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The True Story of Tituba, the Slave at the Center of the Salem Witch Trials

Rather than deny accusations of witchcraft, the enslaved woman spun a rich tale of sorcery that ultimately saved her life.

by Christobel Hastings
Oct 15 2018, 6:56pm

1902 rendering of Tituba by John Whetton Ehringer, via Wikimedia Commons. 

It was February 1692, and in the staunchly Puritan town of Salem, Massachusetts, strange forces were at play. In the household of the Reverend Samuel Parris, two young girls had begun to scream and writhe. With no explanation for the hysterical behavior, a local doctor, William Griggs, handed down a damning assessment: Parris’ 9-year-old daughter, Betty, and 11-year-old niece, Abigail, had been possessed by the Devil. As the weeks went by, town leaders declared that Salem was under lethal threat from the supernatural, and a wave of panic swept throughout the colony. By early spring, the deadliest witch-hunt in American history was underway.

Over the course of the year, the Salem Witch Trials saw nearly 200 people accused of practicing “the Devil’s magic” and claimed the lives of 19 on Gallows Hill before the chapter of terror came to a close. Three hundred years later, the story of how the Massachusetts Bay Colony once hunted for maleficent witches continues to fascinate, resurfacing whenever fear and prejudice threaten the moral decency of our societies. Yet even as we remain captivated by the medieval past, we rarely focus on the indigenous South American woman who determined the entire course of the trials with a court confession that, in the words of occult historian Elaine G. Breslaw, “the essential legal evidence required to begin the process of communal exorcism, to purge the community of its collective sin.” Her name was Tituba.

Tituba was enslaved in Parris’ household at the time of the trials, but exactly how she gained the nickname the “Black Witch of Salem” and convinced a small town of a Satanic conspiracy is a story mostly missing from history books. Historians know little about Tituba’s background, and what they do know is muddied by folklore, popular literature, and biased historical records that center racist stereotypes.

If at all, Tituba is most commonly remembered for Arthur Miller’s characterisation of her in his classic play about the Salem witch trials, The Crucible. Miller’s Tituba is a “Negro slave” who dabbles in dark voodoo, casts spells over fiery cauldrons, and brews potions of chicken blood. But Miller’s depiction is part of a stark and inaccurate racial transformation that’s taken place over the centuries since Tituba linved, shifting the popular image of her from South American to African. Breslaw has gone great lengths to uncover details about Tituba’s early life, and has traced her to an Arawak-speaking group in the northeast coast of South America (present-day Venezuela). Due to the demand for indigenous household slaves to relieve the labor crisis in Barbados at the time, Breslaw posits that it’s likely that Tituba and her husband were captured on a kidnapping expedition and taken into service before they were purchased by Reverend Samuel Parris and brought to Massachusetts in 1680.

By the time Tituba arrived in Salem, she “carried with her memories of life in an Arawak village as well as the image of an emergent Creole society in the Barbados of the 1670,” Breslaw writes. Settled in the white, Puritan society of Salem Village, Tituba’s multicultural upbringing alone would have raised suspicions. But the most visible and immediate mark of demonic associations was the color of her skin. “Being perceived as both African and Indian served not to diminish but to intensify the satanic stigma attached to Tituba and to heighten fears and fantasies Puritans projected on her,” notes Veta Smith-Tucker in “Purloined Identity: The Racial Metamorphosis of Tituba of Salem Village.”

In the wake of the ordeal at the Pariss household, Tituba, who allegedly dabbled in dark magic, was arrested on suspicion of bewitching the young girls and thrown into jail alongside two white misfits, the elderly Sarah Osborne and a beggar named Sarah Good.

With her race, gender, and slave status stacked against her, Tituba likely knew the Salem community would assume her guilt no matter what she said. Not that a confession was the first thing on her mind: initially, Tituba completely denied causing the Parris children harm and engaging in a Satanic pact. So on March 1, when Salem town justice John Hathorne asked Tituba once more what had prompted her to hurt the girls, she shocked the community by claiming that she had partaken in a diabolical covenant. “The devil came to me,” she confessed, “and bid me serve him.”

Before a hushed courtroom, Tituba wove a rich tale confirming the authorities’ fears that Satanic evil was afoot in Salem. Villagers sat captivated as she outlined an array of demonic characters, animal accomplices, and evil spirits consistent intent on destroying the Puritan way of life according to English folk beliefs: black dogs, red cats, yellow birds, and a tall, white-haired man who had travelled from Boston and ordered her to sign the Devil’s book. She confessed to pinching girls in several households and riding through the night on sticks with Good and Osborne, and even described the existence of a malevolent coven of witches in Boston. With every revelation, officials gained the evidence of Satanic influence needed to begin to convict the villagers of witchcraft.

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1802 Illustration. Author unknown. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The question of what prompted Tituba to make such a dramatic confession has been the source of speculation for centuries. But Breslaw writes that Pariss was filled with a “grim determination to find a ‘scapegoat for his daughter’s troubles,’” and beat her harshly out of anger that she refused to admit to the accusations. Slaves, after all, were supposed to submit to their masters’ wills, even if that meant confessing to an association with Satanic power. Given Pariss’ brutal treatment of Tituba—in line with European methods of torture—it’s possible that confession and imprisonment simply became preferable to extreme physical punishment.

Whether or not Pariss pressured Tituba to confess to the charges or she did so as a reprieve from his violence, Tituba likely realized it would be generally less risky to own up to a supernatural conspiracy than flatly deny involvement; Puritans hate liars, but they can’t deny a good request for forgiveness. Good and Osborne were proof: They both denied the charges of witchcraft and were taken straight to the hangman’s noose. But Tituba, knowing her identity already made her a guilty suspect, instead gave the superstitious pilgrims a masterfully believable confession tailored to resonate with Puritan doctrine.

For instance, in her testimony, Tituba said that women have a predisposition towards sin and that as a slave, she had an obligation towards servitude. When she admitted Satanic involvement (“I will serve you no longer then he said he would hurt me”), she called upon Scripture by referencing the severe threat of the Devil, and how she had endeavoured to resist his evil. Most importantly, Tituba drew upon the Puritan belief that if you confessed and repented, you could be saved. With a heartfelt apology, she vowed that she never meant to hurt Betty, and proclaimed her love for the child. The verdict was in: Tituba had composed the perfect Puritan confession. Because she had repented, the Puritans couldn’t justify killing her.

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Little is known of what happened to Tituba after her trial. Despite her confession, on May 9, 1693, a grand jury declined to indict her due to a lack of evidence, though she languished for 15 months in a crowded Boston prison because Parris, incensed at Tituba for recanting her confession, refused to pay her bail. In April 1963, she was sold to an unknown person for the price of the debts, after which she disappeared from historical record. As an enslaved and tainted woman of color, however, it’s highly unlikely that she would have been permitted to re-enter society. “Unlike other accused (white) witches,” Veta Smith-Tucker points out, “who upon confession could be regenerated and reintegrated into the community, Tituba wore the dark skin of reprobation”.

Today, it’s hard to comprehend the immense skill it took for Tituba to manipulate the potentially fatal circumstances to her advantage. Tituba is typically portrayed as a hare-brained storyteller, her sensational confession filled with the cast of a fairy tale. But the stakes were life or death, and a vivid imagination alone was no reprieve from the gallows. With a carefully crafted testimony that aligned with Puritan perceptions of gender, race, and religion, Tituba managed to stave off her oppressors, deflect suspicion onto the wider community, and protect her life. From enslavement to persecution—servitude to survival—she ultimately created, in Breslaw’s words, “a new idiom of resistance by overtly submitting to the will of her abuser while covertly feeding his fears of a conspiracy.”