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.

15 October 2015

Top 5 Places to Visit in Salem, Massachusetts

When you visit the Witch City, there are many attractions, museums, tours, and events vying for your attention. I put together a list of five not-to-miss places that are worth the trip to Salem, Massachusetts, for people interested in the 1692 witch hunts in Essex county.

Site of the Salem Village Parsonage (behind 67 Centre Street, Danvers, MA).

The parsonage was built after February 1681, when Salem Village voted to build the parsonage for their second minister, George Burroughs (1650-1692). Here, strange fits first possessed nine-year-old Betty Parris and her 11-year-old cousin Abigail Williams, causing a local doctor to declare the girls were under an evil hand. The first accused witches lived close by, including in the parsonage itself, but it quickly spread to Salem Town and around Essex county.

In 1734, a new house was added to the old parsonage. In 1784, the original parsonage was demolished and the 1734 addition was moved. In time, the foundation filled in. In 1970, Richard Trask and a team of archeologists uncovered the foundation stones. Artifacts discovered at the site are located at the Danvers Archival Center (15 Sylvan Street, Danvers).

The archeological site not only gives you an idea of how small the house was, it also puts into perspective where Rev. Samuel Parris (1653-1720) and his family lived in relation to the First Meeting House and Ingersoll’s Ordinary—just a quick walk around the corner—and how far away Salem Town was by foot, horseback, or wagon. 

While you’re in the area, visit the Danvers witch memorial on Hobart street.

Rebecca Nurse Homestead (149 Pine St., Danvers, MA)

Rebecca Nurse Homestead
In 1678, Francis and Rebecca Nurse leased this 300-acre parcel from Rev. Allen. Their farm was productive and the terms of their lease generous. In 1692, the afflicted girls accused Rebecca of being a witch, the jury failed to convict her, and the magistrate asked them to reconsider after the girls acted out in court. Even the villagers’ petition and the governor’s reprieve didn’t save her. She was hung on July 19, 1692.

The volunteers who give tours at the homestead are very knowledgeable, so you’ll get more out of your visit than a self-guided tour. The homestead includes the original house built about 1678, plus several additions; the 1681 Endecott barn; a 19th century shoemaker’s shed; and a replica of the 1672 Salem Village Meeting House that was used in the film Three Sovereigns for Sarah. The property now consists of 27 acres, including the Nurse graveyard. It’s likely that Rebecca Nurse was buried in the graveyard, though the location is unknown. There are two memorials, from 1885 and 1992, erected in her memory. You’ll also find a 17th-century-styled gravestone for George Jacobs, whose supposed body was reburied at the site.

Cry Innocent: The People vs. Bridget Bishop (Old Town Hall, 32 Derby Street, Salem, MA)

If you wander down Essex Street in Salem, you may come across a 17th century town crier and a band of similarly dressed townspeople. After several arguments, they arrest Bridget Bishop for being a witch and bring her to the Town Hall for questioning. Like other attractions in town, you will hear dialogue taken from the witch trial papers, but in this case, you—the audience—become the jury and vote to determine whether she should be held for trial. You also get a chance to ask questions of the witnesses and Bridget herself. The performances are well done and there are no poorly made mannequins sitting in for the afflicted girls—just quiet chairs—so, unlike 1692, you can listen to the words spoken instead of the distraction caused by the afflicted girls. 

The Salem Witch Trials Memorial (between Charter and Derby streets, adjacent to Old Burying Point, Salem, MA)

Salem Witch Trials Memorial
Built 300 years after the witch trials, the memorial consists of 20 granite benches that float in the middle of a low stone wall. Each bench is inscribed with the victim’s name and date of execution. Unlike the cemetery next to the memorial, there are no bodies here (they are cenotaphs) and the benches hovering above the ground remind us of that fact.

Over the years, Salem tried to bury its witchcraft past, so we don’t know where the witch-hunt victims were hanged (though most people assume it’s somewhere on Gallows Hill) or buried. The memorial serves as a contemplative spot to honor these brave women and men who stood up for their religious beliefs and wouldn’t condemn their souls by lying to save their lives. At the threshold of the memorial, you’ll see some of their poignant words cut off, just like their lives were. 

While you’re in the area, stop by the repaired gravestone of Judge John Hathorne (1641-1717) at Old Burying Point. It’s hard to miss.

The Salem Witch Walk (Crow Haven Corner, 125 Essex Street, Salem)

Having been on a trolley tour and a historical 1692 walking tour, I’ve learned where Bridget Bishop’s house or apple orchard stood (43 Church Street) and where the 1684 jail once existed (corner of Federal Street and St. Peter’s Street, formerly known as Prison Lane). But much of the tour guides’ scripts have not kept up with current research and often repeat myths and misconceptions.

The Salem Witch Walk is different, right from the start. The walk begins with a magic circle, in which the tourists are invited to participate. As Tom, a practicing witch and our tour guide, explains during the ceremony, witches hold true to two words: “Harm none.” Tom says none of the accused in 1692 were witches, but 17th century cultural beliefs, superstitions, and magic came into play, turning neighbor against neighbor and ending in a land grab. He explains what some witch symbols mean, including the pentagram, and why Laurie Cabot and other witches came to Salem. There’s no scary hocus pocus. 

In the end, you may realize the juxtaposition of Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery and Elizabeth Montgomery’s Bewitched statue with the Salem Witch Museum, the maritime heyday of the Peabody Essex Museum, and Salem’s leather manufacturing history are not that strange. It’s how Salem survives its past and moves into the future.

NOTE: Some of these places have limited, seasonal hours. Check the web sites for details.

Want to read more about Salem and the witch trials? Click on the keyword "witch-hunt" on the right-hand column to see other articles, from a short genealogy of the victims and a timeline of the witch-hunt to books and tourist attractions. 

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