The ‘Black’ Witch of Salem?

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

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

At a magistrate’s hearing in Salem during the first week of March 1692, Good and Osborne denied the charges, leaving Tituba to blame. Next it was Tituba’s turn to be interrogated. (As an interesting side note, Breslaw says that in the court documents, Tituba was often referred to as “an Indian Woman.”)  


At first, Tituba, too, denied involvement in any devilish activities, but it quickly became clear that that was not what her inquisitors wanted to hear. So, perhaps to regain control over a rapidly deteriorating situation, Tituba flipped and told her judges a series of fabulous and ever-creepier stories filled with witch covens and evil spirits. One such spirit, she claimed, belonged to Sarah Osborne, who Tituba said had a way of transforming into a winged creature and then back into a woman. Tituba then spoke of a “tall man” and a “thing with a head like a woman and two legs and wings” who told her to “hurt the [Parris] children,” even to “kill the children,” before a black dog appeared and ordered her to “serve me,” to which she replied, “I am afraid.” (All of these statements can be found in Breslaw’s masterful study.)

But that wasn’t all. During the second day of the hearing, Tituba admitted further to making a pact with the devil, an admission said to have astonished—even terrified—onlookers, who, of course, found it believable (at least more believable than they would have a not-guilty plea). What fascinates me is that a slave was able to make such public accusations against white neighbors; though, to be sure, they were in defense of her owner’s extended family and made to a village she by then knew was bewitched by the idea of being bewitched.


Through her testimony, Tituba was not only able to fend off death, but also seemed to succeed in frightening those who were, without question, above her socially, politically, economically and with respect to religion. To pull this off, Breslaw posits that Tituba wove her story together with a mix of European, Indian and perhaps even West African folklore that she had absorbed. It was what we call improvising or, as I’ve said the black tradition goes, “She wasn’t lying; she was signifying!”

As a result, Roach writes, “the court valued Tituba’s voice, as the magistrates believed her and considered the other two to be liars.” Yet all three were sent to jail to await trial as Salem continued to spin out of control with accusations. Throughout their long and terrible ordeal, Good and Osborne clung to their claims of innocence, with Osborne eventually dying in prison and Good found guilty and hanged. Tituba, meanwhile, borrowed time by continuing her confessions. There were warnings from some, to be sure, not to admit spectral evidence into court. Those warnings went unheeded, however, until the fever finally broke in 1693 and a general pardon was granted to those still alive to receive it.


All told, the Salem witch trials of 1692-93 witnessed some 200 people stand accused of practicing witchcraft, with 28 convicted, 19 hanged and one (Giles Corey) pressed to death. Four others died in prison. These numbers made Salem exceptional in Colonial New England, but not unique. In fact, according to historian Carol Karlsen’s calculation, between 1620 and 1725, at least 344 New Englanders were suspected of witchcraft and brought to trial (Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England). And before then, based on what I read in Smithsonian magazine, there had been tens of thousands of victims in Europe.

Seven Pounds

Tituba, however, was not yet home free. Even though she had escaped indictment as a witch, inmates in Colonial New England were required to pay their prison costs. This was a problem for Tituba, who, as a slave, had no assets and, worse, an owner in Parris who refused to pay so as to keep her from returning to his home. As a result, Tituba was sold to a new owner who agreed to cover the charge: seven pounds. It’s possible that John Indian was sold with her, though all the records show is that young Violet, likely Tituba’s daughter, remained a Parris family slave. (Apparently, they weren’t concerned that “witchcraft” was genetic!)


Not long after, the people of Salem realized that something terrible had transpired in their village—not the selling of Tituba, to be sure, but the hysteria. In 1694, Parris stepped forward as the first person to publicly apologize for his role. Later, the General Court in Boston declared Jan. 14, 1697, as a fast day during which all were to repent for the trials’ excesses. By then, however, Tituba had vanished from the historical record, and I’m assuming not on a flying stick, but with the indifference of the free toward a slave re-sold.

The Legend of Tituba

Yet Tituba reappeared in historical accounts over the centuries in various incarnations. Of interest to us, her transformation from an Arawak Indian to a witch of at least partial African heritage seems to have begun with Charles Upham’s 1868 book, Salem Witchcraft. That same year, it was adapted into a more popular form, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s play Giles Corey of the Salem Farms, in which Tituba was recast as the daughter of “an Obi man” who, “black and fierce,” teaches her “the use of magic and images.”  


A few generations later, Tituba reappeared as “half carib and half Negro” in Marion Starkey’s 1949 book, The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Inquiry Into the Salem Witch Trials. But there was more—this time Starkey’s Tituba was a lazy woman “with slurred southern speech and tricksy ways,” as if out of central casting during the heyday of the studio system in Hollywood, bouncing from Gone With the Wind to Salem, Mass. These themes were then picked up and reproduced in pop culture and scholarly literature until they became the consensus into the 1950s.

In the black press, the character of Tituba also was widely discussed after the release of the 1937 film Maid of Salem (check out a clip here), which portrayed Tituba as the instigator of the Salem witch trials with her many “weird and disgusting superstition[s],” according to Bishop W.J. Walls’ negative film review in the Chicago Defender on March 13, 1937. Among other things, Walls was irritated by the Maid of Salem's easy reliance on racial stereotypes of the day, its whitewashing of “white people’s superstition” and its failure to admit “the slave girl was Indian.” (Walls’ analysis provides an interesting contrast to Joel Rogers’ almost gleeful description of Tituba’s involvement in the witch trials.)


Tituba received another surge in interest as a character in Arthur Miller’s classic 1953 play, The Crucible, which won a Tony Award for best play. The witch hunt Miller presented was intended to serve as an allegory for McCarthyism, but it also reflected the racial politics of the 1950s. Unlike early depictions, Miller’s Tituba was a black woman from Barbados, steeped in witchcraft and frightened and servile, superstitious and religious, saying infuriating lines like, “Mister Reverend, I do believe somebody else be witchin’ these children.” In his interestingly titled 1974 article in the The New England Quarterly, “The Metamorphosis of Tituba, or Why American Intellectuals Can’t Tell an Indian Witch From a Negro,” Chadwick Hansen called out The Crucible's depiction of Tituba’s confession for being as “vulgar a scene as Miller ever wrote, with Tituba featured as Aunt Jemima at the Salem Camp Meeting.”

Re-Enter Rogers

So where did Rogers get his ideas? In 1902, historian John Fiske offered this description of Tituba and John Indian in New France and New England: There “were two coloured servants who Parris had brought with him from the West Indies. The man was known as John Indian; the hag Tituba, who passed for his wife, was half-Indian and half-negro. Their intelligence was of a low grade, but it sufficed to make them experts in palmistry, fortune-telling, magic, second-sight, and incantations.” Clearly, there was no evidence to support Fiske’s claims, but he was writing in, and for, Jim Crow America. Just as Tituba had told her accusers what they wanted to hear, so, too, her chroniclers answered the call of their times.


If you read Fiske’s language again, and then go back to Rogers' at the beginning of this column, you’ll see an overlap, with one critical caveat. Instead of denigrating Tituba as a “hag,” Rogers elevated her to being the lead source of the trials. The comparison between the texts is startling and tells us something about the revolutionary project Rogers was undertaking in his literal rewriting of black history as a source of pride, even at times devilish pride. In Rogers’ sketch, Tituba was no longer ugly, stupid or superstitious but a skillful woman capable of manipulating, even charming, white people to suit her needs.


As long as the Salem witch trials continue to have a hold on the American imagination, Tituba will be there, as she was in the 1957 and 1996 film versions of The Crucible; in its revival on Broadway in 2002; in novelist Ann Petry’s book for young readers, Tituba of Salem Village, as an intelligent, sensitive woman trying to navigate the slave system (the book was published in 1964, and in it Petry creates an underdog protagonist for the civil rights generation); in Maryse Conde’s first-person account in 1994, I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem; and even as a mannequin at Salem tourist attractions. 


“If the debate over Tituba’s origin remains undecided,” Roach concludes, “at least, having shed the ‘savage’ stereotype, her memory can be that of not just a slave but also a survivor, a woman in a dangerous situation with no one to speak for her, a woman who, in her efforts to endure, managed to turn her accusers’ fears back upon themselves.”

As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.


Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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