29 October 2015

Tituba, Indian Servant of Mr. Samuel Parris

HEX: Old World Witchery in Salem
sells voodoo dolls*
From the 1692 Salem witch-hunt records, we know Tituba was “the Indian servant of Mr. Samuel Parris,” the minister of Salem Village. But we know very little about her life and her background. When was she born and where did she come from before being accused, interrogated, and jailed as a witch?

Although called a “servant,” Tituba probably lived in perpetual servitude. While slaves did exist in New England, most were of African descent, not Native American. Tituba could have been a Wampanoag, a Carib, or an Arawak Indian, which scholars have debated for years. Her foreignness within her small community went beyond her ethnic background though. In court, Tituba refers to “her mistress in her own country,” implying that she was born outside of the 13 Colonies as well.

The most in-depth study, Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem by Elaine Breslaw, claims Tituba was an Arawak Indian kidnapped from a Dutch settlement in South America and brought to Barbados. Based on the etymology of her name it could be plausible—but that scenario and the name also could apply to multiple people. Instead of suggesting Tituba absorbed an amalgam of cultural influences in Barbados, Breslaw creates a captive story that not only orphans Tituba but has the young Indian girl living with an African family. To tie the pieces together, Breslaw finds a 1676 plantation list of “negroes” that places a “Tattuba” with the “boys & girls,” suggesting an age range—and providing white owners with possible connections to Samuel Parris. As genealogists, we learn that even if the name is the same, we still need to connect the 1692 Tituba with earlier documentsand that cannot be done conclusively.

Like many slaves, we may never know her parents, her birthplace, or her age, though we can surmise some details based on the life of Tituba’s owner, Samuel Parris (1653-1720).

The Life of Parris

Samuel was the son of Thomas Parris (d. 1673), a cloth merchant of London. Thomas’ older brother John (d. 1660) owned a sugar plantation in Barbados in the 1640s, where he was a merchant and sometime slave trader. When he died there in 1660, part of John’s property went to his brother Thomas and his children. Thomas’ eldest son John inherited land from his uncle in England and Ireland. Younger son Samuel inherited a plantation and other property in Barbados.

At some point, Thomas and son Samuel moved to Barbados, where the climate, the foods, and the racial demographics were much different from England and even New England. With such valuable and income-producing properties, they would have become accustomed to having slaves and servants as an everyday part of island life.

Samuel left Barbados to attend Harvard College in Massachusetts Bay Colony, where his classmates would be future ministers, government officials, and businessmen. To an aspiring young man, Parris may have made the association that true gentlemen had servants and slaves to take care of farming and household chores so they themselves could be occupied with worldly matters. Before completing his degree, however, Thomas died, causing Samuel to return to Barbados to settle his father’s estate. Instead of living on the plantation, Samuel moved to Bridgetown, where he acted as a merchant agent. In December 1679, he was listed with one slave and one servant on the Barbados census.

By 1680, Samuel Parris returned to Boston, most likely bringing with him Tituba and John Indian. In short order, the 27-year-old bachelor married Elizabeth Eldridge/Eldred (1648?-1696) and set up house. Without the business acumen of his uncle and because of his own fractious nature, Samuel was not a successful merchant. He defaulted on a commercial loan and spent time in the courts. Perhaps thinking the ministry was a more suitable, pastoral occupation, in 1685, Samuel took a position as a paid preacher in Stowe, Massachusetts. Several years and much negotiating later, he became the minister at Salem Village, taking Tituba and John Indian with him.

The Qualities of a Servant

In the court trials, Tituba mentions her previous mistress in whose home she would have learned how to be in charge of a household—from tending the garden, preserving foods, cooking meals to housecleaning, laundry, spinning, and making candles and soaps. To be capable of running the household, we can estimate that Tituba would have been between the ages of 16 and 25 when she came to Boston. Without having much supervision in a bachelor’s home, it’s doubtful she would have been younger. If she were much older, that would have meant a shorter working life, and we know from his biography that Samuel was stingy and too demanding for that.

When Samuel married, Tituba’s workload would not have been divided in half. From his interactions with the Salem Villagers, it’s easy to get the impression that Samuel aspired to a higher social strata than a yeoman farmer. In Boston, Elizabeth Parris may have done more entertaining than cleaning. And as a minister’s wife, she was expected to make her rounds, helping people in the community, leaving Tituba to take care of hearth and home—and children.

Samuel and Elizabeth had three children—Thomas (b. 1681), Betty (1682-1760), and Susanna (1688-1706)—and, at some point, niece Abigail Williams joined the family.

Tribulations and Trials

Although the children had chores and schooling to attend to, Betty and Abigail’s so-called witch afflictions in 1692 meant more work for Tituba. Not only was the house filled with visitors observing the two girls, Betty and Abigail’s ailments were a convenient excuse to get out of housework.

After weeks of hysterical outbursts, fits, and twitches from the two girls, Samuel Parris gave up on Cotton Mather’s proscribed prayers and fasting, pushing instead for names of those who had bewitched the children. It’s not surprising whose names were on the list—the outcasts and outsiders—including Tituba, the overworked Indian slave from Barbados. These women didn’t fit in polite, Christian society, with their cursing (impoverished Sarah Good), their lack of church attendance (old, bedridden Sarah Osburn), their otherness (Indian slave Tituba).

If you visit local attractions in Salem, Massachusetts, Tituba is portrayed as a black slave telling tales to young and impressionable girls at the Salem Village parsonage. But the role of storyteller wasn’t created for Tituba until Charles W. Upham (1802-1875) re-imagined her as the center of the maelstrom in his book Salem Witchcraft (1867), which was widely read and repeated by historians and authors.

Probably after being physically coerced by Samuel Parris, Tituba confesses to being a witch before the magistrates—but not to occult practices like fortune telling or Caribbean voodoo. She does, however, tell of Satan making her pinch and hurt the girls, of riding a stick to night-time meetings with other witches, and of the existence of more witches. With obvious references to British witchcraft folklore, Tituba’s testimony weaves together Samuel Parris’ sermons of Satan’s conspiracy against his church and the people’s fears that the girls were experiencing a preternatural battle for their souls. Instead of creating unity to save the church, Tituba’s words turned neighbor against neighbor.  

Story with No Ending

Tituba’s value as a witness against Sarah Good and Sarah Osburn unexpectedly saved her life, while forfeiting theirs. As more afflicted accusers came forward, more innocent victims were accused, and spectral evidence spread near and far, Tituba lay forgotten in prison.

According to contemporary chroniclers, after the General Jail Delivery, Samuel Parris refused to pay Tituba’s jail fees. But by paying seven pounds for her shackles and 13 months’ room and board, a new master bought an Indian slave whose future labor was worth more than the fees. After watching others die in jail or being led out to the gallows and being rejected by the family she had served for a dozen years, perhaps her new owner thought Tituba would be a docile and obedient servant. Beaten down and neglected, she was malnourished, her body stiff from the shackles and hardly any exercise, her mind constantly living in fear. No doubt, Tituba was grateful to be part of the living again. And, so, quietly Tituba the Indian servant disappeared from recorded history.

In 1711, no one came forward to ask for compensation from the government on behalf of the Indian slave.


Larry Gragg, A Quest for Security: The Life of Samuel Parris 1653-1720.

Elise Lemire, Black Walden: Slavery and Its Aftermath in Concord, Massachusetts.

Bernard Rosenthal, et al, Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt.

Charles W. Upham, Salem Witchcraft.

For more on Tituba, see also:

* It is unclear whether the voodoo dolls sold at HEX are in reference to a supposed (and incorrect) connection to Tituba since Bridget Bishop poppets also are sold in the store, or if they are just one of many magical products available. The owners are 
modern-day Warlocks with Witchcraft shops in both Salem and New Orleans.

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