Laurie Winn Carlson offers an innovative explanation for the madness behind the Salem Witch Trials.
Members of nearly every major school of historical analysis have taken a crack at explaining the Salem witch trials, from Freudian scholars (who posit mass hysteria) to Marxists (class conflict over property), from feminists (hatred of women) to more ecologically minded historians (a hallucinogenic ergot fungus on grain). In this innovative new study, an independent scholar focuses on the physical symptoms of "possession"--convulsions, hallucinations, distorted language, paralysis--which are precisely congruent with those of encephalitis lethargica. Carlson (On Sidesaddles to Heaven) supports her case with an impressive array of sources, including legal records of the trials, accounts of Puritan religious and medical beliefs, histories of witchcraft and of mental illness, scientific studies of plagues and Oliver Sacks's Awakenings (which dealt with the victims of the encephalitis epidemic of 1916-30). She never "explains" the event in its entirety, leaving open the possibility of further analysis of the public, religious and legal response to these phenomena. Discussing other possible historical and cultural ramifications of encephalitis symptoms, Carlson provocatively suggests that the disease may have inspired the Sleeping Beauty folk tale and been at the root of some Christian mystical experiences. While her use of radical psychiatrist Thomas Szasz's work to analyze cross-cultural "epidemics of mental illness" and her superficial reading of feminist analyses are not up to the high standard of the rest of the book, her theory, though ultimately impossible to prove, is persuasive.