Noonday Devils

Marina Warner

  • Tituba Reluctant Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies by Elaine Breslaw
    New York, 237 pp, $24.95, February 1996, ISBN 0 8147 1227 4

The French historian Arlette Farge has described coming across a letter, written on linen in a fine strong hand, in which a prisoner, long incarcerated in the Bastille, writes to his wife, affectionately, imploringly; he adds a message, to the laundry woman who will find it among his washing, asking her to embroider a blue cross on one of his socks to tell him she has managed to pass it on. But the document’s continued melancholy presence in the Bastille archive attests to the failure of his ruse.

Then, in another bundle of letters, Arlette Farge finds a sachet pinned to a request from a country doctor to the Société de médecine. He writes that a young girl he knows exudes handfuls of corn from her breasts every month: could the learned gentlemen in Paris please comment. She is ‘sincere and virtuous’, he assures them.

The historian unpins the sachet; the corn is still there, ‘as golden as on the first day; it scatters in a rain on the yellowing archive,’ writes Farge. ‘A brief sunburst What if it were indeed a bit of that young girl in flower whose doctor believed in her.’ She notes ‘the surprising power of these intact grains ... deemed to be the fruit of a body and a scientific explanation of menstruation’. This letter was sent in 1785: a material missive from the Enlightenment about the willingness of men (and women) to be gulled by wonders, about the role of young women as suppliers to the appetite for the fantastic

Farge’s evocative book, Le Goût de l’archive (1989), is the only study I know that expresses the frisson of that moment of encounter with the past when the edges of the data seem to catch alight: the moment of recognition. She writes:

The archive is a rent in the fabric of days, a tense glimpse of an unexpected happening. There, everything is focused on a few instants in the lives of ordinary people rarely visited by History ... Archives do not write pages of History. They describe in everyday language and on the same note the trifle and the tragedy, where what matters for the administration is to know,

Tituba is one of those ordinary people who would not have visited with history, and whose trifled-with life would have passed unremarked if she had not been bought in Barbados as a slave by Samuel Parris, who then left for America and became pastor at Salem in 1692 – the man at the centre of the witch trials. Elaine Breslaw, the author of this biography, must have experienced one of those epiphanies Farge describes so well when she found, in the Barbados archives, an entry in the inventory of property from an estate being sold on the island, made in a notary’s careful copperplate: in the third column of the register of slaves – a long list – under the heading ‘Boys and Girls’, came the name, spelt ‘Tattuba’.

This was 1676-7. In 1692, on 1 March, after Tituba had been in America with Parris her master for 12 years, she was interrogated in Salem by the two justices of the peace appointed by the court. Betty Parris, aged nine, whom Tituba looked after, had fallen ill with mysterious pains and was also suffering from hallucinations; two other girls soon began to complain of ailments too. Samuel Parris alerted the authorities to the possibility of witchcraft. Tituba first denied that she was a witch and was hurting them. But soon, in response to the men’s artlessly leading questions (‘What evil spirit have you familiarity with?’), she poured out a vivid tale of hogs and cats and rats and ‘upright hairy things’, of a tall man in black with a yellow bird, of a woman in a hood. Animals and humans kept turning into one another; in another transcription of her testimony the details conform even more closely to European witchcraft lore: Tituba says she flies on a broomstick to Boston, for example.

Tituba was the third woman to be questioned, and the only one of the three to confess during this early phase of the witchhunt. Of her two co-defendants at the beginning, Sarah Good denied everything, Sarah Osborne accused Sarah Good. The self-owned witch Tituba has consequently become, in the ever-swelling literature about the horrors of Salem, the catalyst for the tragedy: hers was the original, circumstantial account which proved witchcraft was at work in the afflictions of the accusers. As the evidence proliferated, other incidents emerged which supported her role as ‘Dark Eve’, in Bernard Rosenthal’s phrase, through whom the original innocence of the New World was lost. Black magic with dolls and pins, fortune-telling with raw eggs dropped into a glass – and the witchcake. The ‘witchcake’ was made in the Parris household, one of several devices used to discover what Betty and the other girls’ problems might be: rye meal was mixed with their pee, baked in ashes and fed to the dog. It’s not known what was supposed to happen, but Breslaw suggests that according to folk remedies shared by both the Puritan and the Indian communities of 17th-century New England, the animal would then reveal the ‘the name of the witch causing the problem’. Apart from the problem of a dog being able to do this, my understanding of magic leads me to believe that the function might have been sacrificial rather than diagnostic: the dog would absorb the poisons and the victims would then be reprieved, purified.

Tituba and her husband, John Indian, also owned by Parris, prepared the witchcake under the supervision of a neighbour, who provided the recipe. Later, under questioning, Tituba said she had learned the recipe from ‘her mistress in Barbados’. In spite of their ancillary position, the two slaves have been unequivocally blamed for the introduction of magical practices in the community and for the outbreak of malign forces that brought about the death by hanging of 19 people as witches and the imprisonment of many more, and which above all conjured a noonday devil. In the present-day climate of punitive litigiousness about child abuse and sexual harassment, he is still playing havoc with men and women’s wits.

One of the oddest things about the aftermath of Salem – this is a point Bernard Rosenthal makes in his admirable study, Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692 (1993) – is that the accused are still called witches, and that their memory is kept by some as wronged practitioners of ancient skills, as women victimised by official repression. Elaine Breslaw – her tide makes it plain – also equivocates on this point: of course, her Tituba doesn’t fly to Boston on a broomstick, or pinch Betty Parris or stick pins into her at long distance. But she is skilled at magic, she is able to fall into trance, she uses dreams to probe mysteries, she divines by witch-cakes and other methods.

Breslaw thinks that Tituba was captured in a slave raid around the Orinoco, and first sold in Barbados when she was a child, but that she would have retained memories of the Taino and/or Arawak beliefs and rituals of her tribe, which continued in the barracoons of West Indian plantations. In Barbados, she might also have (the conditional perfect perforce the dominant tense of this kind of conjectural history) participated in rites imported from the lost Yoruba and Igbo home territories of some of the men and women with whom she had contact. Breslaw stresses, however, the particular character of Amerindian as opposed to African beliefs, and links Tituba’s lapses into mutism under trial to shamanistic trance. She also explores some of the fantasies circulating at Salem in the light of Amerindian soothsaying: among the Arawak, the subject of a dream could be held responsible in real life for something done in another’s sleep, for spirit doubles roamed everywhere, malignant, active and invisible.

The scene in the courtroom at Salem would make one laugh, as they say, if it did not make one weep: three girls, between the ages of 12 and 18, would become convulsed from the assault of the ‘witches’ sitting across the room from them – if the accused denied doing them any harm. Rosenthal asks, wisely, why it never occurred to the interrogators to wonder why the defendants should send their spirit doubles out on the attack at that very moment, when they faced trial, and so reveal their guilt in open court. If the accused confessed, the accusers calmed down. The vicious logic of the witchhunt was under way: protestations of innocence only brought about more severe convulsions, whereas confessions inspired a kind of truce, and even, in a bizarre reversal of most inquisitorial trials, could save your life. But they also left you branded, feared, ostracised and pauperised, and failed to bring the cycle of suspicion and denunciation to any kind of respite or closure.

As the terror spread, and more and more victims were caught in the web of accusation and counter-accusation, the first male to join the group of accusers was John Indian, Tituba’s husband. She had chosen confession, and had not named names, but stuck to vague figures of tall men and rats and cats: he chose the other escape route from the trap sprung by witchscare – the condition of slavery helped him to understand the rules of this macabre Wonderland, where the masters’ sympathies were tending, who was determining what words meant

As catalyst of the Salem crisis, Tituba clearly makes her mark; and Breslaw does not want to deprive her of this place in history. At the same time, she actively wants to relimn her portrait: no hoodoo, no more Dark Eve of the American Fall. She discreetly deplores Maryse Condé’s 1986 novel Moi, Tituba Sorcière ... Noire de Salem, in which the Guadelupe-born novelist glories in Tituba’s avenging sorcery against the community which enslaved her. For Breslaw, Tituba hyphenates the two New Worlds more cunningly; she responded to the scare – Breslaw is taking her cue from Natalie Zemon Davis’s study of storytelling – with ‘a carefully crafted tale that provided satisfactory answers to the questions in the 17th-century mind’. Borrowing a term from biology, Breslaw proposes that Tituba survived through ‘creative adaptation’. Her central thesis is that when Samuel Parris had recourse to law ‘to punish Tituba for her countermagic’, he ‘created an intellectual crisis in New England that finally forced a convergence of the two disparate traditions’. She wants to navigate clear of the Uncle Tom problem, and define Tituba’s difference, between voodoo and African superstition, on one hand, and Puritan conformism and acculturation, on the other. She does not want to lose her for the pantheon of female heroes (and of history’s victims), but is clearly uneasy as well as unconvinced that she was a wholehearted subversive.

In complying with her accusers’ charges, Tituba did survive: she was sent to jail, and remained there as the witchhunt became full-blown. After it had at last expired, Samuel Parris sold her on – to pay the expenses of her stay in prison. After that, she gets lost to view, though Breslaw, in another archival epiphany, finds her daughter, Violet, still registered as a slave in Parris’s will of 1720, nearly thirty years after the events in Salem.

There’s a wishfulness about the arguments in this biography; the novelty of the witch trials lay, not in their belief that spirit doubles existed, but in the officers’ admission of ‘spectral evidence’, as the accusers twitched and writhed in the grip of the spirit doubles – Tituba cannot have introduced such thoughts to the community, or even, on the evidence presented at Salem, modified them much. Prospero curses Caliban, after all:

For this, be sure, tonight thou shalt have cramps,
Side-stitches that shall pen thy breath up ...
Thou shalt be pinch’d
As thick as honeycomb, each pinch more stinging
Than bees that made ’em.

Is Ariel a kind of spirit double, working Prospero’s maleficia invisibly, from a distance? The Tempest was performed in 1611, a good while before the credulity of Salem. Influential manuals of witchhunters like the Malleus Maleficarum and James VI’s Demonologie warn repeatedly that the devil can remain unseen, take possession of one of his votaries and, through this instrument of his will, cause prodigies as well as mayhem.

Theories to explain the Salem witchhunt have followed fast and furious on one another: mass hysteria, adolescent susceptibilities, Puritan sexual frustration, Parris’s precarious economic situation, political unrest in the pioneer colony. Rosenthal suggests, even though he is aware that the idea is modish, looking at abuse. It’s not been much remarked – and Breslaw quotes but does not seize the implications – that Tituba withdrew her confession on grounds of the treatment she received at her master’s hands. ‘The account she since gives of it,’ wrote one contemporary witness to the whole tragedy, ‘that her Master did beat her and otherways abuse her, to make her confess and cause (such as he call’d) her Sister-Witches, and that what-soever she said by way of confession of accusing others was the effect of such usage.’

There are hints and scraps of coercive violence throughout the Salem story: in Tituba’s repeated references in her testimony that the spirits ‘say more hurt to the Children’; she says she was told to hurt Betty Parris, but ‘I would not hurt Betty, I loved Betty, but they hall me and make me pinch Betty.’ There are the scars her husband John Indian showed on his body; the statement of one of the most active accusers, Ann Putnam, that her dead sister appeared to her in a dream asking for vengeance because she had been whipped to death.

Whippings and beatings on a scale horrifying today and long illegal, scarred the pioneer communities of America, as Mary Beth Norton recounts in her big new book, Founding Mothers – Fathers. She has the research historian’s true taste for the archive; and touches those rents in the fabric of history through which ordinary people speak. She tells of the lives of children and slaves and servants in the generation before Salem, from around 1620 to 1670. They are routinely thrashed; but what is most alarming is that obloquy rarely fell on the abusers and violators – even when the hidings ended fatally. Norton found ‘one of the most tragic cases’ concerned a maidservant called Elizabeth Abbott, who in 1624 turned to neighbours for help again and again against the beatings ‘with smale lyne or whip corde ... sometimes with fish hooks attached’ to which she was subjected by her master and mistress and ‘other servants acting at their direction’. One youth testified that he was ordered ‘to fleay her or ells his Mr wold flay him’. Yet, Norton chillingly informs us, the good neighbours always returned her to her employers’ household; and her case was not untypical. After Elizabeth Abbott died, and inspite of 17 depositions of brutality, her employers were not charged with any hand in her death.

Rosenthal’s surmise, that the terrors of Salem, stirred up half a century after this house servant died, may have arisen from systematic, institutionalised and accepted cruelty at a domestic level among the 0vritans, at least offers a context for the terrible internecine calumnies against innocent women and men by their own family, neighbours and – in Tituba’s case – households. It would help to illuminate – if only partially – the initial hysterical behaviour of the children and young women, if they can be seen as escaping from violence, however misguidedly and inarticulately. When that original, unconscious stratagem proved more effective in detaching them from everyday brutality than they can have foreseen, they were caught, dragging others with them into the ever more widely trawling nets of obsessed and credulous witch hunters. A much less heroic, much more pathetic interpretation of Tituba’s part than Breslaw’s colourful forced immigrant presents itself: like Joan of Arc, her experience and her perceptions were reconfigured by someone else’s powerful fantasy of the devil, always a prime pretext for the abuse of power. To adapt Hume on miracles, it’s belief in the devil that makes the mischief.