Tituba (Indian) West Indian slave in Salem who was instrumental in starting the Salem Witches hysteria of 1692–93.
Tituba and her husband, John, both known by the surname Indian, were brought to the American colonies by reverend Samuel Parris, who lived for a time in the Spanish West Indies. Parris went to Salem to preach in 1689. “Indian” was not their real last name, but one given to them as a descriptor of their origins. The couple were slaves in the Parris household. Tituba looked after Parris’ nine-year-old daughter, Betty, and her 11-year-old cousin, Abigail Williams.
Tituba undoubtedly brought with her the local folklore, superstitions and folk magic practices of her homeland. Some of these she may have practiced quietly in the Parris household.
In 1691–92, during the long and cold winter, Tituba entertained Betty, Abigail and their friends by teaching them simple divination games. It was all innocent fun until one of the girls saw a death omen, and everyone became frightened. Hysterical fits started and drew the attention of adults. The girls claimed they were being afflicted by witches in Salem. When asked to identify the witches, the girls were reluctant to do so. Tituba was prevailed upon by Mary Sibley, the aunt of one of the afflicted girls, to do some folk magic that would reveal the identities: She was to make a “witch cake” and feed it to the family dog. The dog would suffer fits if the girls were bewitched and might reveal the culprit. Parris beat Tituba when he found out and criticized Sibley. The girls then named Tituba, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne as the witches.
Questioned by authorities, Tituba at first protested her innocence, but then quickly confessed to being a witch. She told outlandish stories that fed the hysteria, playing into the prevailing fears that witchcraft was a serious danger in New England. The Devil had come to her and told her to hurt the children, but she had refused. Four witches, including the two Sarahs, were responsible. She said she did not know who the other two were. The witches and the Devil had hurt Tituba until she in turn had hurt the children. She was instructed to kill the children. She pledged to do no more harm.
The Devil had sometimes appeared in the form of a man, a hog and a black dog. He had with him sometimes a yellow bird, a black cat and a red cat, Familiars that told her to serve them. She refused. Sarah Good had a yellow bird familiar that sucked between her fingers. Osborn had two familiars, a hairy thing with two legs and a thing that had the head of a woman, two legs and wings. Tituba also said that she and the other witches rode through the air on poles. She fell into fits like the girls.
It was an artful confession, for it turned attention away from Tituba and on to other suspects and saved her life. Tituba was jailed, where she languished for more than a year. Parris refused to pay her jail charges. She eventually was sold and released.
Meanwhile, her husband John became an accuser too and rolled about on the floor “like a hog” when in the presence of alleged witches. He too was spared execution.
The lies Tituba told to save herself condemned others and ruined lives. More than 100 people were arrested and questioned, 19 died. The reputations of many others were permanently destroyed, turning them into social outcasts.
- Hansen, Chadwick. Witchcraft at Salem. New York: New American Library, 1969.
- Karlsen, Carol F. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1987.
- Upham, Charles. History of Witchcraft and Salem Village. Boston: Wiggin and Lunt, 1867.