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Date of birth unknown

Barbados, West
Indies Date and place of death unknown

Slave and accused witch

Tituba was a female Carib (Native South American) slave in the household of Samuel Parris, the minister of Salem Village church (see biography entry). She told voodoo stories to Parris's young daughter Elizabeth (called Betty) and his niece Abigail Williams. Betty and Abigail invited other local girls to join Tituba's storytelling circle, and before long all of the girls were lapsing into fits and accusing local residents of bewitching them. Many historical accounts credit Tituba's stories with starting the Salem trials in 1692–93. Nevertheless, Betty and Abigail also dabbled in childish magic tricks that were traditional to New England and not to Tituba's native Barbados, suggesting that these events may have occurred even without Tituba. When the girls started having fits it seemed natural for them to point an accusing finger at Tituba. Although it is not certain what her actual involvement was prior to this point, she played a central role in fueling the hysteria in the courtroom during the trials. Tituba was jailed as a suspected witch, but she was not executed, although twenty other accused witches were. She was released after a general reprieve of 1693, and Parris sold her to another owner in order to pay for her jailing costs.

Tituba and the Parris Family

Little is known about Tituba's life aside from her connection to the Parris family, primarily because she was a slave but also because she came from far-away Barbados. It is believed that Parris bought Tituba and her husband John Indian while living in Barbados in the 1670s. He took them to Boston, Massachusetts, in 1680 after his failed business attempts in Barbados convinced him to seek a job as a pastor in New England. Eventually he was hired to start a church in Salem Village. Tituba and John Indian moved to Salem with Parris in 1688 and were immediately considered outsiders in this small, isolated town where owning a slave, particularly a Carib rather than an African, was uncommon. Tituba and John Indian were given the majority of the indoor and outdoor chores of the household. Tituba was also in charge of caring for the children while the Parrises were making social calls in the parish.

Eight people shared the Parris home in Salem Village. The Parris family, which included two other children in addition to daughter Betty and cousin Abigail, and Tituba and John Indian all lived in a two-story, four-bedroom house that was rather large by local standards. Though the house was heated by a large central fireplace, winters were so cold that water would freeze on the hearth. Daily life was grueling, especially for the slave couple and the children. They would rise in the dark and gather to pray by the hearth. Breakfast was eaten by candlelight and then the work of the day began. Typical for the era, girls and women began with sewing, spinning, cooking, washing, and cleaning. Basically anything the family required for daily life was made at home, so days were filled with chores like making bread, butter, ale, clothing, candles, and other things. Men had no chores in the winter and were free to socialize. In the Parris home John Indian took care of any outside manual labor while Tituba tended to most of the indoor chores. The children took breaks only for meals at midday and evening and for nightly prayer sessions. Recreational activities and social visits were minimal for both slaves and children, for even when the weather warmed up leisure was considered sinful by Parris, a strict and pious (strongly religious) Puritan minister. (Puritans were a Protestant Christian group who believed in rigid social and religious rules.)

Girls target Tituba and others

With the Parrises frequently away from home, Tituba spent most of her time alone with the children. After long, tedious days they would often gather by the hearth to relax and tell stories. Tituba was a fascinating storyteller, and the children were fascinated by her tales of Barbados. The only other stories they ever read or heard were from the Bible (the Christian holy book), so these sessions by the fire were especially unique experiences for them. By late February 1693 several girls were being afflicted by hysterical fits and hallucinations. It is likely that their parents, and Samuel Parris in particular, urged or forced them to name certain people who were responsible for their behavior. Historians speculate that the pious and troubled Parris was eager to deflect the roots of this strange behavior out of his own household and onto others. Tituba and two village women, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne, were the first three accused of being witches in the Salem trials. Within days they were taken to the village for questioning by magistrates (judges) John Hathorne and Johnathan Corwin. This was a major event in Salem Village. Almost everyone took the day off to witness the court proceedings. The accused were brought through the village in a formal procession before being taken into an overcrowded, makeshift courtroom at a village inn. There was not enough space for everyone, however, as people had come not only from the village but also from the surrounding areas of Tops-field, Ipswich, Beverly, and Salem Town. The size of the audience forced local leaders to find a larger building, so they decided to use the church meetinghouse instead.

The officials and the girls were brought in first, then the church filled with people until every space was occupied. The room quieted as the first accused witches were brought to the front to be examined. Good and Osborne both spoke before Tituba and helped set the stage for her testimony. According to the court report, when Osborne was on the witness stand she spoke of possibly being bewitched (being under a spell) rather than being an actual witch. As described in The Devil in Massachusetts, she described seeing or dreaming "A thing like an Indian, all Black . . . [which] pinched her on her neck and pulled her by the back part of her head to the door of the house." By trying to deflect attention from herself onto the black man, Osborne inadvertently implicated herself as a witch (see Chapter 4).

Tituba confesses

According to records, Tituba had been severely beaten by Parris for several days before her appearance in court on March 1, 1693, and scholars conclude that he gave her instructions about what to say. When it was her turn to speak she told the audience exactly what they wanted to hear, but only after provocation (deliberately causing anger in someone) from Hathorne. The proceedings began with Hathorne's trademark style of questioning, which was relentless and emotional. He asked Tituba about her associations with evil spirits and she said she had none. As described in A Delusion of Satan, he then asked her why she was hurting the children and she answered, "They do no harm to me, I not hurt them at all." Ignoring her answer, Hathorne asked her why she had bewitched the girls, as if she had just confessed to a crime. She responded by saying again, "I have done nothing: I can't tell when the Devil works." Hathorne then pressed further by asking Tituba what connection she had to the devil and again demanding to be told who was hurting the children. To this Tituba replied vaguely, "The Devil for ought I know," which Hathorne chose to take as a confession. When he asked for a description of the devil or whoever was responsible for the bewitching, suddenly Tituba began to cooperate. Her demeanor (behavior) changed and she seemed to be trying to save her own life, which she knew was in danger. It was also commonly known that the only chance of escaping death during witchcraft charges was to confess.

According to A Delusion of Satan, Tituba started by admitting she had seen something "like a man," and the audience sat quietly as she described the devil himself. Spurred on by the reaction of the court, she admitted to being a witch, a fact that shocked the audience and sent the girls into hysterics. As described in Witchcraft at Salem, Tituba admitted that "The Devil came to [her] and bid [her] to serve him." She said the Devil had sometimes appeared as a tall man dressed in black with white hair, and other times disguised as an animal (called a familiar) such as a rat or a cat. According to The Devil in Massachusetts, he said he was God and requested her service for six years: "He tell me he God and I must believe and serve him six years . . . the first time I believe him God he glad." He had brought her the witches' book in which she had entered her name and seen the names of nine other people, two of whom were Good and Osborne. Tituba claimed she had ridden with the women on a broomstick to a strange place and described the familiars the women had with them. One was a yellow bird that sucked Good's hand and the other had wings and legs but the head of a woman.

Confirms girls' accusations

In giving these details, Tituba was confirming the earlier testimony of the afflicted girls, who had described these very creatures. She also said that Good and Osborne had forced her to pinch the girls, whom she would never willingly harm, and that the women had helped the devil bully her into these acts. Tituba went so far as to say the women had come to her as specters (spirits or demons) and forced her to try to kill one of the main accusers, Ann Putnam, Jr. (see biography and primary source entries), with a knife. A few days earlier Putnam had spent hours in convulsions, screaming that someone was trying to cut her head off with a knife. Though nobody had been able to see this force, Tituba's words were confirming Putnam's experience. This statement sent the girls into violent fits, and when Tituba was questioned about who was afflicting them she accused Good. Confirming her accusation, the girls fell into even wilder convulsions. Then Tituba claimed to have been struck blind, a common sign of a witch renouncing (rejecting) her calling.

Tituba Tries to Spare John Indian

When Sarah Osborne complained of having seen something "like an Indian" that had tormented her, the public imagination could certainly have turned to John Indian as the spectral culprit. This could have led to his arrest and death, but surprisingly he was never questioned for anything other than his own fits. He started having fits directly after the first hearing in the Salem trials, probably to deflect the attention away from himself as a possible culprit. John Indian was saved, however, when his wife Tituba focused attention on Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne with her fantastic descriptions of their activities together. Tituba's skillfully told tale prevented her husband from being imprisoned or in any other way affected by charges of witchcraft.

What happened to Tituba?

Tituba's confession may have saved her own life but it did not prevent the tide of future accusations. After the first interrogation, more and more people throughout the region were being accused of witchcraft. Tituba's words had confirmed Salem's deepest fears about the existence of evil in their midst. It had also sealed the fate of Osborne and Good, who were eventually executed. Tituba's suggestion that she had seen other names in the devil's book only heightened the hysteria. She was never again questioned in court or brought to trial, but sat languishing in a jail cell until May 1693, when Massachusetts governor William Phipps (1651–1695) ordered all accused witches remaining in jail to be set free. Prisoners were responsible for their own jailing fees, and since Tituba was Parris's property, her fees were his to pay. Parris sold her to another slave owner to recover his expenses, but records do not give any details about her life after that.

For Further Reading

Discovery Online—A Village Possessed: A True Story of Witchcraft. [Online] http://www.discovery.com/stories/history/witches/witches.html (Accessed July 7, 2000).

Hansen, Chadwick. Witchcraft at Salem. New York: George Braziller, 1969.

Hill, Frances. A Delusion of Satan: The Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials. New York: Doubleday, 1995.

Kallen, Stuart A. The Salem Witch Trials. San Diego, California: Lucent Books, 1999.

Rice, Earle, Jr. The Salem Witch Trials. San Diego, California: Lucent Books, 1997.

The Salem Witch Museum.[Online] http://www.salemwitchmuseum.com/ (Accessed July 7, 2000).

Starkey, Marion L. The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry into theSalem Witch Trials. New York: Doubleday, 1989.