Posterity has treated few characters in the Salem witch trial drama as poorly as Tituba, a woman enslaved in the household of minister Samuel Parris. Tituba, the first to confess to witchcraft, played a decisive role in setting the trials in motion. Her agency, long underestimated by historians, must be acknowledged, if we wish to understand more fully the famous events she helped to instigate.
Scarcely a passage of American history has given birth to as many myths as the fateful events of 1692 in Salem, Mass. The witch hunt has entered national consciousness as a cautionary tale. But in the process, much of its true substance has been lost. When legend maligns, misrepresents or simply neglects its subjects, historians should intervene to set the record straight.
The Life of Tituba: Facts and Fabrications
Little is known about Tituba’s life before she arrived in Salem. Historians have almost universally claimed that Samuel Parris acquired her in Barbados. But as historian Bernard Rosenthal concedes, the evidence is “purely circumstantial.” The sole, tantalizing clue is a 1676 document listing a child named “Tattuba” among those enslaved on the plantation of Samuel Thompson on Barbados. But without more substantial proof linking this Tattuba to Parris, we cannot be sure she is the same woman who lived in his household in Salem.
Because her early life is obscure, doubt persists about Tituba’s ethnicity. Various arguments have linked her to one group or another. But since slaveholders could and did rename the people they enslaved at will, such arguments lack support. We can only speculate about her native country and her people, elements essential to our modern understanding of ethnicity. Yet there is no ambiguity about how the society Tituba inhabited defined her race. Every extant source from Tituba’s lifetime describes her as an “Indian.”
One of the most striking peculiarities of Salem scholarship is that, on this aspect of Tituba’s story, the sources say one thing, and the historians say another.
Metamorphosis of Tituba
In the centuries since she lived, Tituba has undergone a racial metamorphosis. Her first transformation was effected not by a historian, but by a poet.
In 1832, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published his verse-drama Giles Corey of the Salem Farms, and gave his Tituba an African father. Longfellow’s version seems to have been the right narrative at the right time. Perhaps the real, native Tituba held little appeal for 19th-century American intellectuals. To them the frontier seemed increasingly remote. Perhaps the intense struggle over slavery in their own lifetimes predisposed them to expect enslaved people in the nation’s past to have black faces.
The mixed-race Tituba of Giles Corey entered the history books and then remained there until the middle of the 20th century. Her metamorphosis was a sleight of hand performed by generations of historians who preferred, in her case, to deal in stereotypes rather than documentary evidence. Thus Tituba the Indian was recast, in the words of historian Marion L. Starkey, as Tituba the “trembling black woman.”
In this version, Tituba is little more than a victim. And that story dominated the historiography of the trials until recent decades.
Granted, as suspicion began to circle around her in February 1692, Salem’s first witch was in a dangerous position. As a racial outsider and a slave in the Puritan community, she had very little protection under the law. She was also accused of a capital crime. So some historians have made the mistake of assuming Tituba acted weakly because her position was weak.
To the contrary, Tituba turned her weakness into strength, and acted decisively to save her own life.
Tituba’s Confession: Inventing the Conspiracy
Tituba held two cards in her hand as she faced magistrate John Hathorne across the interrogation table. The first was that she was alone in confessing. Sarah Osborne and Sarah Good, accused alongside her, kept their silence. That allowed Tituba to control the narrative of her alleged crime.
Her second advantage – and this may seem counterintuitive − was her race. Historian Elaine G. Breslaw has pointed out that, as a Native American, Tituba belonged to a group the Puritans “associated with demonic power.” And so when Tituba spoke about witchcraft, they were prepared to listen.
After the witch panic had died down and the people of Salem began to come to terms with what they had done, Tituba appears to have recanted her testimony. Robert Calef, a contemporary critic of the trials, records that she claimed to have confessed under duress, after “her master did beat her.” This may have been the truth; but it was not the whole truth. Had Tituba given her testimony strategically, she would hardly have admitted as much so soon after the trial. But close analysis of her testimony suggests she was thinking very strategically indeed.
Tituba’s testimony reads like a case study in suggestive manipulation. The content of her confession seems crafted to play on the fears of her accusers. Though her native heritage was a source of her credibility, the images she evoked were distinctly English. She claimed the Devil appeared to her in animal forms – as a hog, as a “great dog.” as a bird, as “a red rat and a black rat.” These creatures would have been immediately recognizable to the Puritans as familiars, demonic agents in the guise of household animals. They figured prominently in English witch beliefs.
English tradition held that a witch gave her familiar sustenance by allowing it to drink her blood. Sure enough, we find in Tituba’s confession the image of Sarah Good allowing her bird-familiar to “suck her between her fingers”.
We cannot know whether Tituba shared her enslavers’ concept of witchcraft. It is unclear, therefore, whether the beliefs expressed in her testimony are her own, or simply what she thought her interrogators wanted to hear. What matters is that Salem believed her. For the Puritans, the explanation Tituba offered was familiar enough to be plausible – but also frightening enough to keep them from scrutinizing it too closely. This enabled Tituba to add a crucial element to her story.
On the first day of her interrogation, she testified that she saw four women hurting the children. Two she could identify as Sarah Osborne and Sarah Good. But the other two, she claimed, she did not recognize. The implications were dramatic. Tituba had given the Puritans evidence of a Satanic conspiracy at work in their town. By leaving the identity of two of the conspirators open, she ensured that anyone could become a suspect.
Ambition of Tituba
On the second day of interrogation, Tituba seems to have grown more ambitious. This time, she told Hathorne of a book in which the Devil, in the guise of a tall man, commanded her to sign her name. The book also contained nine other signatures. Two could be accounted for as belonging to Sarah Osborne and Sarah Good, but the remaining seven could not be identified. Tituba had widened the scope of the conspiracy.
Then, when asked to describe the unknown persons at the clandestine gathering, she complicated matters further. One of the women, she said, wore a “black silk hood with a white silk hood under it.” The tall man had white hair and wore black clothes. Both descriptions suggested expensive outfits – these diabolic conspirators were people of status.
Historians of the witch hunts can use one tell-tale sign to determine the moment a witch panic reached critical mass and began to take on a life of its own. That sign is the presence of elite men among the accused. Once those nearest the levers of power began to be implicated, it became very difficult for anyone to control the spread of accusations. By conjuring two well-dressed gentlefolk from Boston, Tituba ensured that suspicion would climb freely up the social ladder.
Sure enough, in May 1692, the Salem witch trials claimed their first high-status victim: George Burroughs, the former minister of the village.
The Power of a Lie
What might have happened had Tituba given a more conventional confession, or held her tongue altogether? It is difficult to imagine that she would have escaped punishment. Nothing she might have said could change these facts. She had been close to the afflicted girls, and she was low enough in the social hierarchy of the village to be the perfect scapegoat for their suffering. If Samuel Parris really did beat her to coerce a confession, he had probably already decided on her guilt, and that she would take the blame.
Had Tituba simply admitted to bewitching the children, she would almost certainly have been tried and convicted. Perhaps she would have died in jail, like Sarah Osborne, or hanged, like Sarah Good. Though New England’s courts were generally more lenient in cases of witchcraft than their continental European counterparts, she likely would have received the death penalty. The whole drama might have ended there, with an unfortunate slave woman its sole, unmourned casualty.
But Tituba took action, and the outcome was entirely different. Over the course of nine months, denunciations spread through Salem like wildfire. They implicated some 200 people in the network of a vast imagined conspiracy. Nineteen were then hanged as witches, and one man crushed to death with stones for refusing to enter a plea. As the village descended into suspicion and recrimination, the woman whose confession provided the impetus for the panic seems to have been overlooked.
Tituba languished in a jail cell for 13 months until her release after the end of the trials in May 1693. Thus she survived, sheltered by the chaos she helped to create.
From History to Myth
Here Tituba disappears from the historical record and passes into American mythos. It has not treated her well. Reduced to a foil for the nation’s racial anxieties, she has suffered the distortion of the basic facts of her life. Preferring to project onto her rather than understand her, historians and dramatists alike have overlooked her agency in shaping those famous events in Salem. It is an error that has only recently begun to be corrected. Our understanding of the trials is all the better for it, because Tituba’s role was decisive.
Her confession turned an open-and-shut witchcraft trial into an open-ended witch panic. By manipulating the Puritans’ fears, Tituba did more than preserve her own life. She tore the community that had enslaved her apart.
Emerson Hurley studies early modern history at the University of Melbourne, with an interest in the social history of the European witch hunts. He can be contacted at [email protected]
 Bernard Rosenthal, “Tituba’s Story,” The New England Quarterly 71, no. 2 (1998): 197.
 Marion L. Starkey, The Devil in Massachusetts (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1950), 43.
 Elaine G. Breslaw, “Tituba’s Confession: The Multicultural Dimensions of the 1692 Salem Witch-Hunt,” Ethnohistory 44, no. 3 (1997): 546.
 Robert Calef, More Wonders of the Invisible World, Display’d in Five Parts (London: Samuel Bridge, 1700), 91.
 Brian Levack, ed., The Witchcraft Sourcebook, second edition (New York: Routledge, 2015), 287.
 Levack, Sourcebook, 288.
 Levack, Sourcebook, 286.
 Benjamin Ray, “Salem Witchcraft No. 125: Tituba,” Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project, published 2018, accessed December 26, 2021.
Images: Memorial stone to Sarah Good, By Tim1965 – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8485227.