December 07, 2014

The True Story of Mary Sibley and Tituba

I've just started to watch the TV show Salem. It premiered last spring, but I don't get the channel it was on so I'm watching it now through Netflix. I'm only a couple episodes into it, but I'm already compelled to comment.

The show is a historical horror fantasy set in Salem during the 1692 witch hunts. Although we all rationally know weren't any real witches in Salem, just political turmoil and personal grudges, the show turns that on its head. Salem's premise is that although the people executed for witchcraft were innocent, they were framed by the town's real witches, who operated unseen and undetected.

This idea was also the premise of a 2008 comic book, Salem: Queen of Thorns. In that comic the real witch was a huge supernatural tree-monster (the Queen of Thorns), but in the TV show Salem people who really lived are being portrayed as Satanic witches. I have to say, it's a little weird. Weirder even than a giant tree-monster witch.

Salem: Queen of Thorns.

The leader of the witches is Mary Sibley, the wife of George Sibley, the wealthiest and most influential man in Salem. Mary was once in love with heroic soldier John Alden, but when he didn't return from war she became bitter, gave her unborn baby and her own soul to the Devil, and entered into a loveless marriage with George Sibley. Oh, and she controls George with a toad-shaped familiar that she placed in his stomach. That all happens in the first fifteen minutes of the first episode.

Mary is supported, but perhaps also controlled, by her sinister yet sexy Afro-Caribbean slave Tituba. There's lots of erotic lesbian energy between the two characters, and Tituba often rubs herbs and oils on Mary's naked body and reminders her of her vows to Satan. Again, this all happens in the first first episode.

Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery) and Tituba (Ashley Madekwe) in Salem.
I suppose I should just relax and enjoy the show like the Puritan era True Blood knockoff that it is, but somehow I'd enjoy it more if all the characters were fictional.

The real Mary Sibley played a small but significant role in the actual Salem witch hunt. Mary and her husband Samuel (who was not particularly wealthy or influential) were neighbors of Reverend Samuel Parris. During the winter of 1691 - 1692, Reverend Parris's daughter Betty and her cousin Abigail Williams had been acting strangely. They had made been making odd noises, moving in unusual ways, and complaining of mysterious pains. The local physician thought it might be witchcraft. Reverend Parris and his wife tried to treat the girls' ailments through prayer.

On February 25, 1692, Reverend and Mrs. Parris left Salem to hear a minister speak in another town. Mary Sibley came over to the Parris house and told the reverend's slaves, Tituba Indian and her husband John Indian, to make a cake from the girls' urine and rye flour. Following Mary's instructions, the slaves baked the cake and then fed it to a dog. Mary, Tituba and John then watched the dog to see if it acted strangely.

This type of cake was known as a witch cake, and was method for diagnosing witchcraft. If the girls really had witchcraft in their body, it should also be in their urine. If the dog acted strangely after eating their urine it would be proof the girls were indeed bewitched.

History does not record how the dog reacted, but we do know how Reverend Parris acted. He was furious. All magic was considered evil magic, and he believed Mary Sibley's benign attempt to help the girls had opened the door to greater evil. He may have been right, since after witnessing Mary's magic the two girls began to actually see human forms tormenting them. Previously they had just suffered vague physical maladies. It seems likely that her actions strongly suggested to Betty and Abigail that they were bewitched, and they began to act accordingly from that point on.

Reverend Parris gave Mary Sibley a stern private lecture, and she publicly and tearfully confessed her errors to the Salem Village congregation on March 25, 1692.

Mary fades from history at this point and didn't play any further role in the Salem witch trials.  However, some writers have suggested that her witch cake was the incident that really kicked off the witch craze. They speculate that Betty and Abigail might have stopped their odd behavior if Mary hadn't asked Tituba and John to bake the witch cake.

That's something we can never know, but we do know that things didn't go too well for Tituba and her husband. Tituba was one of the first people accused of witchcraft by the afflicted girls, and John was accused soon after. Neither was executed, and they survived the trials the same way most others did - by accusing even more people of witchcraft.

When I was a child I learned that Tituba was the person who started the witch craze by telling Betty and Abigail stories of voodoo and black magic. But as I've since learned, this idea was started by historians in the 19th century who wondered why nice rational white people would do something as crazy as hunt witches. Clearly, they thought, the idea of witchcraft must have been introduced into Salem by Tituba, who they imagined to be an irrational black woman. It couldn't have been someone a nice white lady like Mary Sibley.

More recently,  historians have learned that Tituba has been misrepresented. The only act of magic she ever performed was to bake the witch cake, and she executed this piece of traditional English magic at the bidding of Mary Sibley. There was no voodoo involved at all. It also seems likely that she was not black, but was an Arawak Indian from the Caribbean. It had been assumed that her last name was Indian, but the word "Indian" may actually just have been a descriptor. Not Tituba India, bur rather Tituba, Indian.

We've also learned that no race or ethnic group - white, black, Arawak, etc. - is more rational or irrational than any other. Well, I hope we've learned that. But I think that's important to keep in mind if you watch Salem. Rationally, we all know there weren't any witches in Salem. We know Mary Sibley wasn't a witch, that Tituba was framed, and that she probably wasn't black.

But somehow, irrationally we're still entertained by a show where the Salem witches are real, Tituba is a manipulative evil black Jamaican woman, and Mary Sibley suckles her familiar with blood from her thigh. So as you watch Salem, and maybe even enjoy its trashy supernatural melodrama, remember what you're seeing is not true.

And when you shut off the TV just remember: there were no real witches in Salem. 


papijoe said...

Good post! Some of the historical information was new to me.

Peter, you've said in several of your posts that you don't believe there was any witchcraft involved in Salem Village and similar incidents contemporary to it, rather a kind of psychological hysteria. I tend to agree that there was probably not the kind of sinister black magic that you describe as being in the current series [which I have not seen]. It does bring up a larger question for me however. Can we strictly apply a modern materialistic explanation, particularly given the supernatural worldview of the people of that time? So first there is the issue of belief, in other words shouting fire in a crowded theater has real consequences regardless of whether it turns out to be a false alarm. But beyond that, and extending to almost all of the "folkloric" phenonema you describe in your posts, is there a supernatural dimension that accounts for the weirdness of the history and atmosphere of New England?

I don't know the answer but I think about that often whenever confronted with some of the macabre elements of pyschic landscape of this region which many of us find interesting to explore. Appreciate your work, and I'd be interested in your thoughts on this.

Peter Muise said...

Hi Papijoe! Thanks for the comment.

You pose a really good question. I don't know if I have an equally good answer!

I like that you use the phrase "psychic landscape." I do think there is a psychic landscape, which is probably a collaborative creation between the physical environment and the people who live there. For example, our psychic landscape is very different than that of someplace like New Orleans. Both regions have rich folkloric heritages in their psychic landscapes, but they have been shaped quite differently by their environments and cultural history. New England probably does have a uniquely odd psychic vibe, created by the environment (weird rocks, intense seasons, forests and mountains, cold ocean, etc) and our weird history. It’s no coincidence that Edgar Allan Poe, H.P Lovecraft, and Stephen King, the three seminal American horror writers, all got their start here.

I think the psychic landscape has its inhabitants - the ghosts, witches, demons, and monsters that fill our folklore. Sometimes humans pay them a visit in dreams or visions, but sometimes it seems like they return the favor and come see us, often without an invitation. I can’t say if they are real or have an existence independent of us, but they are persistent and continue to make appearances even into modern times, although with different names. Fairies have become aliens, witches have become sleep paralysis, etc. I guess it’s part of their nature to leave little or totally inconclusive evidence. The Puritan clerics didn’t stop believing in witches even when the trials were revealed to be a travesty; they just realized that it’s very hard to prove their existence.

I think encountering a ghost or alien can be interesting and even illuminating on a personal level. The problem is when people superimpose their psychic landscape over their social landscape. That’s when people think the entities they see in their dreams or visions are 100% physically real, not just psychically real, and are somehow tied to their families, co-workers, or neighbors. I think that’s what happened in Salem with such terrible results. The people in Salem and other settlements were under incredible stress from Indian attacks, political problems with England, and infighting inside their own communities. In this situation their inner psychic landscape just burst out all over the place. While some of the afflicted girls made up their allegations to settle grudges, I am sure that others really did experience something uncanny (perhaps helped by the stress). Many other people sincerely believed them. But as we know the witches weren’t physically real.

If someone told me their co-workers were being controlled by aliens, or that their baby was possessed by a demon, I’d think they were crazy. Similarly, witch hunts happen only when large parts of society are being driven crazy. The European witch hunts happened when that continent was being torn apart by religious wars in the late Renaissance/Early Modern era. There weren’t any big witch hunts earlier in the Middle Ages, and many religious leaders of the time believed that anyone who claimed to be a witch was deluded. Europe was less divided then, at least theologically.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to ramble!

Menotomy Maps said...

I too believe there is a psychic landscape here in New England which is constantly trying to talk to us all.

papijoe said...

Great stuff Peter! Your comments captured all the elements of New England weirdness from manitou rock piles to Lovecraft. Please keep the posts coming!

Peter Muise said...

Hi Menotomy,

Thanks for the comment. I think you've had some particularly interesting experiences with your local landscape, to say the least.

Tanya said...

There are witches in Salem now and there probably were witches in Salem then. Not the supernatural fabled kind, but real witches. Paganism is a very ancient religion and most likely existed in Salem as it did elsewhere. BTW Witches cant sell their soul to the devil because they don't believe in the devil.

Peter Muise said...

Hi Tanya,

Thanks for your comment and I apologize for the delay in responding. I agree there certainly are witches in Salem now, and that most Wiccans and other modern witches don't believe in the Devil.

However, I do think there is difference between modern pagan witches (who are mostly following a religious path that originates in European ceremonial magic, classical philosophy and the 19th-century Romantic movement) and the witches of New England folklore (who were mostly malevolent, spent their time disrupting their neighbor's households, and could transform into animals). I don't think there is very much overlap between the two types of witch and they are really different things that just happen to have the same name.

Just my two cents on the topic, and I hope you keep reading the blog!

Unknown said...

God help the poor soul that mistook this amusing television show for a documentary. It is clearly fictional, including the portrayal of witches being somehow "satanic" in nature.
Just enjoy the show, and then research the history, if you are compelled to do so.

Mary Sibley and Tituba were clearly pawns in an overzealous witch-hunt by the puritans...
And so they did what most human beings would, accusing others of the craft to save themselves and watching the ball of yarn unravel, helplessly.
The 1600's weren't much different than the present in that way.

I think that's the true tale the creators of this show were trying to portray. A corrupt government, or religious zealots are to blame for every atrocity we have ever known throughout history.

Doubtful of this theory? Choose a religion, I'll provide you with the back story. Feel free to research it.

Also, Abraham Lincoln wasn't really a vampire hunter... though Buffy truly was. So feel free to watch that movie or read that book, without the "uncomfortable" feeling of sullying Mr. Lincoln's memory.

Jesus dude, it's a tv show that uses factual names from history. Stop losing sleep over it, no one else is.

Unknown said...

Thank you!

Unknown said...

Thank you!

Loaded Gun said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

You sound like such a bitch. The guy can blog about whatever he wants, no one is making you read it. 😂😂😂😂 I enjoyed his post and all the comments, except yours because it was uncalled for and uninteresting. I was interested in the real history of Mary and Tituba as well, which is how I found this post. Relax, pull the stick out of your up tight hiney, and leave those of us who enjoy these conversations alone. Thanks!

Unknown said...

You sound like such a bitch. The guy can blog about whatever he wants, no one is making you read it. 😂😂😂😂 I enjoyed his post and all the comments, except yours because it was uncalled for and uninteresting. I was interested in the real history of Mary and Tituba as well, which is how I found this post. Relax, pull the stick out of your up tight hiney, and leave those of us who enjoy these conversations alone. Thanks!

William E Southwick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
William E Southwick said...

I am a direct descendent from the Salem family of Lawrence and Cassandra Southwick.

The family had been persecuted by the First Church in Salem for housing and being Quakers 3 decades or more before the witch trials began. I'm glad they got out of "Dodge" before they started hanging, drowning, and burning people at the stake!!!

Kristie Wilkes is right, Hollywood did take a lot of artistic licence making this series. I think Giles Corey was a family friend and was laid between two barn doors and pressed to death by loading it with stones. Not the box of rock shown in the series!!

Anonymous said...

As an interesting family note, I am a descendent of the Sibley family... This is a sad episode in our early colonization, and only proof that the stresses of the times and the infighting between the people of Salem Village and Salem Township boiled over into a sad situation where innocent people were hurt.

I appreciate your correcting the historical record. But, the times were certainly different, mindsets were different, and more easily swayed by images of witches.

It is possible that two members of a family developed the symptoms described by toxins ingested in the food and wate sources of the time. After that, psychogenic medical issues similar to those would be reasonable in close contacts.

There was some speculation for a time of ergot poisoning from rye products causing the phenomena. Ergotamine substances are the base of LSD...thus...while we may never know the origin of the symptoms...the outcome was little different than the mass hysteria events caused now by contamination warnings.

History needs to be viewed by a neutral eye...Hollywood banks on the extremes of those concepts...and the series is an example of literary license gone amok

Anonymous said...

Well I can say this much, you all may think I am crazy, but I am the reincarnation of Tituba. I don't remember much, but I do remember things about my life as her. I can remember being in that horrible home with the Rev Samuel. I can remember taking care of the little girls- Betty/ Abigail. I can remember how horrible the Rev treated me and my husband John in parts ( I am not going into detail it's too traumatizing from what I remember). I can remember giving birth to my daughter Violet. Being torn apart when I was taken away from her and put into jail for 13 months. I can remember trying to stand up for myself but being beaten by Rev Samuel, and I believe others too to say I am a witch. The Rev promising me to free me if I confess. That'd he'd protect me, that he knew I didn't mean what I did. To be forced to say that Sarah Good, Sarah Osborn and others were witches, and caused their death. I regret it so much that I caused so much pain and sorrow.
I can't remember much it comes in bits and pieces. I have seen myself and how I look. Tanned (Arawak Indian), average height (like 5'5) long dark black/brown hair, big brown eyes kind of almond shaped eyes long oval face, with a defined jaw. I was smaller built, and a bit unnourished and underweight.
I have fears of being locked in places and not being able to get out. Visions of being sexually/ physically abused by Samuel in parts (again not going into details).
I've only over the last few months began to piece the pieces together. I do know I am her. I am not out for fame or anything. Just trying to learn more about, especially after the trials where no one knows what happened. Some guy ( I can picture a tall white man in a hat I think)took her out of the 13 months in jail with her husband John and that's all we know. I feel she died around age 30. Her daughter stayed with the Rev Samuel till he died; so till age 30/40. Nothing is known after that.
I'm sharing this story, not for fame, but to share what I know so far on Tituba (hence why I am not saying my gender, age, or name on her). I am shocked when I found out I was her, and I hope to learn more about her, John and Violet.

Anonymous said...

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