Life Story: Tituba2021-05-28T15:29:14-04:00

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Life Story: Tituba

Survivor of the Salem Witch Hysteria

The story of an enslaved Native woman caught up in the Salem witch hysteria.

“Look Into This Glass” 

John W. Ehninger, Detail from “Look Into This Glass,” The Complete Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1902). HathiTrust.

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Tituba was an enslaved Native woman who lived in Salem Village, Massachusetts, in the late 1600s. Historical records do not contain any information about her early life, or how she came to be enslaved. In 1692, Tituba lived and worked in the home of Reverend Samuel Parris, the minister of Salem Village. She helped Samuel’s wife and daughters do all the work necessary to keep their home running.

In January 1692, Samuel’s daughter Betty and his niece Abigail Williams became mysteriously ill. A doctor brought in to examine the girls worried that someone was performing witchcraft to punish the minister and his family. A concerned church member told Tituba to make a witch cake to reveal the identity of the person who was tormenting the girls. Tituba followed the church member’s instructions. She mixed the girls’ urine with rye meal to make a small cake, and then fed it to the family dog. When she was finished, the girls revealed that it was Tituba tormenting them. Tituba was now an accused witch.

Tituba was interviewed by Samuel and his most trusted advisors. She denied being a witch, and swore that she had done nothing to hurt the girls. Betty and Abigail were too young to be witnesses in a legal case, and Samuel might have suspected that they were lying. So, Tituba was not arrested, but Samuel punished her anyway. Many years later, she revealed that Samuel beat her for weeks until she confessed to being a witch. These beatings would have dire consequences for the entire community of Salem.

On February 25, Ann Putnam, the daughter of church members, and Betty Hubbard, an indentured servant, said Tituba was using magic to hurt them with the help of two other women, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborn. Betty Hubbard was old enough to be a witness in the courts, and her testimony inspired the community to take formal legal action. All three accused women were arrested on February 29.

On March 1, all three accused witches were questioned by magistrates in the Salem meeting house, where their accusers and all of Salem Village could watch. The accused witches were kept in chains, and the audience was allowed to chime in at any time to share their suspicions about the women. Throughout the questioning, the four accusers kept falling into fits and screaming accusations.

Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne refused to confess to practicing witchcraft, although Sarah Good did say she thought Sarah Osborne might be a witch. But everything changed when the magistrates started questioning Tituba. She told them that the devil had come to her and asked her to join him. Tituba told them that she had seen Sarah Osborne and Sarah Good use magic to hurt the girls. She revealed that they had been helped by two other women and a man from Boston whom Tituba did not recognize. She told them that Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne had demons in the form of animal companions who helped them commit their crimes. And she ended by confessing that they had bullied her into becoming a witch and hurting the girls.

While Tituba spoke, her accusers stopped screaming. The magistrates believed this was evidence that Tituba was telling the truth. When she finished, the girls started screaming, and Tituba told the magistrates that she could see the spirit of Sarah Good hurting them. Then, Tituba herself was struck blind and mute. Tituba’s accusers said they could see Sarah Good hurting her for confessing. The interview ended in chaos.

The next day the magistrates interviewed Tituba in her jail cell, where she revealed even more details. She told the magistrates that she had signed the devil’s book with blood, and that the devil had shown her Sarah Good’s and Sarah Osborne’s signatures. She revealed that the book had nine signatures total, implying there were more witches around. She explained that she had flown on sticks with her fellow witches. Finally, she confessed that the witches had held a meeting right in her master’s home, and used their power to keep him from finding out.

Tituba’s testimony indicated that there was a large conspiracy of witches in Salem, and the magistrates believed her because her story remained consistent no matter how many times they interrogated her. They did not know that Samuel had beaten Tituba until she created this story.

After Tituba’s confession, more and more people reported seeing witches and spirits. Their stories lined up perfectly with Tituba’s, probably because they had all heard her confession in the meeting house. Instead of wondering whether people were imagining things, the magistrates accepted this as proof that everything Tituba said was true.

Many years later, Tituba revealed that Samuel beat her for weeks until she confessed to being a witch.

As a confessed witch, Tituba was no longer considered an immediate threat to the community. In fact, no person who confessed to practicing witchcraft was executed during the trials. On May 12, Tituba was sent to a prison in Boston to make room for all the new suspects who were being arrested in Salem Village. In total, 144 people were accused of practicing witchcraft. Fifty-four confessed, and their testimony was used in the trials of other suspects. When she was needed to testify at a trial, Tituba was brought back to Salem. She probably testified at the trials of a number of people who were convicted and executed for witchcraft, but it is difficult to know for sure, because the official trial records were lost. Twenty people were convicted of witchcraft and executed. Three died in prison before they could be tried.

Tituba spent an entire year in jail, because no one would pay her bail. When she was brought to trial on May 9, 1693, the charges against her were immediately dismissed. Tituba’s usefulness as a witness had allowed her to outlive the early hysteria. By the time she was brought to trial, people were starting to think the whole panic was a big mistake. The word “ignoramus” was written on the back of her charges, as though to imply that the woman whose testimony had started the panic was now considered too stupid to know anything about it.

Samuel Parris refused to pay the fees necessary to free Tituba from prison, so she was sold to another English settler who agreed to cover them. Historians know nothing else about her life.

Since 1693, historians, writers, play wrights, and film makers have told and retold Tituba’s story, embellishing and adjusting it to appeal to their audiences. Today, the myth of Tituba bears little resemblance to the actual woman, who told a story to save her life.

Vocabulary

  • bail: When a person gives money to the court as a guarantee that they will return for their trial, and then is allowed to leave prison.
  • familiar: A demon who obeys a witch, and often assumes the form of an animal.
  • ignoramus: An ignorant or stupid person.
  • magistrate: A member of the court who can overseeing hearings and take testimony.
  • meal: Coarsely ground grains.
  • minister: A person who performs religious services.
  • Salem Village: The small satellite community of Salem where the witchcraft accusations of 1692 started. Today, this community is called Danvers, Massachusetts.
  • shaman: A person who is believed to have access to the spirit world.
  • subhuman: Less than human.

Discussion Questions

  • What circumstances made Tituba a vulnerable person in Salem Village?
  • Why did Tituba confess to being a witch? What were the consequences of her confession?
  • How did Tituba survive the Salem Witch Trials? What do her experiences reveal about this event?
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Themes

POWER AND POLITICS; AMERICAN CULTURE

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