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The Salem Witch Trials Began From the Testimony of a Mysterious Slave Woman

Ian Harvey

The Salem Witch trials are remembered as one of the most chaotic times in Early Colonial American history.

During the trials, much of the northeastern part of the American Colonies was whipped into a frenzy of fear and paranoia.

Based on the Puritan ideals of the time, there were suspicions of witchcraft and devil worship, both of which are offenses punishable by death under Puritan practices.

“Trial of George Jacobs of Salem for Witchcraft.”

“Trial of George Jacobs of Salem for Witchcraft.”

The fuel for the firestorm of accusations and arrests rests, in large part, on Tituba, a South American slave woman owned by Samuel Parris.

Much is unknown of Tituba’s early life, but historians generally agree that she was a child of the Arawak tribe in South America. She was captured by slavers and sold to Samuel Parris in Barbados before being taken to Boston in 1680. Her part in the subsequent witch trials is pivotal, as she was one of the first persons to be accused of witchcraft and her testimony provided the basis for everything which came after.

Tituba the Witch

Tituba the Witch

In 1689, Samuel Parris became the Minister of Salem and moved his family there. Tituba moved with them and spent her time taking care of Samuel Parris’s children. She was close with Parris’ 9-year-old daughter Betty.

Early in 1692, Betty Parris and her cousin Abigail Williams started experiencing fits and pain. With no medical explanations as to why this was happening, the doctors of Salem claimed that the girls must have been hexed by witches.

Samuel Parris

Samuel Parris

The two girls accused Tituba and two other women, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborn, of being the witches because they saw the women in their minds while having hallucinations. This was accepted in the courts of the time as spectral evidence, which was considered solid proof for witchcraft.

During interrogations, both Sarah Good and Sarah Osborn vehemently denied the charges made against them, but they were not prepared for what was to come.

Tituba took center stage, and she began to give colorful testimony in which she claimed that the devil had come to hurt the children. Not only that, but the devil had accomplices in the two women who also stood accused.

This 19th-century representation of “Tituba and the Children” by Alfred Fredericks, originally appeared in A Popular History of the United States, Vol. 2, by William Cullen Bryant (1878).

This 19th-century representation of “Tituba and the Children” by Alfred Fredericks, originally appeared in A Popular History of the United States, Vol. 2, by William Cullen Bryant (1878).

In an article on History of Massachusetts Blog, there is a report of testimony which quotes Tituba as saying, “Goody Osburn and Sarah Good and I doe not know who the other were Sarah Good and Osburne would have me hurt the children but I would not she further saith there was a tale man of Boston that she did see.” Even though she didn’t have an education, she was able to put enough emotion into the testimony to sway the people of Salem.

This testimony sowed the seeds for suspicion and quickly her story expanded. She went from having two conspirators to four conspirators to nine, all the way up to almost five hundred. Every time she was interrogated, her story evolved, making herself ever more valuable to the courts.

Tituba and Mary Walcott, illustration by John W. Ehninger.

Tituba and Mary Walcott, illustration by John W. Ehninger.

Her testimony held various descriptions of abnormal creatures that stood at the side of the devil; most interestingly she described a harpy, a being with wings, two legs, and the head of a woman, though she didn’t know the name of the creature.

During the testimony, she also talked about a book which was filled with the names of people who had made pacts with the devil, and, according to “Unraveling the Many Mysteries of Tituba” on Smithsonian.com, “while there were many marks in the book, she could not decipher names other than those of the two women already under arrest.”

Tituba Teaching the First Act of Witchcraft.

Tituba Teaching the First Act of Witchcraft.

Because of this vagueness, she could expand her story to encompass anyone she needed to, and, by the end of the trials, 19 men and women had been hanged for witchcraft, and almost a hundred and fifty more were imprisoned.

Tituba was placed in prison, and while she was there, many people came forward to confess their sins. Many among them used pieces of her intricate testimony to add credibility to their own.

In the end, Tituba attempted to take her confession back and said the reason she gave such testimony is because her master, Samuel Parris, had beaten her and told her to give false testimony.

Read another story from us: Two Canadian Women were Arrested for Witchcraft Fraud

When she was put on trial for dealing with the devil, the jury decided not to convict her, and her prison fines were paid by an unknown benefactor, with whom she presumably left Boston. Nothing more is known of her life afterward, but her part in history continues to be fodder for creative minds.