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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.

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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.

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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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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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iStock

Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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