Who Was Tituba of Salem?

The Crucible
Tituba is a key character in Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible. Photo Credit: Mraz Center for the Performing Arts/Flickr/Creative Commons License (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Of all the names associated with the infamous Salem witch trials, perhaps none is so recognizable as that of Tituba. Over the past three-plus centuries, she has remained an enigma, mysterious and unknown. This woman, whose background prior to the trials and existence afterward, has been a source of speculation for scholars and armchair historians alike.

Role in the Salem Trials

There are a few things that we do know about Tituba for sure, based primarily on court documents from the trial proceedings. Specifically, she seems to have been at the center of the hysteria, beginning in February 1692. At that time, the daughter and niece of Reverend Samuel Parris began suffering from strange fits, and were soon diagnosed as victims of witchcraft.

Tituba, who was Reverend Parris’ slave, was one of the first three women—along with Sarah Goode and Sarah Osborne—to be accused of the crime of witchcraft, and one of the few accused to survive the court proceedings. According to court transcripts, in addition to witchcraft, Tituba took responsibility for a few other things that set the local population on edge. There’s an excellent essay online by Alyssa Barillari looking at the myths and reality of Tituba’s life, in which she states that upon questioning, Tituba also “confessed to signing the Devil's book, flying in the air upon a pole, seeing cats wolves, birds, and dogs, and pinching or choking some of the "afflicted" girls.”

Although there is quite a bit of documentation in the court records regarding Tituba’s claims, there is also a significant amount of information based on local folklore, which has become known as history. For instance, it's commonly believed that the two girls, Betty Parris and Abigail Williams, claimed that Tituba taught them about the practice of divination with an egg white in a glass of water. This little tidbit has become an accepted part of Tituba’s story… except there is no documentation referencing Tituba’s teaching them about this at all. The claim does not appear in the court transcripts of Betty or Abigail’s testimonies, nor is it part of Tituba’s confession.

The confession itself is a stunning example of how an individual can tell people what they want to hear, regardless of the amount of truth involved. Tituba originally denied the allegations of witchcraft, of consorting with the devil, and everything else. However, once Sarah Goode and Sarah Osborne denied the charges against them in March 1692, Tituba was left to fend for herself.

Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates says, “Perhaps to regain control over a rapidly deteriorating situation, Tituba flipped and told her judges a series of fabulous and ever-creepier stories filled with witch covens and evil spirits. One such spirit, she claimed, belonged to Sarah Osborne, who Tituba said had a way of transforming into a winged creature and then back into a woman… Tituba admitted further to making a pact with the devil, an admission said to have astonished—even terrified—onlookers, who, of course, found it believable (at least more believable than they would have a not-guilty plea).”

What We Do Know

Information on Tituba’s background is very limited, simply because recordkeeping wasn’t exactly comprehensive in the seventeenth century. However, landowners and property owners tended to keep track of their possessions – and that’s how we know that Reverend Parris owned Tituba.

We also know that Tituba and another slave, John Indian, lived with the Parris family. Although legend holds that the two were husband and wife, it’s unverified, at least from a documentation standpoint. However, based on Puritan cultural norms, and the contents of Rev. Parris’ will, it is more than likely that the two had a daughter together, named Violet.

Reverend Parris did, in fact, bring two slaves with him to New England when he returned from his plantation in Barbados, so it has become accepted tradition, up until fairly recently, that this was Tituba’s original home.

A landmark study in 1996 by historian Elaine Breslaw makes a compelling case for the idea that Tituba was a member of the Arawak Indian tribe in South America – specifically, from present-day Guyana or Venezuela – and was likely sold into slavery and purchased by Reverend Parris. The following year, in 1997, Peter Hoffer argued that Tituba is actually a name of Yoruba origin, which means that she could have been of African descent.

Race, Class, and How We See Tituba

Regardless of Tituba’s ethnic origins, whether she was African background, South American Indian, or some other combination, one thing is certain: that race and social class has played a pivotal role in how we view her. In all of the court documents, Tituba’s status is listed as "Indian Woman, servant." Yet, over the centuries, she has been described in Salem folklore – and this includes both fiction and non-fiction – as “black,” a “Negro,” and a “half-breed.” In films and television, she has been portrayed as everything from a "Mammy" stereotype to a wily seductress.

Many of the legends surrounding Tituba focus on her use of divination practices and “voodoo magic,” but there is nothing in any of the court records to back these stories up. However, tradition and legend eventually come to be accepted as fact. Breslaw indicates that there is no evidence that Tituba was practicing any sort of “voodoo” magic before she came to live in Salem, and it’s worth noting that the “witchcraft” in Tituba’s confession is far more closely aligned with European folk magic practices than with Caribbean ones.

Gates points out the irony “that a slave was able to make such public accusations against white neighbors; though, to be sure, they were in defense of her owner’s extended family and made to a village she by then knew was bewitched by the idea of being bewitched… [she] was not only able to fend off death, but also seemed to succeed in frightening those who were, without question, above her socially, politically, economically and with respect to religion.”

Had she been white, or of European background, and a servant rather than a slave, it’s likely that the legends of Tituba would have evolved very differently.

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks points out in Tituba: Slave of Salem, that “as a slave with no social standing, money or personal property in the community, Tituba had nothing to lose by confessing to the crime and probably knew that a confession could save her life. It is not known what religion Tituba practiced, but if she was not a Christian she had no fear of going to hell for confessing to being a witch, as the other accused witches did.”

Tituba later recanted her confession, but that is something that has been often overlooked.

After the Trials

By confessing to - and accusing others of - the crime of witchcraft, Tituba managed to escape the hangman’s noose. However, because she was unable to pay to costs of her incarceration – the accused were required to pay a prison fee in Colonial New England – she did not return to the Parris family home. She herself would not have had the funds to pay the obligatory seven pounds, and Rev. Parris certainly didn’t want to pay it and have her appear back on his doorstep after the trials.

Instead, Parris sold Tituba to a new owner in April 1693, who evidently covered her prison fees. It is likely that this same individual, whose name is unknown, purchased John Indian at the same time. From this point on, there is no historical evidence as to the whereabouts or existence of either Tituba or John Indian, and they disappear completely from public record. Their daughter Violet remained with Rev. Parris’ family, and was still alive at the time of his death in 1720. To pay off the late reverend’s debts, his family sold Violet to another unknown buyer, and she as well has been lost to history.