Tituba’s secrets

For over three hundred years, the Salem Witch Trials have lingered in American historical memory. But few people know the woman behind it all

Illustration by Nikolai Noel

She admitted to flying on a “sticke” with witches, and her confession sparked a witch-hunt whose memory still hangs like a spell over the New England town of Salem, Massachusetts. Tituba’s testimony in 1692, at a specially convened court, condemned nineteen women to death by hanging. Nearly 150 women (and some men) were imprisoned for witchcraft. One person was pressed to death and four others died in prison.

No one has ever be able to explain exactly how an enslaved West Indian woman named Tituba set those macabre events in motion. Three centuries after the Salem Witch Trials, Tituba remains a controversial figure. Everything about her — including her race and birthplace — remains shrouded in mystery. And most of what is known about her can be found in courtroom transcripts.

It all started on a late December day in 1691, when nine-year-old Elizabeth Parris and her eleven-year-old cousin Abigail Williams engaged in a common adolescent game: telling fortunes by dropping an egg white into a glass. On a good day, this old English custom provided the girls with a taste of rebellion from their austere Puritan life. On this day, to their horror, the egg white took the shape of a coffin. The girls panicked.

Soon they had begun suffering horrific pain, a phantom illness no doctor could diagnose. Rumour had it they were involved in blood rituals and had danced naked in the woods. Distraught over the girls’ suffering, Tituba and a neighbour, Mary Sibley, concocted a witchcake, a mixture of rye meal and the girls’ urine. It was baked in ashes and fed to a dog, which they thought was probably harbouring the witch.

Events now spiralled out of control. Acting crazy and sometimes even possessed, the girls began to accuse Tituba of being a witch. She confessed when confronted and pressured by Elizabeth’s father, the Reverend Samuel Parris. She began to name other women as witches, and fingered Sarah Good and Sarah Osbourne, claiming they had threatened to kill her if she didn’t join forces with them to hurt the children.

But if Tituba thought confessing to witchcraft was the end of her ordeal, she was dead wrong.

In her book Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem, the historian Elaine G. Breslaw writes, “large-scale witch hunts played no role in American history until 1692 . . . when Tituba’s confession gave substance and shape to amorphous fears about a diabolical invasion.” Tituba’s cultural experiences did not include a European concept of witchcraft. She would have come into contact with obeah or voodoo practices among some of the enslaved Africans in Barbados, where she was a slave herself before the Reverend Parris took her to Boston and then Salem. But Tituba’s knowledge of witchcraft did not harbour the sinister vision of a broom-riding witch wreaking havoc on innocent Christian girls.

Still, she was a West Indian who loved telling a good tale. Caught up in the drama of struggling to save her own life, and quite possibly relishing her unforeseen power, Tituba began to spin stories of midnight trips with witches flying on sticks from Salem to Boston, where they plotted the demise of Salem’s young souls.

She captured the imagination of the court, but no one ever realised the double entendre of Tituba’s stories, which in hindsight seem to represent her own capture and oppression under the evil force of slavery. Tituba put on quite a performance, even going into silent trances during her testimony. By the time the judges got a grip on reason, it was too late. Innocent people had been executed.

The Salem Witch Trials never faded into oblivion, but whatever information there was on Tituba vanished or became distorted. Then she re-emerged in twentieth-century literature as a Barbadian slave with African roots. She appeared in The Crucible, by renowned playwright Arthur Miller. When Anne Petry wrote Tituba of Salem Village in 1964, Tituba appeared on the cover of the novel as a slave of African descent. Guadeloupean writer Maryse Condé conjured up images of Tituba as a black woman in her I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem.

But later historians resurrecting her story began to set the record straight about Tituba’s identity. She was neither a witch nor an enslaved African. There had been no complaints about her engaging in witchcraft before the Parris girl and her cousin dabbled in predicting the future. Trial transcripts refer to her as “Tituba Indian” and “that Indian woman.” The stereotypical image of slaves being solely of African descent comes from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But not all slaves were black or African.

In Barbados, where Tituba lived before the Parris family took her to Massachusetts, a there was a small population of indentured white servants and enslaved Amerindians, who had been brought to the deserted island by the English shortly after they colonised it in 1627. “Within a few years,” writes Breslaw, “a small group of Arawaks had been persuaded to move to Barbados from the Guiana coast of South America to teach the islanders how to grow appropriate crops.” Once there, Breslaw says, they were enslaved. They were not suited to hard labour, and most died quickly, but some settlers preferred Amerindian women to work with their children and in the house.

The surviving records suggest Tituba was an Arawak woman kidnapped from the Guiana coast. She was somewhere between thirteen and eighteen when Parris left Barbados in 1680. At the time of the trials, twelve years later, Tituba was said to be between twenty-five and thirty. Tituba’s upbringing was vastly different from the culture she experienced in Barbados or Salem. There were no witches and no obeah among the Amerindians, but there were concepts of evil forces.

“The Arawak world,” writes Breslaw, “was also inhabited by a variety of malevolent spirits . . . that wandered in the bush after dark causing evil.” Tituba had come from a culture that had a rich history of storytelling, in which dreams had a purpose. She used her dreams — or stories about her dreams — during the trial. She was able to get a reaction from the judges and defendants as she testified how she was forced to do the work of witches. Tituba told a better story than the other women defendants. She relied on her own cultural experiences to save herself.

Her life was not easy after that. Unwilling to see his daughter as mischievous, let alone conniving or deceitful, the Reverend Parris attempted to save face by placing full blame for the girls’ strange behaviour on Tituba. She confessed because her master required her to do so. For that, she languished in jail for thirteen months. “To dispose of his reluctant witch, Parris simply refused to pay her jail fees,” writes Breslaw. “An unidentified person paid [her] fees and took her away in April 1693. Her fate after that date is unknown.”

After the trials, Tituba seemed to have vanished off the face of the earth. But her name is forever etched in history as the West Indian woman responsible for creating the mass hysteria that led to the infamous event. Three hundred years later, it’s still an unbelievable story that only a West Indian could have concocted.