17th Century New England, with special emphasis on the Salem Witchcraft Trials


Supplemental Notes on Tituba and the Circle of Girls

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by Margo Burns

Revised: 10/30/15

In Arthur Miller's The Crucible, the character of Parris says in the play, "...my daughter and niece I discovered dancing like heathen in the forest..." and "I saw Tituba waving her arms over the fire when I came on you; why were she doing that? And I heard a screeching and gibberish comin' from her mouth"... "And I thought I saw a... someone naked running through the trees." (Act 1, Scene 1), and in the screenplay, the character of Parris discovers the girls dancing in the woods (Scenes 4-7). There's no historical evidence, however, that there was any wild dancing rite in the woods, not led by Tituba, and certainly Rev. Parris never stumbled upon them.

This image of the "circle of girls" learning forbidden magical arts from Tituba was started in the nineteenth century, partly in fiction, but was also included prominently in Charles Wentworth Upham's 1867 two-volume study of the episode, Salem Witchcraft (See ii.3-6 in http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17845/17845-h/salem2-htm.html#PART_THIRD), which we know Miller read ("Why I Wrote The Crucible, 1996). There is simply no source from the seventeenth century that supports this claim about the girls and Tituba, however.

So did the real, historical Tituba actually do anything? What we do know is that after the two girls in the Parris household started having fits, Tituba's husband, John Indian (absent in Miller's telling) - possibly with Tituba's help - was asked by a neighbor, Mary Sibley, to bake a special "witch cake" - made of rye and the girls' urine, fed to a dog - to ascertain the identity of the witch afflicting the girls: European white magic. This folk practice operated on an understanding that witches send malevolent "effluvia" from their bodies through the air - not unlike giving someone the "evil eye" - to afflict others. Any part of the body of the afflicted, including hair or urine (or an ear of an afflicted animal), would contain some of those particles, so that when the dog bit into the cake (or the animal's ear was burned), the witch would feel pain and reveal herself. (See Thomas Brattle's letter, contained in Burr's Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, 1648-1706, p. 171: https://archive.org/details/narrativesofwitc00burriala) Parris chastised Sibley for having done this, required her to acknowledge and apologize for her mistake before the entire congregation, and let the members vote whether to keep her in their fellowship, which they did. Parris said that it was this use of magic - even though it was white magic - of going to the Devil to defeat the Devil, that was responsible for letting the Devil into Salem Village in the first place. (See the March 27, 1692 entry in the Salem Village Church Records: http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/villgchurchrcrd.html)

According to Rev. John Hale of Beverly, writing a few years after the episode, a single one of the accusing girls admitted to having attempted to divine the occupation of her future husband with an egg and a glass - crystal-ball style, and again, English white magic - and was upset when she saw what looked to her like a coffin. There is nothing to indicate when this happened. The only way Hale identified her was to mention that she remained single and had already died by the time he finished his book in 1697. (See pp. 132-133 in Hale's A Modest Enquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft, 1702): http://books.google.com/books?id=opvczTeULKwC&pg=PA132 ) Using vital records and a process of elimination, Mary Beth Norton posits that the girl was Susannah Sheldon. (In the Devil's Snare, p. 311)

To learn more about the historical Tituba, see Eliaine Breslaw's book, Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies (1996), "Tituba's Story" by Bernard Rosenthal (The New England Quarterly, June 1998), "Dark Eve" by Bernard Rosenthal (Spellbound: Women and Witchcraft in America, 1998, Elizabeth Ries, ed., pp. 75-98), and Chadwick Hansen's "The Metamorphosis of Tituba, or Why American Intellectuals Can't Tell an Indian Witch from a Negro (The New England Quarterly, March 1974).


© 2011 Margo Burns


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This page was last updated 10/30/15 by Margo Burns, My email address.