Signing the Devil's Book

Salem Witch Trials Glossary

Devil making sign, engraving from Compendium Maleficarum, by Francesco Maria Guazzo, 1626, Italy
Devil and followers, in a 1626 engraving from Italy. De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

What did it mean to "sign the devil's book"?

In Puritan theology, a person recorded a covenant with the Devil by signing, or making their mark, in the Devil's book "with pen and ink" or with blood. Only with such signing, according to the beliefs of the time, did a person actually become a witch and gain demonic powers, such as appearing in spectral form to do harm to another.

In testimony in the Salem witch trials, finding an accuser who could testify that the accused had signed the Devil's book, or getting a confession from the accused that she or he had signed it, was an important part of the examination.

For some of the victims, the testimony against them included charges that they had, as specters, tried to or succeeded in forcing others or persuading others to sign the devil's book.

The idea that signing the devil's book was important is probably derived from the Puritan belief that church members made a covenant with God and demonstrated that by signing the church membership book.  This accusation, then, fit with the idea that the witchcraft "epidemic" in Salem Village was undermining the local church, a theme which Rev. Samuel Parris and other local ministers preached during the beginning phases of the "craze."

Tituba and the Devil's Book

When the slave, Tituba, was examined for her supposed part in the witchcraft of Salem Village, she said she had been beaten by her owner, Rev. Parris, and told she had to confess to practicing witchcraft. She also "confessed" to signing the devil's book and several other signs that were believed in European culture to be signs of witchcraft, including flying in the air on a pole.

 Because Tituba confessed, she was not subject to hanging (only unconfessed witches could be executed).  She was not tried by the Court of Oyer and Terminer, which oversaw the executions, but by the Superior Court of Judicature, in May, 1693, after the wave of executions was over. That court acquitted her of "covenanting with the Devil."

In Tituba's case, during the examination, the judge, John Hathorne, asked her directly about signing the book, and the other acts which in European culture signified the practice of witchcraft.  She had not offered any such specific until he asked.  And even then, she said that she signed it "with red like blood," which would give her some room later to say that she had fooled the devil by signing it with something that looked like blood, and not actually with her own blood.

Tituba was asked if she saw other "marks" in the book. She said that she had seen others, including those of Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne.  On further examination, she said she'd seen nine of them, but could not identity the others.

The accusers began, after Tituba's examination, including in their testimony specifics about signing the devil's book, usually that the accused as specters had tried to force the girls to sign the book, even torturing them.  A consistent theme by the accusers was that they refused to sign the book and refused to even touch the book.

More Specific Examples

In March of 1692, Abigail Williams, one of the accusers at the Salem witch trials, accused Rebecca Nurse of trying to force her (Abigail) to sign the devil's book.

Rev. Deodat Lawson, who had been the minister in Salem Village before Rev. Parris, witnessed this claim by Abigail Williams.

In April, when Mercy Lewis accused Giles Corey, she said that Corey had appeared to her as a spirit and forced her to sign the devil's book.  He was arrested four days after this accusation and was killed by pressing when he refused to either confess to or deny the charges against him.

Earlier History

The idea that a person made a pact with the devil, either orally or in writing, was a common belief in witchcraft lore of medieval and early modern times.  The Malleus Maleficarum, written in 1486 - 1487 by one or two German Dominican monks and theology professors, and one of the most common manuals for witch hunters, describes the agreement with the devil as an important ritual in associating with the devil and becoming a witch (or warlock).

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