The secret star of the Salem witch trials was a urine cake. That’s right, a cake made out of urine.
When Abigail Williams and Betty Parris fell ill with a mysterious ailment, the village doctor couldn’t find a medical cause. Instead, the doctor suspected the “evil hand"—Puritan code for demonic magic.
Magic had a complicated history in the seventeenth century. For millennia, people around the world had used magic to protect their crops, to ward off evil, and sometimes to cause harm. Counter-magic went hand-in-hand with magic. If you suspected someone was using magic to dry up your cows (a common problem in early modern Europe), you’d use counter-magic to break the spell or find the culprit.
Magic was about balance: making spells and breaking them.
This balance ended with the Reformation. The Reformation founded multiple Protestant faiths and split the Catholic church. It had a major affect on magical beliefs, too—both Catholic and Protestant churches enforced stricter religious rules. They also tried to eradicate superstitious beliefs and magic. Alchemy, for example, became a crime punishable by death in sixteenth-century England.
In the 1500s, across Europe, there was an increase in trials for so-called “white magic”—things like love charms and finding charms. This magic was not harmful, but it was seen as irreligious for people to believe in it.
Essentially, counter-magic became a target. The balance in witch beliefs was disrupted, as remedies against witchcraft became suddenly demonic.
But let’s get back to that urine cake.
When Abigail and Betty fell ill, their neighbor, Mary Sibley, suggested a common cure—using counter-magic. She told Tituba, the Parris family slave, to bake a rye cake made with the urine of the two girls. According to Mary, feeding the urine cake to a dog would cure the victims of witchcraft, since dogs were evil companions of witches.
Tituba baked the cake, and four days later she was arrested for witchcraft.
The urine cake made Tituba look guilty because the Reformation had convinced Salem’s Puritans that counter-magic, meant to break a spell, was itself demonic. A few days later, Tituba confessed to making a pact with the devil, reinforcing the impression that her urine cake was evil.
The urine cake pops up in my latest novel, Salem Mean Girls, when Ann Putnam confronts Tituba and tells her not to bake the cake.
Ann cocked her head to one side. “Abigail and Betty changed their minds. They don’t want you to feed the cake to the dogs after all.” I felt a charge pass between them. “They’re going to pray that God will deliver them from the Devil. As you know, the only source of relief from the Devil is the Lord.”
Tituba frowned. “They don’t want me to make the cake?” She looked at me. “Are you sure?”
I opened my mouth and froze. How could I contradict Ann? I wasn’t going to side with urine cakes over Jesus.
One of the best parts of writing Salem Mean Girls was figuring out how to blend the history of the Salem witch trials in with the personal stories of the relationships between the accusers and the accused witches. And, of course, making sure that urine cake made it into the final draft.