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Tituba, the Early American Witch

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Barring fictional characters, a slave named Tituba is America's most famous "witch." She was there at Ground Zero in the case of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. But because she was a slave, her documented biography is sparse compared to other accused witches of Salem.

Photograph by Flickr user ISD 191 Performing Arts Programs.

Samuel Parris returned to Boston from his inherited sugar plantation in Barbados with three slaves, Tituba, John, and an unnamed boy, in 1680. Since this is the first mention of Tituba in the historical record, it is assumed that she was acquired in Barbados, and was somewhere between 12 and 18 years old. Parris was neither married nor a minister then. Parris married in Boston, and the family moved to Salem Village in 1689 so that Samuel could take the position of minister. Tituba and John were married at about that time. Both were referred to in later court documents as having the last name "Indian," which was a convenient and descriptive appendage for the two slaves who had no given surname. Tituba was described as an Indian slave in contemporary documents. At least one historian traced Tituba from the Arawak people of what is now Venezuela, and wrote that she was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Caribbean as a child.

Tituba was working in the home of the Reverend Samuel Parris and family when the middle child, 9-year-old Elizabeth (called Betty) and her cousin, 11-year-old Abigail Williams, suffered a series of fits, possibly convulsions. The two girls were soon joined by their young friends Ann Putnam and Elizabeth Hubbard, who also exhibited strange fits, visions, and unexplained behavior. No medical reason could be found for the fits (although poisoning through contaminated rye flour has been posited as a possible cause), so the local doctor suggested there might be a supernatural basis for their suffering. One of the girls admitted to the practice of fortune-telling, which immediately threw suspicion on Tituba. However, there is no evidence in contemporary documents that Tituba actually taught the practice to the girls. The four girls named Tituba as one of their oppressors, along with Sarah Good, a mentally ill beggar, and Sarah Osborn, a widow in poor health who was in a dispute with the Putnam family. Once the accusations were leveled, Tituba confessed to all sorts of demonic sins: signing the "Devil's book," flying on a pole, seeing supernatural animals, attacking the girls.

But even though her background is what drew suspicion, none of her confessions were of practices related to the Caribbean, Africa, or voodoo.

The Crucible 2153

Photograph by Flickr user ISD 191 Performing Arts Programs.

One bit of "witchcraft" that can be linked to Tituba is the "witch cake." When Dr. Griggs could not make a diagnosis of the girl's symptoms, Tituba supposedly made a cake using the urine of the afflicted girls baked into rye. The cake was then fed to a dog to see if its behavior changed. This scheme was reportedly carried out on February 25th of 1692, but how the dog reacted was not recorded. It certainly focused more suspicion on Tituba as the witch behind the girls' affliction (by then several more young girls were exhibiting the manifestations). But Tituba didn't come up with the idea or the recipe; it was suggested by a neighbor named Mary Sibley. (Parris later called Mary Sibley out in church about her part in the scheme; she promptly apologized for her error and was forgiven.)

When Rev. Parris heard about the witch cake, he became enraged and beat Tituba. Confronted with evidence of Tituba's supernatural dabbling, he ordered her to confess to being in league with the devil. Eventually, Tituba began confessing to the most outlandish dealings with demons and animals. Modern consensus is that she confessed to make the beatings stop. And once the beating stopped, Tituba agreed to pretty much anything that was suggested to her, and even began to accuse other women of witchcraft, beginning with Sarah Good and Sarah Osborn, who had already been named by the afflicted young girls.

An arrest warrant was issued for Tituba and the other two women on February 29th. From that point, accusations and confessions flew thick and fast, as Salem residents tried to deflect guilt from themselves while passing judgment on those they had problems with. Before the trials were over in the fall of 1692, twenty people had been executed for witchcraft (plus two dogs, as accomplices). A couple hundred people were imprisoned, and five had died while in prison that year, including Sarah Osborn. Sarah Good, the third of those originally accused, was convicted and hanged. Both Sarahs refused to confess to the bitter end.

Over the past 150 years or so, the popular image of Tituba was that she was actually a slave of African descent. There have been several reasons for this shift in thought: Tituba's assumed dabbling in witchcraft, thought by some to be a form of voodoo; her supposed origin in Barbados; and the racial politics of the 19th century, a period in which quite a few fictional and semi-fictional accounts were written of the Salem Witch Trials. The designation of Tituba as black is often explained by stating that the Puritans didn't distinguish the different racial backgrounds of slaves, so her description as "Indian" could have meant anything. But that statement doesn't make much sense. The Puritans did distinguish the different races of their slaves. The unnamed boy who traveled to Boston with Tituba and John Indian was described as "Negro" in contemporary documents (he died before the trials). Another slave accused of witchcraft, Mary Black, was described as a Negro as well -- and she had a conveniently-bestowed last name, just like Tituba Indian.

But what happened to Tituba? Because she confessed, Tituba never went to trial. She sat in prison as the other witchcraft trials went on in Salem. In the fall, when public opinion turned away from accusations of witchcraft, Tituba recanted her testimony. She stayed in prison for 13 months because Rev. Parris, angered that Tituba changed her earlier confession, refused to pay the necessary fees to free her.

The Crucible 1674

Photograph by Flickr user ISD 191 Performing Arts Programs.

A similar fate befell the other two slaves who were accused of witchcraft in Salem. Mary Black steadfastly maintained her innocence, while the slave called Candy readily confessed. Yet the two, who spent some months in jail, were never brought to trial. The case against Mary Black was eventually dismissed, and Candy was pronounced not guilty. It is possible that the three slaves were considered unimportant, as they had no actual power in the community, owned no property that could be seized, and had little opportunity to make enemies. No one bothered to complain about the disposition of their cases.

Eventually, a person whose name was not recorded redeemed Tituba from prison (essentially buying her) and took her away from Salem. It is thought that the same person bought John Indian as well. John and Tituba had a daughter named Violet who stayed with the Parris family until at least 1720, when Samuel Parris died. After being taken from prison (the word "freed" is not appropriate here), Tituba was never heard from again. Many factors came together to cause the witch hysteria of 1692 in Massachusetts: local religious and political tensions, greed, fear and desperation, an imbalance of power, and in the case of the adolescents who started it all, possible illness, hormones, and rebelliousness that got out of hand. In the end, Tituba was shown to be no witch, just a poor, unfortunate soul who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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WWI Centennial: Battle of Mărăști

By summer 1917 the outlook for the Allies on the Eastern Front was grim at best, as Russia descended into chaos and a combined Austro-German counterattack routed demoralized troops on the Galician front following the failure of the Kerensky Offensive, while everywhere the once-great Russian Army was rapidly hollowed by mutiny and mass desertions.

Against this gloomy backdrop, late July brought a rare and unexpected bright spot on the Romanian front, where the Romanian Second Army (rested, reorganized and resupplied after the disaster of 1916) mounted a surprise offensive along with the Russian Fourth and Ninth Armies against the junction of the German Ninth Army and Austro-Hungarian First Army, and scored an impressive tactical victory at the Battle of Mărăști, from July 22 to August 1, 1917. However the larger planned offensive failed to materialize, and Romania’s isolated success couldn’t shore up the crumbling Eastern Front amid Russia’s collapse.

Map of Europe July 22 1917
Erik Sass

The Allied success at Mărăști was due to a number of factors, most notably the careful artillery preparation, which saw two days of heavy bombardment of Austro-German positions beginning on July 22, guided by aerial spotters. The Austro-German forces were also deployed on hilly terrain in the foothills of the Vrancea Mountains, meaning their trenches were discontinuous, separated in many places by rough terrain, although they tried to compensate for this with heavily fortified strongholds. Pockets of forest and sheltered gorges also allowed the Romanians to advance in between the zigzagging enemy trenches undetected; on the other hand, the hills and tree cover also made it difficult to move up artillery once the advance began (a task made even more difficult by torrential rain, the familiar companion of the First World War). 

After two days of fierce, concentrated bombardment, on July 24 at 4 a.m. the Romanians and Russian infantry went over the top, with the Romanians advancing along a 30-kilometer-long stretch of front behind a “creeping barrage” of the type recently adopted by the French and British on the Western Front. With three divisions from the Russian Fourth Army supporting them on the southern flank, 56 Romanian battalions advanced up to 19 kilometers in some places – a major breakthrough by the standards of trench warfare. Engineers followed close behind to create roads bypassing the most inaccessible terrain, but unsurprisingly it still proved difficult to move heavy guns as the new roads quickly turned to mud in the rain.

On July 25 the Romanians began to consolidate their gains, spelling the end of major offensive operations during the battle, although smaller actions continued until August 1. The decision was prompted by events elsewhere on the Eastern Front (above, Romanian civilians look at enemy guns captured during the battle). The Battle of Mărăști was supposed to be part of a larger pincer movement by Romanian and Russian forces, including an attack by the Romanian First Army and Russian Sixth Army to the southeast, which were supposed to outflank the German Ninth Army from the southeast. However the disastrous defeat of Russian forces further north in Galicia and Bukovina, widespread insubordination in the Russian Army, and political turmoil in the Russian rear all combined to derail the Allied plan, forcing them to go on the defensive.

The victory at Mărăști was not fruitless: along with an even bigger defensive victory atMărășești two weeks later, Mărăști seriously complicated the Central Powers’ strategy for the remainder of the year, which called for knocking Romania and Russia out of the war before returning to the Western Front to finish off France. 

But the big picture was bad and getting worse, as hundreds of thousands of Russian troops deserted or refused to fight, effectively paralyzing the Allied war effort along most of the Eastern Front, while in Galicia the Austro-German advance continued. Florence Farmborough, a British nurse serving with a Red Cross unit in the Russian Army, described a typical day during the Russian retreat in her diary entry on July 25, 1917 (and noted the growing hostility of ordinary Russian soldiers towards the foreign nurses, representatives of the Western Allies, whom the Russians accused of leaving them in the lurch):

And then there came again that peremptory voice we dreaded. It roused us as no other could ever do, for it was the voice of Retreat. ‘Wake up! Get up at once! No time to lose!’ We started up, seized what we could and helped the orderlies collect the equipment. We were told it was a proruiv [breakthrough] on the right flank of our Front and that the enemy was pouring through the gap. The Sister-on-duty began to weep… Troops were passing quickly by in the darkness; whole regiments were there. We were given a lantern and told to stand by the gate and await transport. Some soldiers entered the yard swearing; we hoped they would not see us. But they did, and soon they were shouting ugly things about us. I too felt like weeping, but we had to keep a straight face and pretend that we had not heard… The soldiers who had always been our patient, grateful men, seemed to have turned against us. Now for the first time we realised that our soldiers might become our enemies and were capable of doing us harm.

This was not an isolated occurrence, but rather one small incident in a rising tide of insubordination and sheer chaos. Later Farmborough noted another encounter:

More soldiers went by in the darkness. There were no officers with them, they too were deserters. Curing and shouting they made their way along the highroad. We were frightened and crouched low against the fence so that they could not see us, and we dared not speak lest they should hear… The night was very dark and the confusion great. Wheels creaked and scrunched; frightened horses slid forwards by leaps and bounds; cart grated against cart; whips twanged and swished; and agitated voices shouted and cursed in one and the same breath... All around us were fires; even in front of us buildings were blazing. My driver said that some of the soldiers thought that they were already surrounded by the enemy.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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