In the winter of 1692 the village of Salem was rocked by an avalanche of accusations of witchcraft. The Salem Witch Trials would see 19 people hanged and between 144 and 185 others accused and imprisoned. The confessions of a slave woman became the basis to believe that local cats were working as witches’ familiars and cohorts of the Devil himself in this tiny town.
Title Image Credit: vintagefaerie via Flickr
The Salem Witch Trials Begin
The story of the Salem Witch Trials begins with two young girls: Betty Parris and Abigail Williams. Betty was the daughter of a Rev. Samuel Parris and Abigail was his orphaned niece. One day Betty and Abigail along with a few other girls and Rev. Parris’ slave woman, Tituba, decided to play some innocent fortune telling games.
Not long after playing the games, Betty and Abigail began exhibiting strange behaviors and having angry fits. Rev. Parris took them to the local doctor for help, but the doctor couldn’t explain the behaviors. The other girls that had played the games also began to exhibit those same strange behaviors – also with no explanation.
The Village of Salem came to the conclusion that the girls had been bewitched. The girls were quick to start naming names of “the witches” that did this to them. The first 3 people accused of witchcraft were Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba. All three women were poor, lower class citizens of Salem.
2 Cats Accused of Being Witches’ Familiars
In court, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne maintained their innocence, but Tituba gave an in-depth confession. Beaten until she confessed, Tituba claimed that the Devil himself came to her and asked her to sign her soul over to him. As she looked over the Devil’s book, Tituba noticed that Sarah Good’s and Sarah Osborne’s signatures were already there.
Among other animals, Tituba said that she was being stalked by a black cat and a red cat that spoke to her and threatened to hurt her if she didn’t serve them by hurting the children. The following is a portion of the transcript from Tituba’s testimony copied from The Salem Witchcraft Papers. John Hawthorne was her questioner. Tituba refers to herself as “shee”.
“(H) what else have you seen
(T) two cats, a red cat and a black cat
(H) what did they say to you
(T) they said serve me
(H) when did you see them
(T) Last night and they said serve me but shee said I would not
(H) what service
(T) shee said hurt the children”
Tituba was jailed but was never executed. Exactly why she confessed and why she made the accusations that she did is still a mystery. Tituba had never been in court before. However, as a slave, Tituba would have been seen as defiant had she put up a fight for her innocence in court.
Why People Believed Tituba
Paranoia was not uncommon in the world that the people of the Salem Witch Trials lived in. It wasn’t completely unwarranted either. Life in the American colonies was not easy. There were tensions between the people of Salem Village and neighboring Salem Town as well as with local Native American tribes. The threat of violence was looming over these colonies.
If violence was not enough, there had been a recent outbreak of smallpox. In the 1600s, a disease like smallpox could easily devastate a small town’s population.The idea of microorganisms being behind many diseases was not recognized in the world of science until the 1860’s when Louis Pasteur published his findings on Germ Theory.
Until the Pasteur’s discoveries, people had a lot of different theories about what caused outbreaks of disease. Often diseases (and loses in battle) were seen as the work or evil spirits or the judgment of a deity. In Ancient Greece, people would vengefully summon the spirits of the improperly buried dead (whose spirits couldn’t cross into the underworld) to cause mischief and disease to others.
When Christianity took hold in Europe, witchcraft became viewed as evil. Through the tangled web of mythology, cats were believed to be witches’ familiars. Being witches’ familiars meant that either the cats had strong spiritual bonds with witches or that the witch could shapeshift into a cat. Either way, cats were considered to have been able to do the witch’s evil bidding and by extension, the devil’s.
Witches, cats, and a whole host of other evils were blamed when the Black Death swept through Europe. It had to have been supernatural because nothing the people knew could explain it. Essentially, the same sort of paranoia was taking hold in the small Village of Salem, Massachusetts during the Salem Witch Trials. It could have been that Tituba was just saying what itching ears expected to hear since she had no real answers.
How It All Ended
Not long after she confessed, Tituba recanted her story. Eventually, Betty, Abigail, and the other girls came clean and said the whole thing was made up. Lawmakers in Salem had to scramble to save the innocent from the gallows. Jurors and magistrates apologized and made restitution to the victim’s families. Reforms to the justice system in Salem would continue for years to come.