The Salem witch trials are one of the most notorious episodes of early American history, when a combination of fear and ignorance led to a lethal wave of hysteria in Salem, Massachusetts, in the early 1690s. Over 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft and 19 of those people were executed, before an accusation against the governor's wife led to a crackdown by authorities.

Plot Twist Studios recently produced a fascinating video on the subject. They viewed the story from many angles, including the possibility that the first girls said to be suffering under the influence of witchcraft had eaten some dodgy rye, and were in fact suffering from what we would now describe as a ‘bad trip'. But what really caught my attention was the native American slave girl who was the first to be accused, and the role she played in the carnage that would follow.

Tituba testified in front of petrified townsfolk (image from Plot Twist Studios)

‘Tituba', as she was known, was probably born around 1674 in Barbados, and was likely an indigenous central American. Whether she was born in Barbados or brought there as a slave is a little unclear, but it is known that she was bought by the London-born Reverend Samuel Parris. Parris brought her with him to his puritan settlement of Salem, in the colony of Massachusetts, where Tituba cared for Parris' children and helped his wife with domestic chores.

In early 1692, Parris' daughter Betty and his niece Abigail Williams began suffering from convulsions, hallucinations and bouts of non-sensical utterances. A doctor was summoned and, lacking an explanation for the girls' symptoms, he declared them to be bewitched. The hunt was on for the culprit.

Samuel Parris bought Tituba in Barbados and brought her with him to Massachusetts

Samuel Parris had the perfect candidate in mind. As Plot Twist outline, attendance at his sermons was steadily declining and there is a not insignificant chance that he now cynically saw an opportunity to win his flock back; the people of Salem would surely need their Reverend now that witches moved among them. He zeroed in on his slave girl, and within weeks had beat a confession out of her.

Tituba confessed that she had bewitched the young girls, at the behest of the devil. She even embellished her story when hauled before a court; in some accounts she referred to ancient Haitian voodoo, in other accounts she spoke of a black dog who could shapeshift into a white-haired man in black clothing who had told her to hurt the girls.











The initial confession had been beaten out of her by Samuel Parris, but why had she gone even further in court and given such salacious, and obviously untrue, extra details? It is possible that she simply thought that was what people wanted to hear, or that she could lessen the blame on herself by saying that she had been coerced by Satan. It isn't actually impossible that she genuinely believed she was possessed, and the further evidence of accused men and women in Salem recounting in great detail their encounters with Satan arguably points to this. It is hard for a modern reader to get their head around just how religious and superstitious people were in the 17th century, and even more so in a puritan settlement. As the Oxford Home Schooling website puts it, a terrified population were already looking to supernatural explanations, and Tituba seemed happy to fill in the blanks for them.

Any reader with just a passing interest in early modern witchcraft will be familiar with the idea that social outcasts were often accused, and that was the case with the two further culprits rounded up in Salem; Sarah Good, a local homeless woman, and Sarah Osborne, who was one of those who had started to not attend church. Both were swiftly executed, and so began a months-long wave of hysteria in which 17 more people would meet a similar fate. Some of these victims were happy oblige their peers with tales of their sorcery; most of them desperately protested their innocence, denying their guilt as they hanged.

Some of the accused confessed at trial; most desperately protested their innocence (image from Boston Magazine)

The trials began to fizzle out by the end of 1692, and Plot Twist raise the interesting detail that they were finally quashed when an accusation was made against the wife of the governor of Massachusetts. Only at this point did the governor decide to put a stop to the arrests and trials once and for all.

And what of Tituba? Amazingly, she had not been executed during this time, and was still locked up in prison in Boston. She recanted her confession, saying that she had only made it after Samuel Parris beat her. Parris denied this and refused to pay the bond to secure her release, but an unknown good Samaritan did and Tituba was allowed to walk free in early 1693. Nothing is known about her life after this.

Smithsonian magazine note that Tituba began a life of shapeshifting herself after her disappearance from the records. She went from an indigenous American to a black woman in accounts written in the 19th and 20th centuries – likely, the magazine note, due to 19th century understandings of what a slave looked like. 21st century historians have again settled on the idea that she was native to central America and had been brought to Barbados in slavery.

In any case, her story – or more accurately the year of her life that we know about – allows for a fascinating insight into the Salem witch trials story, and by extension into the culture of colonial America. It is interesting that she was allowed to testify rather than being summarily executed. It is interesting that she was not executed at all, even after confessing, and allowed to leave prison as a free woman. But most of all, it is interesting to note the power that her testimony had over a pious and petrified population, and the dire consequences it had for 19 people in Salem.