papers to various towns to dispel the witch theory. But no nurse named Jade works at the infirmary. I have no idea who testified at The Witch Trial of Salem. Also, there is no antidote to Ergot poisoning.

Yours Sincerely
Dr. Wilcox Chanterley.

**************************

Author’s Note :

In the years 1962-1963, around 200 people of both genders were convicted of practising witchcraft in the town of Salem and surrounding neighborhoods. Mass hysteria followed and the witch trials and witch hunts began. These hunts spread throughout the Colonial America.

Around 20 people were persecuted as witches and were stoned to death or were punished to death by hanging.

People with mental illnesses, diseases of brain, like epilepsy were an easy prey to the mass hysteria.

Many years later, it was universally accepted that the so called witch symptoms were actually manifestations of poisonings, metabolic diseases or mental illness.

One of the possible explanations for the symptoms was poisoning by Claviceps Purpurea, a fungus infesting Rye Bread. This fungus is used in manufacture of LSD. Thus, the individuals mostly were cases of accidental poisoning tripping on the hallucinogens similar to LSD.

This story is a highly fictionalized account of one such incident.

Links :

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salem_witchcraft_trial

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betty_Parris

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ergotism

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Written by Pallavi Sawant Uttekar

Pallavi Sawant is a passionate reader, fabulous cook, Full time doctor, part time mother and night time writer.