Molecules of Witchcraft are alkaloids that were believed to be among the ‘potions’ that the witches in the Salem Witch trials. These alkaloids vary greatly but they are all highly toxic in large amounts and affect the central nervous system. Millions of herbalists used alkaloids and their properties made people believe they were witches. People believed that these herbalists were witches but some herbalists believe that they themselves were witches and could fly because of them ingesting alkaloids, producing symptoms similar to that of being high. There were three types of alkaloids that supposedly caused flight during the Iron Age. They were mandrake (soporific, induces sleep), belladonna (deadly nightshade causing coma, blurred vision, delirium), and henbane (pain reliever, anesthetic, deadly poison). There were many, many more alkaloids that were supposedly used for other purposes too, however. These include hyoscine, used as an anesthetic when mixed with morphine, Atropine, an incredibly powerful antidote for toxic compounds and caused insane hallucinations when ingested and eventually death, and even nerve gases like parathion and sarin which cause extreme convulsions and usually death. Cocaine is also an alkaloid used back then. Fun fact: did you know that the witches did not actually have or use broomsticks at all? They were simply an illusion from the hallucinations of alkaloids. There was another type of alkaloids called ergot, which had absolutely horrible side effects like: diarrhea, convulsions, burning sensation of body parts, vomiting, twitching, insanity, hallucinations, and numbness of limbs. This ergot was sometimes found in flour and enough of it would cause entire towns to be struck with this so called ergotism, causing townsfolk to go insane with all those side effects and produces madness all across the countries. Witches were blamed for causing the ergotism, and ergotism was the primary factor of accusations in the witch trials. Eventually, in 1938, the alkaloid LSD was created. LSD, much like ergot and all the other alkaloids used in the trials, never caused any witchcraft, only made people believe that there were witches or that that they were witches themselves.
Alkaloid’s chemistry is incredibly variant, however most of them contain one or more nitrogen atoms and oxygen. Exceptions however include nicotine which does not have any oxygen atoms. Most alkaloids do not dissolve in water and because of that lead to the horrible side effects aforementioned above. Most alkaloids are weak bases, and combine with most acids to make forms of salt. These salts are usually the opposite of alkaloids, as they dissolve easily in water and not in organic solvents, while alkaloids can dissolve in organic solvents. Personally I feel that alkaloids impacted history a lot more than some other substances in the book have. Without alkaloids then the Salem Witch trials would have never happened and millions of lives would have been spared. Today the presence of alkaloids have fallen off slightly since their fanatic consumption in the Iron Age. Alkaloids are still sometimes used in medical factors today to relieve pain or be anesthetics, however plenty more drugs can be used to do those as well. The authors did an excellent job with this chapter too. Their argument made sense and it was nice and clear to read, so it was relatively easy to summarize. I feel that the history of this chapter was sort of out-classed by the authors describing more what alkaloids are and what alkaloids were used in the past, and less on how they affected history other than mentioning the witch trials. The chemistry section was rather lacking as well, I feel like they could have done a lot more research in that department to make the chapter flow better. In the end, Le Couteur and Burreson properly explained Molecules Witchcraft to a great extent and certainly changed my mind about the substance. Everyone has heard about the Salem Witch trials at some point in their life, but most of them, like me, did not exactly know what caused it and how drastically it affected our society today. And now my curiosity has been fulfilled because of this chapter.