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The Salem Witch Trials | Tituba

Who was Tituba? She remains one of the most discussed, argued about figures in the Salem Witch Trials. On this page, you’ll find everything you need to know about this still misunderstood figure.


Watch the Real Tituba Series

More on Tituba

For the transcript to Part One’s video, head here


Arrival to Boston

While Tituba was most certainly enslaved before being forced to leave her Caribbean home, it’s important to note here that the transition to American enslavement would have been an immensely harsh one. For starters, there was the weather.

Tituba arrived with Samuel Parris in late 1680. For the last three months of 2019, the weather around the area that Tituba came from in the Caribbean averaged in the mid-80-degree fahrenheit range at the high end. In Boston, that same range was in the 50s. And those are the high ends. At night, Tituba would’ve been subjected to the infamous Boston winter with temperatures plunging into the low teens as cold, moist, icy wind blew in off the coast of the Atlantic. The likelihood that Tituba had ever experienced anything remotely like this before is slim. 


Much Resistance

But the weather wasn’t the only resistance Tituba faced upon arrival to the new world. As covered in the last video, Tituba was perceived by the residents of Salem as an American Indian, as was her husband John. This is crucially important to the rest of the story because, at the time of their arrival with Samuel Parris, their owner, the entire Massachusetts Bay Colony and much of the rest of the New World was embroiled in a bitter war with the Native American inhabitants of the land.

For some six decades prior to Tituba’s arrival, a concerted military effort on the part of the settlers in present-day Massachusetts and Connecticut had been underway. This military union was undergone to battle a unified front of Native American tribes who were increasingly organized and effective. The tension between the Native peoples and European settlers frequently erupted in open conflict, late night raids, entire families being slaughtered or forced into slavery and many more unspeakable horrors. This all culminated in what is still considered the bloodiest war per capita in United States history: a fourteen month-long conflict known as King Phillip’s War. 

Throughout 1675, the leader of the Native alliance, known as King Phillip or or Metacom leader of the Wampanoag tribe, led the alliance to several effective and decisive victories. On both sides of the conflict there were heavy losses, but King Phillip had a particular knack for holding his alliance together, finding the weak points in the emergent colonies in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, and Rhode Island, and surgically attacking the colonists where it would hurt them the most. 



The End of King Phillip’s War

1676 saw the alliance unravel, but not because of anything King Phillip did or didn’t do. The leader of one of the crucial tribes to the effort, the Narragansett, was assassinated in April of that year. In may, the colonists’ militia followed up the slaying by attacking the tribe and killing nearly 200 of its members. By that summer, the balance of the conflict had shifted. The colonists sided with other tribes, offering them peace. This, and the rapid disintegration of one of the tribes most central to King Phillips War meant that by late summer, the Natives were suddenly the ones on the run. Then, in August, an Indian-English soldier shot and killed King Phillip. His body was mutilated, his head placed on a spike outside the gates of the Plymouth colony for two decades. 

The following two years saw no end to the violence, only to its formalized aspect. Night-time raids were still commonplace, as was the interruption of cargo movement, often ending in multiple deaths on both sides and vital supplies for either camp being annihilated.


Tituba’s Arrival

It wasn’t until 1678 that a normal peace treaty was signed between the colonists and the Natives. Tituba got off the boat a mere two years later in the heart of the new world. You can imagine what she must have felt. The tension must have been absolutely insane.

While her skin color certainly didn’t help Tituba’s odds of making it through her New England enslavement alive, it’s worth noting here that racial tensions were just one of the many, many tensions at play at the time of her arrival. 




Charter Drama

It would only be a few short years after she stepped foot in Boston that, due to a whole lot of political and economic one-upsmanship, the Massachusetts Bay Colony lost its charter with the crown. This essentially meant that the governing rules laid out by the crown no longer applied and, until the crown and the colony could come to an agreement about the nature of their relationship, the Massachusetts Bay’s future was severely compromised. Around the time of the charter’s revoking, the crown was also dealing with two wars, and the Great plague and Great fire of London. This meant that it took a full two years for the crown to deliver its plans to the colonists, which amounted to a merger with Connecticut, New Hampshire and Rhode Island into a royal colony. As far as the Massachusetts colonists were concerned, this very much was not going to fly as they had been, since their own charter was issued in 1629, a charter colony, rather than a royal one. This distinction is important because in a charter colony, the administration of the colony is undertaken by elected officials within its ranks – essentially this amounted to self-governance with restrictions. Charter colonies also had to share some of its resources with the crown. So being turned into basically an auxiliary of the crown in this merger very much did not sit well with the colonists in and around Boston. This wouldn’t be officially resolved until a year before the Salem Witch Trials erupted, but we’ll get back to that. 


Tituba Goes ToSalem

Around 1688, Samuel Parris took Tituba and his and her family to Salem. And here too Tituba was likely stepping into a wholly different place than the one she’d known in Boston or in the Caribbean before that. Salem was, I don’t even know how to say this without it sounding like an absurd understatement – Salem was messed up – bad. I won’t go into too much of how exactly this happened since it ultimately doesn’t have a lot to do with Tituba. But when I get to the Putnams,boy are you in for a treat. For now, let’s just say that by the time Tituba arrived, Salem had literally split itself in two. 

The rural, agrarian residents outside the city center had decided to make a go of it themselves and were in the process of doing everything they could to distance themselves from the comparatively metropolitan residents of the urban center. This new place was called Salem Village, the city center Salem Town. Part of the reason this split was wanted by the residents of Salem Village was that they thought themselves quite different from their kin in the city. There were economic and political reasons too, of course, but that doesn’t have much to do with Tituba either. What did concern her was the decidedly fanfatical bent of Puritanical christianity that was well-entrenched by the time she arrived. 


A New Church Rises

This accounted for part of the division between the Village and Town. So as part of their ongoing efforts to both distance themselves from and royally piss off their urban kin who they viewed as sinful, greedy, and opportunistic, the Villagers decided to set up their own church. After a slew of ministers didn’t fit the bill, Samuel Parris became the minister of this still new congregation which was, crucially, mostly filled with members of the Putnam family. I mention this because from here on out you’re going to hear a lot about the Parris and Putnam families. You know the Salem Witch Trials was a complicated time in history, but if you’re looking for clear villains, you could do a lot worse than the Putnams and Samuel Parris. I’m honestly looking forward to the day that I can put on a red cape, crank up the Motorhead, and write the script on Samuel Parris. But, unfortunately that’s not today. 



Samuel Parris Brings the Storm

What you need to know here is that, upon his arrival, Samuel Parris was woefully unqualified for the job. His first years there saw him arguing with his new flock over his salary, something his forebears in the church had done as well. What was clear, I’m sure, to Parris and Tituba was that every single aspect of life in Salem Village was, in one way or another, connected to the church and most of the members of the church could not stand each other. 

These first years in Salem saw Tituba engaged with cooking and cleaning. It’s not known exactly when Tituba married John Indian, but this likely happened around this time as well.


Historical Ambiguity Surrounding Tituba

And now we’ve arrived at the first theory with which you’re going to have to do whatever you see fit. There are some historians who argue that both Tituba and Samuel Parris’ marriage, which had occurred shortly after he arrived in Boston, were done to obfuscate from the same truth: that Tituba and Samuel Parris had been involved in some form of sexual relationship. There’s even some evidence that Tituba might have had a child by Parris. You see both Tituba and John Indian were sold off shortly after the Trials concluded.

Then, in 1720, Samuel Parris left thirty pounds to a mysterious Indian woman named Violet. Based on that 30 pounds and the then market rate for slaves, some historians have estimated that at that time Violet would’ve been in her thirties, placing her birth in the 1690s. The speculation here is that whatever sexual relationship existed between Parris and Tituba, it was not over by the time the Witch Trials began. Some even speculate that this is ultimately the explanation for Tituba’s behavior during the entire affair. 


Pressure Rising

Whether or not this particular speculation is true, what is above doubt is the pressure that the new reverend was under right from the beginning of his time in Salem. He argued with the leaders of his congregation over firewood, his salary, and the manner of the religious community in Salem. His sermons quickly took on a confrontational, hell-fire tone. In these sermons, Parris preached about Salem being under siege. He painted the atmosphere as one of constant stress and crisis. He claimed that evil had infiltrated the village and even connected his new opponents (those who were the most responsible for his perceived early slights in the community) to Satan. It is absolutely certain that Tituba, her husband, and the children who were in Parris’ home and who would go on to begin the hysteria, heard these sermons. 


A Dry Salem

But it wasn’t just Satan, the loss of the charter, and clashes with the Native American population. A drought in 1691 severely limited the food stores in Salem for the following year. And the winter of 1692 is infamously one of the worst on record. 

So by the time the events that would lead to the trials began, you can hardly imagine the sheer volume of pressure that was on every single person surrounding Tituba. No doubt, every moment was electric, every morning made anxious by the constant and mounting threats encroaching on all sides. 


Tituba’s Magic?

It’s here that we arrive at another contentious issue in the story of Tituba and that involves the use of ritualistic magic. If you’ve seen The Crucible, Salem, or any number of other fictional representations of the events of the Witch Trials, the image of Tituba as a Voodoo-wielding sorceress is likely pretty deep in your imagination. Unfortunately, as cool as it would be for this to be true, the real story is likely much less interesting. Yes, Tituba likely knew some rudimentary forms of ritual and practices that we might identify as magic. But she was not distinct in this way. Everyone in Salem knew such practices and employed them on a regular basis as remedies, wards, and blessings. 



Naked Dancing in the Woods?

So the idea that Tituba ever danced naked in the woods with the girls leading up to the fits taking hold is absolute fiction These representations of Tituba began with 19th and 20th century writers, hundreds of years after Tituba’s death. Likewise, the entire idea that Satan was the prime mover in the earliest of Tituba’s confessions to witchcraft was absent and would not enter the public record until the girls began making their own confessions. One of Tituba’s earlier confessions reads that she had had, “fanciful dream-like experiences taken from the mythology of several cultures.”

It’s clear from these and other entries that Tituba’s early confessions were far less sinister in nature than they ultimately became. 


What Did Tituba Confess?

The turning point for Tituba’s representation and indeed the nature of the fits of the afflicted seems to have been around the time of the infamous witch cake. Basically, at this point in the leadup to the trials, Betty Parris, Samuel’s daughter, had been displaying mild symptoms of witchcraft for some time but they were becoming more severe and spreading out to the other girls around the community. So, an old English test for witchcraft was concocted whereby Betty’s urine was baked into a cake and then the cake given to a dog. If the dog ate it, it was proof that Betty had been bewitched. Such came to pass and it’s around this time in the record that Tituba begins to be referred to as a magician, conjurer, sorceress, and/or in league with the devil. The girls suffering the fits began to lump Tituba in with a cadre of other suspected witches and their episodes became increasingly strange and violent. These events took place during the coldest months of early 1692.

The first arrest warrants went out on the last day of February and Tituba was among them, along with Sarah Goode and Sarah Osborne. What these three women shared was that neither had a particularly influential role in Salem’s public affairs and each was disliked for various reasons. For Tituba, it’s pretty easy to see why she was targeted. She looked like the enemy, had spent tons of time around Betty Parris and the other children in and around the Parris household, like Abigail Williams for one, and the likelihood that some form of magical practice took place during that time is pretty high.




Again, this wouldn’t have distinguished Tituba on its own from any other woman of child-bearing age in Salem. The witch cake, for instance, was actually Mary Sibley’s recipe. But, put alongside the increasingly fantastical accounts of the girls, Tituba’s skin color, and her uninfluential standing in the community, it makes total sense why she would have been seen as easy prey for the fanatical drivers of the accusations and ultimately the trials. 

Following her arrest and imprisonment, we don’t hear from Tituba again until March 5th when she made her infamous confession. 


What Did Samuel Parris Want?

The question of Samuel Parris’ motivations in the days leading up to and directly after Tituba’s arrest are crucial in order to begin to understand why Tituba made the stunning confession that she did. 

The first thing to know is that Parris was not a stranger to witch trials. He, along with a bunch of other Salemites of the time, was intimately familiar with a famous trial conducted in Boston involving the Goodwin children in 1688. This trial, which saw the hanging of one Ann Glover, was in many ways the blueprint for what would come to pass in Salem. Ann was of a lower caste, Irish, and vehemently loathed by members of her community. Local religious and scientific thought-leaders, the Mather family, Cotton and Increase, were very involved in the case and would go on to be involved in the Salem trials as well. The case was an absolute sensation at the time and is definitely something I’ll cover more in-depth as we examine other players in the Salem Witch Trials.

For now, though, know that the sequence of events that played out in Ann Glover’s march toward the gallows are very similar to the ones that played out in Salem. And that Samuel Parris most definitely knew how Ann’s entire case went down is crucial to understand. 


A Cake Spoils Everything

Now, Samuel Parris wouldn’t have been too thrilled about this whole witch cake thing. While many folk remedies that we might view as witchcraft now weren’t necessarily seen that way in 1692, a witch cake would’ve been seen by Parris as venturing a little too close to the devil for comfort. I’m not entirely convinced if he would have actually believed that or if he would have said he did to preserve what little reputation he had in Salem Village at the time.

Regardless, when Parris found out about the Witch Cake incident, he beat the hell out of Tituba to torture her involvement in the affair out of her. It’s in these days, the ones post-witch cake and pre-arrest, that I think if there is some conspiratorial angle on why the Witch Trials began between Parris and Tituba, that I believe such a scheme could have been hatched. Tituba became the focal point of Parris’ wrath and has been noted by historians of having seemed to be bent on proving Tituba’s guilt. 

There’s a few ways you could interpret that, I suppose, considering what we’ve seen of what Tituba and Parris’ relationship might have looked like behind closed doors. 


Did Samuel Parris Coerce Tituba?

Regardless of which interpretation you rest on, what’s clear is that Tituba’s desire to confess was certainly solidified by the time she was arrested. It seems clear that Parris made it perfectly plain to her what would happen if she denied being a witch (knowledge he would have had due to his awareness of the Boston trial in 1688 among others). So it’s highly probable that by the time Tituba made her way into the first hearings, she knew exactly what was expected of her. 



A Confession to Burn Them All

Tituba’s confession is one of the most complicated affairs in the whole of the Salem Witch Trials and, if there is a single confession that is the most responsible for kicking off the horrors to come, this one is it. 

Over a week-long period, Tituba was questioned along with Sarah Goode and Osborne. Unlike the others, Tituba readily admitted to being in league with the devil. She spoke of dreams, strangers in the night, and encounters with obscured puritans who were actually members of the devil’s party.

But it is in these descriptions of the puritans that we find the ultimate brilliance of Tituba’s confession. Because the figures she claims to have come in contact with, both spectrally and physically, were dressed well. They were large, powerful puritans, leaders in the community. Tracking what she’s doing here, a form of rebellion begins to emerge in Tituba’s confession. Because yes, on the one hand, she gave Parris exactly  what it’s likely he asked for. But she also went much, much further.


Tituba Spreads the Fire

Not only were the lowly thorns in the side of the Salem Village elite implicated, the seeds were sown for more prominent members to be accused as well. This would ultimately be what caused the trials to end – someone above the power hierarchy in Salem Village being implicated. But it would be months before that would happen. It’s in this seeding that, in my opinion, the most honest representation of Tituba as having taken some ethical stand against what was happening to her can be found. It was so clever, in fact, that it’s potential dangers were totally missed by the ones clamoring for the trials to advance into hangings, which they would shortly do with Bridget Bishop only a month or so later. 

But not all historians agree with this interpretation of Tituba’s confession. Some claim that the confession actually reveals someone clearly making things up on the spot for no other reason than to get out of being questioned. They claim that Tituba clearly, simply wanted to escape. I’ll leave the interpretation up to you. You can find the full record of Tituba’s Day One confession in the description. It’s not very long, so go give it a read and decide for yourself. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. 



Day One Ends

Day One of her testimony ended with the girls in a hysterical fit. For the following week,  Tituba expanded on her relationship with the devil in subsequent hearings. She would have been carted back and forth ten miles each way between the prison in Ipswitch where she was held and the Village meeting house. She claimed to have been in the devil’s service for years. She described shadowy meetings with others in the devil’s service in Boston. This would be changed by later confessors to much closer to and actually inside of the village. She was stripped and searched for a witches mark. 

What’s perhaps most notable about the nature of her alter confessions is just how fantastical they became. She contradicted herself, merged disparate representations of witchcraft and the devil, and spun wild yarns the likes of which remained distinct to Tituba as the trials progressed. If a European had delivered such a confession, it likely would have been dismissed. But, because she was American Indian, her confession was actually viewed by upstanding community members like Reverend Hale as metaphorically-rich and honest. After all, how else could she recall such rich detail if she were not telling the truth, they argued.


The Salem Witch Trials Consume All

This perception of Tituba’s confession won out in the meeting house and by the time she was moved to a Boston prison on March 7th, 1692, Tituba had escalated the trials into an absolute fervor. 

There’s obviously much more to say about the trials past this point, but that’s actually a story for another video in this series. Because it’s here that Tituba’s direct involvement with the Salem Witch Trials concludes. She was relocated to the Salem jail until June and there she remained imprisoned until the summer of 1693, making her entire time in captivity a year and a few months. She remained in prison so long after the conclusion of the trials because she couldn’t pay her own prison fines. Yes, you heard that correctly, if you were imprisoned during the time of the Trials, you had to pay for your own expenses while incarcerated. If you couldn’t, you couldn’t leave. Samuel Parris refused to pay Tituba’s fines, likely hoping that she would, as many did, die in captivity. So ownership of Tituba would pass onto whomever would pay the fines for her release. 



The End of Tituba’s Imprisonment

It’s important to note here that one of the few records of Tituba’s intentions came from this era of her imprisonment. During this time, Tituba reportedly claimed that her master had beaten her, abused her, and forced her to confess and accuse others in the community and that he had done all this for the sole purpose of using her confession against other members of the Salem community. 

These last records of Tituba’s time in prison are some of the last we have of her historical record. Many historians believe that Tituba remained in the area for some years after her release from prison. But what exactly she did in that time and who paid the fines for her release are both still unknown to this day, although there is no shortage of speculation and fiction based on the later parts of Tituba’s life. Some of it involves Samuel Parris, some of it her husband John Indian who also vanished after the trials. 


Tituba: Reluctant Pawn or Tactical Genius?

After all the reading and research I’ve done on Tituba, I’m still not sure exactly which side of this question I land on. Where I’ve arrived is that the truth is likely a bit of both. It’s certainly true that Tituba’s confession was coerced by Parris, I see absolutely no reason to doubt that and fifty that support it. And it’s also true that that confession had Parris’ desired result: it escalated the trials. After that, it seems Parris’ want of Tituba entirely vanished. This might have been because Parris wanted to keep something that Tituba knew hidden or it could simply be that Tituba had been stained by the mark of the devil.

I think ultimately what makes sense to me is that Tituba was both caught up in something larger than she anticipated, was coerced into participating in it, but then in the act of participating, realized what power she had to chan wzsge the outcome of the hearings and ultimately the trials. I’m not sure if Tituba necessarily wanted people dead, but I also wouldn’t blame her one bit if she did. Think about how emotionally traumatizing the events she had lived through up to the beginning of the trials must have been for her. And this about who the people were that dropped those horrors in her life. What did they all seem to look like, talk like, say about and to her? What did they all seem to view her as? Where did they value her humanity positioned against their own? 


What Makes Sense to Me

Viewed through this lens, it’s easy to see why Tituba might have leaned in so hard to her confession. She, like the teenage accusers and her husband, were very much not used to being heard by the puritan elite around them. And suddenly there are entire rooms of these people hanging on your every word. Suddenly, they’re returning day after day to hear your fantastical account of devils and bewitchments. 

To me, this explanation makes the most sense. And, it clearly worked. Tituba is one of the few key players in the trials who didn’t see their full horrors. She’s one of the few of the early accused who escaped with their life. And, based on what little evidence exists of her life post-imprisonment, she seems to be one of the few who made it through the Salem Witch Trials and went on to have some semblance of a life afterwards. 

It’s for these reasons and more that Tituba continues to capture the imagination of historians, artists, and lovers of Salem to this day.


More Salem Witch Trials History

Want more history like this? Head on over to the Salem Witch Trials page for all things with trials or check out another player in the trials, Bridget Bishop.

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