Tituba: A Witch Tale

I did promise you a real witch story, didn’t I?  I am a vampire of my word.

Once upon a time, in 1692 to be precise, a town in Massachusetts called Salem found itself in the thrall of witchcraft.  Fear of witches and of the devil himself living amongst the Puritans of the time spread like a plague.  Neighbors accused neighbors of sorcery and many were found guilty and hung with little proof at all.  The very first of these supposed witches to be accused was Tituba.

Tituba was a slave owned by Samuel Parris, the minister of Salem Village.  Tituba’s history is shrouded in mystery.  Court documents at the time named her as a Native woman but through re-tellings she has frequently been labelled a Negro.  It was popularly assumed she was purchased by Parris in Barbados and it’s true that he did own a plantation there.  However there is no formal record that's where Tituba had lived.  Some believe she was born in an Arawak Village in South America.  What is known is that she lived with and was slave to Samuel Parris in 1692.

When Parris’ daughter Betty and his niece Abigail Williams began suffering fits they were eventually diagnosed as victims of witchcraft.  Tituba was the first person the girls accused of inflicting them.  They would go on to accuse Sarah Good, a homeless beggar, and Sarah Osborne, a poor elderly woman, of being witches as well.  But of the three, only Tituba confessed.

Tituba told a fantastic tale of being bid by the Devil himself to serve him by afflicting the girls.  She told of cats, wolves, rats, and dogs.  Some accounts say she told of conversing with the animals.  She described riding a pole to get places.  And she named Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne as accomplices, adding that she had witnessed them turning into winged creatures.  It really was a tale fit for Halloween.

Her confession unwittingly ignited the witchcraft hysteria that swept Salem due in part to the alarming idea that Satan was walking amongst the townsfolk.  Her tale is frequently associated with voodoo and she is variously accused of cursing the girls or teaching them fortune-telling.  Arthur Miller’s play ‘The Crucible’ casts Tituba as a slave priestess conjuring spirits while girls danced naked around a fire in the woods.  Maryse Condé wrote a novel titled “I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem” which, while fiction, supports the belief that Tituba was indeed both black and a witch.

Tituba did confess to discourse with the Devil, that’s a matter of record.  However, she also confessed to being beaten by Samuel Parris.  Many sources assert that she said Parris abused her until she agreed to confess.  In truth, Tituba was imprisoned but never tried or executed for the crime of witchcraft.  While in prison she recanted her confession, claiming that she had lied to protect herself.  She was eventually released and purchased by another owner after which record of her ends.  

Is it the confession that keeps Tituba’s name linked to witchcraft?  Is it the fact that she was a slave and therefore an easy scapegoat?  Perhaps it is the confusion over her ethnicity - alternately Native, Negro or a mixture of both, depending on the source - that makes ascribing her fluency in various forms of voodoo and sorcery so easy.  Or maybe it’s simply the complete lack of personal story that exists outside the court documents that deepens the mystery of her and makes ‘witch’ such an easy title to give her.  We will never really know the truth about Tituba and therein lies the real allure.  

Tituba was the first to be accused of witchcraft in Salem.  And upon release from prison she disappeared from record.  Was she really a witch?  I guess you’ll have to decide for yourself.  Her story isn't as glittery and musical as that of the Sanderson sisters from yesterday but you must admit it's duly eerie.

And that, dear readers, is your true Halloween story for today.

- Corinne Simpson