The Salem witch trials, carried out over a 9-month period in the late 17th century (1692-1693), have become infamous in the centuries since, providing inspiration for numerous works of art, literature, film, and even TV shows. These works are not always (or even usually) concerned with the hard facts and dates associated with the event, of course, and so the details have morphed throughout time. Perhaps no one has been cast and re-cast as much as Tituba, though. Much of what we know about her directly contradicts pop culture depictions.
Local lore and constant re-tellings of the story have shaped the ways that we think about the Salem witch trials and the participants. Tituba’s was the first to be accused of witchcraft in the trials, and her elaborate confession would serve as the catalyst for further investigation and arrests in the months to come. Tituba’s confessions elevated the occurrences from an isolated event to a wide-spread conspiracy of demonic proportions.
Accounts of the Salem witch trials show that Tituba was an Indian slave living in the house of Samuel Parris, a minister in Salem, but we don’t actually know much else about her. There seems to be some disagreement as to her race–perhaps most notably in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953), which records her as a “Negro slave”–but it is likely that Tituba and her possible husband, John (another slave in Parris’s home) came from Barbados with Parris, who had a plantation there and sailed from the island to Boston with two slaves in 1680.
While in Boston, Samuel Parris married Elizabeth Eldridge, a daughter of Salem. The couple had three children–Thomas, Elizabeth, and Susannah. In 1689, Parris became the minister of Salem Village, and the family moved there with Tituba and John (by most accounts, they were married during this time).
Sources disagree about what the events of the next few years were like, but by the winter of 1692, Betty Parris and her cousin Abigail Williams were having convulsions, experiencing pain, and babbling, and they had identified Tituba and two of the townswomen, Sarah Good and Sarah Osbourne, as witches who had cursed them. On March 1 of that year, Tituba and the other women stood before interrogators in the town meetinghouse.
Tituba was the last of the accused to be questioned that day, and special attention seems to have been paid to recording her confessions—an indication that the court knew what was coming. Tituba’s confession was indeed one worth recording. It was lengthy and elaborate, including tales of wild beasts, a mysterious man, and numerous other women involved in practicing witchcraft, including Sarah Good and Sarah Osbourne. The testimony was used to convict the two women, and it fanned the flames of a controversy that might’ve died out otherwise.
There is an indication that Tituba later recanted her testimony and confessions, and the source indicates that Tituba reported abuse and coercion to confess from Samuel Parris. Tituba’s case did not go to trial, because the grand jury in Ipswich did not indict her. Court records do not indicate that she was questioned again. Parris refused to pay the fees required to get her out of jail, and so she stayed there for 15 months, until an unknown person bought her for the release fee. After that, records of Tituba disappear, and no one knows what happened to her.