A Woman to Know: Tituba

The devil came to me and bid me serve him. — Tituba

The devil came to me and bid me serve him. — Tituba

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

Arthur Miller immortalized her in his award-winning play, “The Crucible,” as a “Negro slave.” Her contemporaries called her a dark magic evangelist. Other historians marked her as a mere footnote, one of many players in the Salem Witch Trials.

But in 1692 — as today — people actually knew very little about Tituba. Her owner, the minister Samuel Parris, brought his enslaved housekeeper to America from Barbados, and some neighbors speculated she may have secretly married one of the other slaves working at the house. Tituba cared for Mr. Parris’s daughter and niece, and the young girls asked Tituba to tell them fantastical bedtime stories, plucked from the legends and ghost stories of the West Indies.

But as witch hunt fever seized ahold of colonial Massachusetts, the Parris household became the locus of Salem’s outbreak. The young women she babysat and cared for began writhing in agony, claiming possession. They accused Tituba of entrancing them, and soon enough, investigators arrested her on suspicion of witchcraft.

At first, Tituba held fast. She denied everything; then, foreseeing the coming witch hunt mania, she changed her stories. Always a storyteller, she began corroborating the girls’ visions, spinning darker and darker tales of a lusty Satan and his cadre of nefarious servants. She claimed to ride on broomsticks, cavort with horned animals and write in a “devil’s book” made of human skin.

Tituba spent more than a year in a Boston prison. Mr. Parris refused to pay her bail, but interrogators continued to visit her, demanding more and more details. She invented increasingly disturbing answers for any of their questions, implicating more and more women in her stories. At the end of the hysteria, 20 people were executed for witchcraft in Salem.

The governor of Massachusetts demanded an end to the arrests and ordered the city of Salem to restore all lost property and possessions to the accused and their families. Tituba recanted her wild stories, and an anonymous benefactor paid her bail. But once released from prison, she was still a slave. She had nothing to claim.

Add to your library list: 

Read more:

Send your own recommendations for women to know! Reply to this newsletter with your lady and she could be featured in an upcoming edition.