The Role of Witch's Cake in Salem

Salem Witch Trials Glossary

Salem Witch Trial
Salem Witch Trial - Trial of George Jacobs. Douglas Grundy / Three Lions / Getty Images

It was believed that a witch's cake had the power to reveal whether witchcraft was afflicting a person with symptoms of illness. Such a cake or biscuit was made with rye flour and the urine of the afflicted person. The cake was then fed to a dog. If the dog exhibited the same symptoms, the presence of witchcraft was "proven." Why a dog? A dog was believed to be a common familiar associated with the devil. The dog was then supposed to point to the witches who had afflicted the victim.

In Salem Village, in the Massachusetts colony, in 1692, such a witch's cake was key in the first accusations of witchcraft that led to court trials and executions of many who were accused. The practice was apparently a well known folk practice in English culture of the time.

What Happened?

In Salem Village, Massachusetts, in January of 1692 (by the modern calendar), several girls began behaving erratically. One of these girls was Elizabeth Parris, known as Betty, who was nine years old at the time. She was the daughter of the Rev. Samuel Parris, the minister of the Salem Village Church. Another was Abigail Williams, who was 12 years old and an orphaned niece of Rev. Samuel Parris, who lived with the Parris family. They complained of fever and convulsions. The father tried prayer, on the model of Cotton Mather who had written about curing similar symptoms in another case. He also had the congregation and some other local clergy pray for the girls to cure their affliction. When prayer did not cure the illness, Rev. Parris brought in another minister, John Hale, and the local physician, William Griggs, who observed the symptoms in the girls, and could find no physical reason. They suggested that witchcraft was involved.

Whose Idea and Who Made the Cake?

A neighbor of the Parris family, Mary Sibley, recommended the making of witch's cake to reveal whether witchcraft was involved. She gave directions to John Indian, a slave serving the Parris family, to make the cake. He collected urine from the girls and then had Tituba, another slave in the household, actually bake the witch's cake and feed it to the dog that lived in the Parris household. (Both Tituba and John Indian were slaves, most likely of Indian origin, brought to Massachusetts Bay Colony by Rev. Parris from Barbados.)

Even though the "diagnosis" didn't work, Rev. Parris denounced in church the use of this magic. He said it didn't matter if it was done with good intentions, calling it "going to the devil for help against the devil." Mary Sibley, according to church records, was suspended from communion, then restored when she stood and confessed before the congregation and the people of the congregation raised their hands to show they were satisfied with her confession. Mary Sibley then disappears from the records about the trials, though Tituba and the girls figure prominently.

The girls ended up naming those they accused of witchcraft. The first accused were Tituba, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osbourne. Sarah Good later died in prison and Sarah Good was executed in July. Tituba confessed to witchcraft, so she was exempted from execution, and she later turned accuser.

By the end of the trials early the following year, four accused witches had died in prison, one had been pressed to death, and nineteen were hanged.

What Really Afflicted the Girls?

Scholars generally agree that the accusations were rooted in a community hysteria, primed by belief in the supernatural. Politics within the church likely played a part, with Rev. Parris at the center of controversy over power and compensation. Politics in the colony — at a shaky time, including resolving the colony's status with the King and wars with the French and Indians, likely also played a part. Some point to controversy over inheritance, especially targeting those who interfered with inheritances. There were also some old squabbles among community members. All these are credited by some or many historians as playing a part in the unfolding of the accusations and trials. A few historians have also argued that grain that had been contaminated with a fungus called ergot may have caused some of the symptoms.