Urine Cakes and Satan's Brides

The secret star of the Salem witch trials was a urine cake. That’s right, a cake made out of urine.

"Did you say . . .  cakes  made from  urine ?"

"Did you say . . . cakes made from 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.

Now you know why Isaac Newton didn't want anyone to know that he practiced alchemy!

Now you know why Isaac Newton didn't want anyone to know that he practiced alchemy!

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.

Don't google "urine cake." No, really. Don't.

Don't google "urine cake." No, really. Don't.

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 Girlswhen 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.

The Coreys of Salem

Giles and Martha Corey were both executed in 1692 during the Salem Witch Trials. 

The witch panic that swept through the small village of Salem was driven by a small group of girls who claimed they had been “afflicted” by witches. These afflicted girls had enormous power during the Salem witch trials, both accusing their neighbors of witchcraft and then testifying publicly against them. Eventually over forty people in Salem claimed to be under attack by demonic forces, and they accused nearly two hundred people of being witches—at a time when Salem Village had a population of less than six hundred people.

When Martha Corey openly questioned if the afflicted girls were actually ill, she was accused of witchcraft. Martha was arrested. Her husband, Giles, defended her, and went a step further—he accused the afflicted girls of lying about their ailments. Giles, too, was accused of being a witch.

The Coreys spent the summer of 1692 in prison, as their fellow prisoners were questioned, put on trial, and executed. Over fifty people confessed to being witches—and of that group, none were killed. The nineteen people hung for witchcraft in Salem refused to confess and were found guilty at trial. 

Witches were hung in Salem rather than being burned, because under English law witchcraft was considered treason rather than heresy. 

Witches were hung in Salem rather than being burned, because under English law witchcraft was considered treason rather than heresy. 

The trials took place in a cloud of hysteria. The afflicted girls cried out that they were being attacked in the courthouse, stunning the judge, the jury, and other spectators. During one early trial, that of Sarah Good, one of the afflicted girls screamed that Good’s ghostly specter was attacking her with a knife. When she was examined for knife wounds in court, bloody gashes were found on her arm. Adding to the spectacle of the trials, a young man jumped up to claim that he had broken his knife the previous day and dropped the piece near the afflicted girl. To many, this was clear evidence that the girl had lied, but Sarah Good was still found guilty and executed.

An afflicted girl is "attacked" during the trial. 

An afflicted girl is "attacked" during the trial. 

The Coreys served as a stark example to others who might have questioned the afflicted girls. When Martha Corey was put on trial, she confidently proclaimed her innocence, but the afflicted girls cried out that the devil was whispering in Corey’s ear, and that a yellow bird was sucking on her hand. The jury sentenced Martha to death. 

Her husband, Giles, watched from prison. When it came time for his trial, he refused to plead guilty or not guilty. As an incentive to plea, the court decided to “press” Corey to speak, using a rare legal punishment to pressure recalcitrant defendants. Outside the jail, the sheriff placed boards on Corey’s chest and stomach. Heavy stones were piled on Giles, but still he refused to speak. 

This torture killed Giles very slowly. For two full days he was pressed under the weight of the stones. When Giles was asked to plead innocent or guilty, he only replied “more weight!”

On the third day, Giles Corey finally died. Three days later, his wife Martha was hung. 

The Coreys stood up against the witch trials, and paid a heavy price. But because Giles refused to enter a plea, his estate stayed in the Corey family instead of passing to the government. 

The hysteria in Salem died down nearly as fast as it began, and within a year of the last execution many of the jurors publicly apologized for the error of believing witches were attacking their community. During the high anxiety of 1692, when Puritans feared their community would crumble, it had been plausible for residents of Salem to believe that the Devil was assaulting their village. The jurors believed God was testing them, and the only response was to exterminate the witches. This dangerous combination of hysteria and righteousness cost many lives, including Giles and Martha Corey. 

(For more, keep an eye out for my novel Salem Mean Girls, which retells the Salem Witch Trials in the style of the movie “Mean Girls.”)