Accused of Witchcraft

Image: Tituba’s Encounter with Cotton Mather in the Woods of Salem
A scene from the play Giles Corey of the Salem Farms
Illustration in The Political Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Volume II

Tituba was a South American Indian woman, not an African American slave, as is commonly believed. She was originally from an Arawak village in South America, where she was captured as a child, taken to Barbados and sold into slavery. It was in Barbados that her life first became entangled with that of Reverend Samuel Parris.

Samuel Parris was the son of an Englishman who bought land in Barbados in the 1650s. Samuel was sent to Massachusetts to study at Harvard, where he was in 1673 when his father died. At the age of 20, Parris inherited his father’s land in Barbados.

After graduating from Harvard, Parris moved back to the island of Barbados to settle the old estate. He leased out the family sugar plantation and settled in an area called Bridgetown, where he established himself as a credit agent for other sugar planters.

Parris was unmarried at the time and acquired two Indian slaves – Tituba and John – to manage his household. Tituba was likely between the age of 12 and 17 at the time, which led to speculation that she may have also served as his concubine. She was most likely purchased by Parris from one of his business associates, or was given to him to settle a debt.

When Parris moved to Boston in 1680, Tituba and John accompanied him. During his first New England winter, Parris married Elizabeth Eldridge. A year later, Elizabeth gave birth to a son, Thomas, then two daughters, Betty and Susahanna.

Dissatisfied with the life of a merchant, Parris considered a change in vocation. In 1686, he began substituting for absent ministers and speaking at informal church gatherings. After the birth of their third child, Parris became the Village’s new preacher. He and his family settled in the parsonage, and Parris began his ministerial duties in July 1689.

The slaves Tituba and John were married in 1689, about the same time the Parris family moved to Salem. It is believed that Tituba had only one child, a daughter named Violet, who would remain in Parris’ household until his death.

Dissatisfaction in the community with Parris as a minister began in 1691, and manifested itself in the sporadic payment of his salary. In October, a committee refused to impose a tax to pay his salary and for fire wood through the winter. In response, Parris’ sermons began to focus on warnings against a conspiracy in the village against the church, and he attributed the evil to the forces of Satan taking hold in Salem.

It was also in 1691 that Parris’s daughter Betty and his niece, Abigail Williams (now also living in his household), most likely inspired by the tales of Tituba, began to dabble in fortune telling and other decidedly non-Puritan activities. Betty began to develop strange symptoms: pinching, prickling and choking sensations.

Several physicians were unable to diagnose the problem, but Dr. William Griggs suggested that her malady must be the result of witchcraft. Parris organized prayer meetings and days of fasting in an attempt to alleviate Betty’s symptoms. He also fanned the flames of witchcraft suspicions from his pulpit.

Tituba participated in the preparation of a witch cake – a mixture of rye and Betty’s urine that was cooked and fed to a dog, in the belief that the dog would then reveal the identity of the person who had bewitched Betty. Reverend Parris was enraged when he found out about the cake, and soon thereafter the afflicted girls named Tituba as a witch and she was arrested.

Parris beat Tituba until she confessed, and she likely did so to avoid further punishment. In her confession, she apologized for hurting Betty, and professed her love for the child. By confessing early on, Tituba avoided the ordeal of a trial, and she provided evidence against two other accused witches – Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne.

When public sentiment toward the accusers began to change, Tituba recanted her confession. This further enraged Parris, who then refused to pay the jailer’s fee to get Tituba out a prison. She spent thirteen months in jail until an unknown person paid the seven pounds for her release and bought her.

It is likely that the same person bought her husband, John, because Puritans were not inclined to split up married couples, even slaves. It is unknown what happened to Tituba after she began her life with her new owner.

Samuel Parris
Tituba Biography

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