10/18/2012 11:51 am ET

How A Bad Rye Crop Might Have Caused The Salem Witch Trials

Wikimedia: Joseph Baker/Lise Broer

By the autumn of 1692, nineteen men and women accused of witchcraft had been hanged in Salem Village, an 80-year-old farmer had been pressed to death under a pile of rocks, and four more would be executed in the months to come. Historians have tried for centuries to explain how a tight-laced Puritan village was consumed by a witch hunt -- mental illness, an eruption of repressed Freudian psychosis, and even the existence of actual witchcraft have all been hypothesized. But one undergrad came up with a much more tangible explanation in the 1970s: the Salem Witch Trials might have been caused by a rotten crop of rye.