04 October 2015

Tituba Redefined: Salem Then and Now

A scene from the Salem Village parsonage, with Betty Parris,
Tituba, John Indian, and Abigail Williams at the
Witch History Museum on Essex Street, Salem, Mass.
Tituba is a key figure in the beginning stages of the 1692 Salem witchcraft trials, being the first person to confess and to describe the world of witches. If you visit local attractions in Salem, Massachusetts, you’ll see her depicted as a black woman, often telling tales to young and impressionable girls at the Salem Village parsonage. 

Yet in the actual court records, Tituba is very specifically referred to as the Indian servant of Mr. Samuel Parris, while Mary Black and Candy are described as “negro slaves” of their owners. So how did Tituba get rewritten in popular culture as of African descent?

From contemporary accounts by trial critics to Charles W. Upham’s often referenced history, Salem Witchcraft (1867), Tituba is called Indian. Shortly after the American Civil War, however, she’s depicted as of mixed race. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who is more inclined to poetic license than historical truth, wrote Tituba was a half-Indian, half-African woman in the dramatic verses of Giles Cory of the Salem Farms (1868). Historians and novelists continued this trend into the 20th century.

Taking it one step further, Arthur Miller turned the historical witch trial into an allegorical play about McCarthyism, the U.S. interrogation and blacklisting of suspected Communists. By using names and events from 1692, The Crucible (1953) overwrites history by making Tituba of full African descent.

Salem’s local attractions continue to portray Tituba as of African heritage. What’s tragic is the little we know of Tituba, her life, and her background is that she was Indian—as easily accessible transcriptions of actual 1692 documents and the last 50 years of some excellent research repeatedly tell us.

Upham, Salem Witchcraft Vol. 1 and Vol. 2
Boyer & Nissenbaum, Salem Witchcraft Papers

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