“I am blind now. I cannot see.”
So ended the court appearance of the woman who kicked off the Salem witchcraft trials: Tituba, an enslaved woman who was the first to be accused of witchcraft in Salem. She had just given some of history’s most explosive testimony, a convoluted and riveting tale of a witch’s coven, a devil’s book and evil animals and spirits that seemed to explain away the odd symptoms that overtook a group of Salem girls in 1692.
But what do we really know about the woman whose testimony sparked Salem’s witch hunt?
Tituba’s story is as convoluted—and potentially fictitious—as any other part of the Salem witch trials. Even during the events of the 1690s, which led to 20 deaths, legends and rumors were common. It’s hard to untangle them from a distance, and all historians know for sure about Tituba comes from the court testimony she gave during the infamous trials.
What is certain is that Tituba was a woman of color, and likely an indigenous Central American, who was a slave in the house of Reverend Samuel Parris, Salem’s Puritan minister. At the time, slavery in the colonies was on the rise, and the West Indies was rapidly becoming Europe’s most important center for the slave trade. Reverend Samuel Parris bought Tituba in Barbados, where she had been enslaved since her capture during childhood. He brought her to Massachusetts in 1680, when she was a teenager. At some point, she is thought to have married another slave named John Indian, and she had a daughter, Violet.
Tituba cared for the Parris children, and Parris’ daughter and niece were among the first girls who began showing strange symptoms in 1692. The girls had been playing a fortune-telling game that involved dropping an egg white into a glass of water. Supposedly, the form the egg white took in the water could help predict whom the girls would marry and show the shapes of their future lives. After the girls saw a coffin in one of the glasses, they began barking like dogs, babbling and crying hysterically.
Though she apparently had nothing to do with the girls’ attempts at fortune telling (a grave sin in the Puritan religion), Tituba tried to help them. She baked a “witchcake” from rye meal and urine and fed it to the girls. Parris, who had already begun praying and fasting in an attempt to cure the girls of what he saw as possession, became incensed when he heard Tituba had fed them the cake. He beat her in an attempt to get her to confess that witchcraft was the reason behind the girls’ increasingly odd behavior.
Tituba did confess—and embellished her confession withan embroidered tale of how she had been told to serve the devil. She and the girls rode on sticks, she confessed, and a black dog told her to hurt the children.
This was enough to spark hysteria in Salem. Tituba was formally accused of witchcraft and two other women were accused and arrested along with her.
“She could not have expected to be accused,”writes historian Stacy Schiff for Smithsonian. New England witches were traditionally marginals: outliers and deviants, cantankerous scolds and choleric foot-stompers. They were not people of color.”
However, it was all too easy to scapegoat people of color and marginal members of society. Sarah Good, who was arrested along with Tituba, was a beggar who was looked down on by the town for her financial instability and her debts. Sarah Osborne lived on Salem’s margins, too—she was involved in a dispute with her children over their dead father’s estate and was reviled for an affair with an indentured servant. All three women were perfect targets for accusations of deviant, even evil, behavior.
Tituba’stestimony was bizarre and deeply disturbing to the people of Salem. She had seen “two rats, a red rat and a black rat,” she told the magistrates. “They said serve me.” Tituba confessed to pinching the girls and told the court that she had signed a “devil’s book.”
The people of Salem associated supernatural practices like voodoo with people of color and Indians, and the townspeople identified Tituba as both. Her confession was enough to convince the town that true evil was afoot. As the trials spun further and further out of control, Tituba remained imprisoned in Boston.
She was indicted as “a detestable Witch” and languished in jail for more than a year. Parris refused to pay her bail. Meanwhile, more and more indictments and arrests piled up as Salem gave into a townwide panic.
Later, Tituba recanted. She told the magistrate that she had made up everything after her master beat her in an attempt to force a confession. By then, the trials had wound down and the governor of Massachusetts had ordered the arrests to stop. Eventually an anonymous person paid Tituba’s bail and she went free after 13 months in jail.
Eventually, the state of Massachusetts gave Salem’s accused people back their property and gave them restitution. However,notes historian Veta Smith Tucker, Tituba—a slave with no property and no rights—was given nothing. She disappeared from the historical record from that point on.
Since so little is known about Tituba, her story is easy to fictionalize. In the years after the trials, she became popular in literature and lore. But in reality, she seems to have been a marginal figure whose low societal status put her in the perfect position to be accused of witchcraft in a town searching for answers.