The ‘Black’ Witch of Salem?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Forget what you think you know about the person who started it all.

Actress Madame Sul-Te-Won 
Actress Madame Sul-Te-Won  Screenshot from Maid of Salem

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 75: Was a black slave to blame for the Salem witch trials? 

For those in the fright business, Salem, Mass., means big tourist money, but for those who lived through the infamous witch trials of the late 17th century in Massachusetts Bay, the stakes were existential: float or drown, live or hang, reveal or be revealed—a game of Survivor played out before judges, themselves swept up in the storm.

Whenever I think about the Salem witch trials (they took place not too many miles up the road from where I teach), in my mind the weather is cold, the courtroom stares colder, the pointing fingers long. And I shudder to wonder what it must have been like to have been a slave when rumors of witchcraft coursed through the village like wildfire and even free white neighbors stood accused.

Here’s what our old friend Joel A. Rogers sketched in his 1940 comic book Your History: “John Indian and Tituba: Two West Indian Negro slaves, were the originators of the great witchcraft scare of Salem, Mass., in 1692. Experts in palmistry, fortune-telling, magic, and second sight and incantations the two played on the superstitions of some of even the most learned white people until the latter thought they saw witches everywhere. 19 white persons were hanged and 55 tortured as a result.”  

Who Was Tituba, Really?

Turns out, the facts are quite different from the popular image repeated by Rogers 250 years on. For starters, there is no airtight evidence of when Tituba was born, or where and when she died, and, given the looseness of 17th-century spellings, we also see her variously referred to as “Tetaby, Titibe, Tittabe, Tittube, Tiptop, Titiba, Tittuba, and Titaba,” as Marilynne K. Roach details in her 2013 book, Six Women of Salem: The Untold Story of the Accused and Their Accusers in the Salem Witch Trials.

If it weren’t for such scholars, we’d still be tripping over her name today. Much of the credit goes to historian Elaine Breslaw, who in 1996 published her landmark academic study, “Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies,” based on a rigorous investigation of Colonial documents, including census records, slave inventories and even naming patterns. As a result, we can now make the more educated guess that Tituba was a member of the Arawak Indian tribe from present-day Guyana or Venezuela, where she was stolen into slavery and eventually bought by Samuel Parris, a merchant in Barbados (also a Harvard man, I must say), before he moved to Boston in 1680. 

Although Breslaw makes the most compelling scholarly case for Tituba’s origins, her theory isn’t the only one. In his 1997 book, The Salem Witchcraft Trials: A Legal History, scholar Peter Hoffer points to evidence that Tituba is a Yoruba name and suggests that Tituba was of African origin. Rogers used the catch-all category of “West Indian Negro,” and it was true that Tituba arrived in New England by way of the Caribbean. But whether she was American Indian, African or a fusion of the two or more remains a mystery I wish I could solve with DNA science. But, alas, there are no samples to be found. “For the reconstructed lives of slaves, the destitute, and social pariahs, words like ‘if,’ ‘perhaps,’ and ‘maybe’ are needed when patching together the shreds of surviving facts,” Roach cautions. Also interesting are the speculative theories about Tituba’s name: Was it a Latin name imposed by her master or, as Breslaw posits, derived from an Arawak subgroup, the Tetebetana?

What we do know is that, by 1689, the then-Reverend Samuel Parris moved again, this time from Boston to Salem to oversee the village church. Soon after, Tituba appears to have married another of Parris’ slaves, John Indian. Evidence of their union is lacking (really, we can only assume they were married because of prevailing religious norms in New England), but Parris’ last will and testament suggests that the couple may have had a daughter named Violet.