Tituba (Salem witch trials)

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Tituba was a 17th-century West Indian slave woman who was owned by Samuel Parris[1] of Danvers, Massachusetts. Tituba was the first to be accused of practicing witchcraft during the Salem witch trials which took place in 1692


Tituba was the first person to be accused by Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams of witchcraft. She was also the first to confess to witchcraft in Salem Village. At first she denied that she had anything to do with witchcraft, but Samuel Parris beat her until she confessed to helping Mary Sibley (or Sibly) make a witchcake. When questioned later, she added that she knew about occult techniques from her mistress in Barbados, who taught her how to ward herself from evil powers and how to reveal the cause of witchcraft. Since such knowledge was not meant for harm, Tituba again asserted to Parris she was not a witch, but admitted she had participated in an occult ritual when she made the witchcake in an attempt to help Elizabeth Parris.[2][3]

Other women and men from surrounding villages were accused of witchcraft and arrested at the Salem witchcraft trials. Not only did Tituba accuse others in her confession, but she talked about black dogs, hogs, a yellow bird, red and black rats, cats, a fox and a wolf. Tituba talked about riding sticks to different places. She confessed that Sarah Osborne possessed a creature with the head of a woman, two legs, and wings. By mixing the different views on witchcraft, she unintentionally set Salem Village into chaos by hinting that Satan was among them.[2]


The race of Tituba has been disputed for 150 years. Undoubtedly, the racial politics of the mid-19th century are responsible for this debate.[1] Despite this, all the documents from the Salem Witch Trials that mention Tituba characterize her as a Native American woman. The ethnicity of Tituba has been surrounded by controversy from the first historical analysis of her. It was initially assumed that she was of Indian descent.[2] But over time the origins of Tituba have begun to be re-evaluated and old theories have been contested.[citation needed]

Support of African ancestry[edit]

In supporting the African origin of Tituba, author Veta Smith Tucker[who?] claims Puritan society “…did not perceive African and Indian as thoroughly contrasting racial identities,” and often lumped the two together.[4] According to Smith Tucker, this would explain why 17th century documents labeled Tituba an Indian (Native American). However, a simple glance into those same documents proves that Smith’s analysis falls short of reliability. The case of Mary Black, another accused witch of Salem, clearly shows that 17th century Puritans did in fact distinguish Indians and Africans. In the examination of Black, the records states, “Mr. Samuell Parris being desired to take in wrighting the Examination of Mary Black a black Woman…”[5]

In the 1860s and the decades that followed, race relations in the United States had reached one of its lowest points. At a time when blacks were perceived as being inferior in every conceivable way, and often blamed for societal transgressions, it is not hard to see why scholars at the time would imagine Tituba as being, at the very least, "tinged" with African ancestry.[opinion]

A year after Upham's contribution, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow went a step further in Giles Corey of the Salem Farms and claimed Tituba was "the daughter of a man all black and fierce…He was an Obi man, and taught [her] magic." Obeah (also spelled Obi) is a specifically African and Afro-American system of magic.”[6]

It is generally agreed by scholars since the mid-19th century that Tituba had taught and practiced voodoo with the young girls of Salem. Voodoo is certainly a West African religious rite that was practiced in the Caribbean during the 17th century. To be sure, if Tituba did indeed come from that region, she could have learned some form of voodoo from other slaves. However, this does not necessarily mean that Tituba herself was black. More importantly, there is nothing in the Salem documents that says Tituba practiced voodoo. In fact, in her confession, all of the magic Tituba admitted to having practiced was European in nature, such as signing the Devil's book.[citation needed]

Further complicating the debate is the name Tituba itself. According to Smith Tucker, 'Tituba' is a Yoruba word.[4] The Yoruba are an ethnic people native to southwestern Nigeria that speak a language of the same name. Smith Tucker points out that titi in Yoruba means 'endless'. Also, the word Tituba in that same language is a verb that means ‘to atone.'[4]

Support of mixed ancestry[edit]

However, in the Spanish language, the word titubear means ‘to stammer.’ If Tituba hailed from the Caribbean, or was native to the South American continent bordering the Caribbean, as Elaine G. Breslaw claims, she could have surely been given a Spanish name. Furthermore, in the 16th century the Spanish identified a tribe of Indians around the Orinoco River that they named "Tibetibe". Anthropologists also distinguished a group of Arawaks around the Amacura River called the “Tetebetana.”[2] In Latin, often a source of slaves' names in Europe and America, tituba means 'totter' or 'stagger'. The name Tituba could easily be assumed to originate from any one of the above sources.

The origins of the debate can be traced to Charles Upham's Salem Witchcraft, published in 1867. Upham wrote that Tituba and her husband, John Indian, hailed from the Caribbean (or New Spain as it was called in the 19th century.[6]) As slaves in colonial Spain had been allowed to have affective relations with each other, scholars began to assume that Tituba was of mixed heritage.[citation needed]

Hansen states:

Over the years the magic Tituba practiced has been changed by historians and dramatists from English, to Native, to African. More startlingly, her own race has been changed from Native, to half-Native and half-Negro, to Negro…There is no evidence to support these changes, but there is an instructive lesson in American historiography to be read in them.[6]


Tituba, as portrayed in the 19th century by artist Alfred Fredericks in W.C. Bryant's "A Popular History of the United States"

Tituba is featured in the novel I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem (1986) by Maryse Condé. She featured prominently in the 1952 play The Crucible by Arthur Miller as well as the 1957 and 1996 film adaptations of the play. The image of Tituba as the instigator of witchcraft at Salem was reinforced by the opening scene of The Crucible, which owes much to Marion L. Starkey's work The Devil in Massachusetts (1949).[7]

In the play, Tituba was brought to Salem from Barbados, was taught how to conjure up spirits, and had allegedly dabbled in sorcery, witchcraft, and Satanism. These fictional accounts hold that Abigail Williams and the other girls tried to use her knowledge when dancing in the woods before the trials began; it was, in fact, their being caught that led to those events. With the original intention of covering up their own sinful deeds, Tituba was the one to be accused by Abigail, who had in fact drunk from a magic cup Tituba made to kill John Proctor's wife, Elizabeth, and to bewitch him into loving her. She and the other girls claimed to have seen Tituba "with the Devil". It is ironic that the belief that Tituba led these girls astray has persisted in popular lore, fiction and non fiction alike. The charge, which is seen by some as having barely disguised racial undertones, is based on the imagination of authors like Starkey, who mirrors Salem’s accusers when she asserts that "I have invented the scenes with Tituba .... but they are what I really believe happened."[citation needed]

Tituba is also the main character in the 1956 book Tituba of Salem Village by Ann Petry. Written for children 10 and up, it portrays Tituba as a black West Indian who tells stories about life in Barbados to the village girls. These stories are mingled with existing superstitions and half-remembered pagan beliefs on the part of Puritans (for instance, it is a white neighbor who makes the witch cake, rather than Tituba herself), and the witchcraft hysteria is partly attributed to a sort of cabin fever during a particularly bitter winter. Petry's portrayal of the helplessness of women in that period, particularly slaves and indentured servants, is key to understanding her take on the Tituba legend.

Tituba appears in the novel Calligraphy of the Witch (2007) by Alicia Gaspar de Alba as an Arawak Indian from Guyana fluent in several languages, and the only person in the Boston area who understands Spanish. She is a friend and English tutor to the slave Concepción Benavidez who is accused of witchcraft in the Boston area because of her Mexican and Catholic culture. In the book she foresees trouble for Concepción through water scrying. Later in the novel, Samuel Parris and his slave Tituba move to Salem.[citation needed]

In American Horror Story: Coven, the character Queenie states that she is a descendant of Tituba; later, voodoo priestess Marie Laveau and witch Fiona Goode have an extremely arch discussion of Tituba's antecedents, claiming her magic came from her Arawak ancestry, and legacy and their ties to America's racial history.[citation needed]


  1. ^ a b Schiff, Stacy (November 2015). "The Devil's Tongue". Smithsonian (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution) 46 (7): 34–39. 
  2. ^ a b c d Breslaw, Elaine G. Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies. New York: New York University Press, 1996, pp. 107, 170, et al.
  3. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg Wilson, James Grant; Fiske, John, eds. (1900). "Parris, Samuel". Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: D. Appleton. 
  4. ^ a b c Smith Tucker, Veta. "Purloined Identity: The Racial Metamorphosis of Tituba of Salem Village", Journal of Black Studies (March 2000), pp. 624-34.
  5. ^ The Salem Witchcraft Papers, lib.virginia.edu; accessed November 30, 2015.
  6. ^ a b c Hansen, Chadwick. "The Metamorphosis of Tituba, or Why American Intellectuals Can’t Tell a Native Witch from a Negro", The New England Quarterly 47 (March 1974), pp. 3-12.
  7. ^ Bloom, Harold (2008). Bloom's Modern Critical Intepretations - Arthur Miller's The Crucible (New ed.). Infobase Publishing. p. 209. ISBN 9780791098288. Retrieved 24 December 2015. 


  • Breslaw, E.G. (1996). Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies. New York: New York University Press. ISBN 0814713076. 

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