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  Screenshot from Maid of Salem

New England Slavery

But what was an enslaved Arawak woman doing in New England in the first place? Slavery was legal in Massachusetts and remained so until after the Revolutionary War. As for the first slaves in New England, they were likely Native Americans captured during the Pequot War of the 1630s, while the first African slaves probably arrived through an exchange that sent some of those Native Americans to Providence Island (a Puritan slave colony off the coast of Nicaragua). By 1700, there were roughly 1,000 people of African descent living in New England out of total population of 90,000.

The Witch-Cake

In any case, the winter of 1691-92 is when Tituba—the Tituba of Salem—first appeared in the historical record. By then she was likely in her late 20s or early 30s. The reason for her appearance: accusations of witchcraft. Parris’ 9-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, and 11-year-old niece, Abigail Williams, were suffering repeated episodes of falling down, shaking and babbling. Speculation, even by their doctor, swirled around a supernatural source, perhaps even a curse. (I learned reading Smithsonian magazine that the culprit could very well have been “fungus ergot, which can be found in rye, wheat and other cereal grasses,” common in places like Salem.)

In late February 1692, a neighbor of the Parrises, Mary Sibley, intervened. Seizing on the cure, she enlisted Tituba and John Indian to prepare an English folk recipe called a “witch-cake,” consisting—get this—of rye meal and the bewitched girls’ urine. The object of the cake was a test: Once baked, it had to be served to a dog—yes, a dog—that, by digesting the grains and urine, would somehow draw the girls’ tormentors out. (In her book Six Women of Salem, Roach provides a fascinating and highly readable retelling of the witch-cake incident and the subsequent events.)

But before spilling what happened next, let me interject: According to Breslaw, there is no evidence that Tituba, the slave, had any particular interest, knowledge or skill in magic before she arrived in Salem and that the ritual she performed was based on English folk magic at Sibley’s behest. Although it is possible that Sibley chose Tituba and John Indian as her helpers because whites generally associated Native Americans with magic, this wasn’t based in reality, as Breslaw points out. Contrary to Joel Rogers’ claim, Tituba and her husband were not the originators of the hysteria in Salem.  

Context matters: The people of Salem were stressed over competition for resources as outsiders displaced by King William’s War between England and France in the colonies were moving in. Add to that existing family rivalries, as well as Parris’ own increasing unpopularity with his flock. In society today, we look to science to explain uncertainties, but back then, as my colleague David Hall writes in his splendid 1989 book, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Beliefs in Early New England, “[t]he people of seventeenth-century New England lived in an enchanted universe.”

This brings me back to the witch-cake. With the hysteria spreading, Parris’ daughter and niece accused Tituba of witchcraft (the thanks she got for baking that cake!). They left John Indian out of it, perhaps, as Roach theorizes, because Tituba, as the house slave, had greater supervision over them and this was a way of getting back at her.  

In any case, Roach writes, the girls “reported that Tituba’s specter followed them and clawed at them when she was nowhere near them. When she was out of the room and out of their sight, Tituba learned, the girls knew where she was and what she was doing, leaving her to wonder if Goody Sibley’s charm had opened the girls’ eyes to the Invisible World … Tituba herself was now in an even more precarious position than slavery alone could impose.” After being questioned by Parris and others, Tituba was taken into custody with two white women the girls also had accused—Sarah Good and Sarah Osbourne—and searched for marks.

The Confession