Unravel the many mysteries of Tituba, star witness to the Salem witch trials (2023)

Unravel the many mysteries of Tituba, star witness to the Salem witch trials (1)

Few corners of American history have been explored as exhaustively or persistently as the nine months in which Massachusetts Bay Colony grappled with our deadliest witch epidemic. In early 1692 several young girls began to squirm and howl. They twisted violently; They complained of bites and pinches. They alternately stopped preaching and fell silent, "their throats choked, their limbs shattered," noted one observer. After some hesitation, after much discussion, they were declared bewitched.

Her symptoms spread, first within the community, eventually well beyond its borders. In their distress, the girls cried out against those they thought were enchanting them; they could see their tormentors perfectly. Others followed suit because they suffered from the effects of witchcraft or had witnessed it, often decades ago. By early spring, it was discovered not only that witches were flying free throughout Massachusetts, but that a diabolical conspiracy was afoot. She threatened to overthrow the church and undermine the country.

By the fall, between 144 and 185 witches and wizards had been named. Nineteen men and women had been hanged. America's tiny reign of terror, though allegorically would last for centuries, burned itself out in late September. We dust it off when we exaggerate ideologically or prosecute prematurely, when prejudice emerges or decency goes down the drain, when absolutism threatens to engulf us. As many times as we've revisited Salem -- on site, on stage, and on screen -- we've failed to reveal a crucial secret at the heart of the crisis. How did the epidemic pick up such speed and how did it come to be a satanic conspiracy, first in Massachusetts? The answers to both questions rest in part with the most unlikely suspect, the Indian slave at the heart of the Salem mystery. Puzzling at first, it has become increasingly elusive over the years.

We only know her as Tituba. It belonged to Samuel Parris, the minister in whose household witchcraft broke out; his daughter and niece were the first to cramp. Although she was officially accused of practicing witchcraft on four Salem girls between January and March, we don't know exactly why Tituba was charged. She was particularly close to 9-year-old Betty Parris, having worked and prayed with the family for years, including in Boston and Salem for at least a decade. She ate her meals with the girls she probably slept next to at night. Tituba may have sailed from Barbados in 1680 with Parris, then a bachelor and not yet a minister. Although she is likely a South American Indian, her origins are unclear.

She couldn't expect to be charged. Traditionally, New England witches were marginalized: runaways and dissenters, quarrelsome scolding and choleric foot-stompers. They weren't colored. Tituba does not appear to have been involved in an early attempt to identify the village witches, a superstitious experiment conducted at the vicarage while the adult Parrises were away. This infuriated the minister. She had never appeared in court. At least some villagers believed her to be the wife of a second Parris slave, an Indian named John. English was clearly not her first language. (When asked "Why are you hurting these children?" Tituba replied, "I'm not hurting them at all.")

She probably wasn't a tall woman; She would expect the Salem judges to believe that two other suspects had forcefully armed her for a high-speed excursion through the air while they were all held close together to a pole. She was the first in Salem to mention a flight.

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This story is a selection from the November issue of Smithsonian Magazine.

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Along with these women, on March 1, 1692, Tituba came before the authorities in the village of Salem to stand trial for witchcraft. The first two suspects denied any knowledge of magic. When Tituba met her interrogators that Tuesday morning, she was standing in front of a crowded, nervous community center. It was the one she had prayed in for the past three years. She had already been dropped off in prison. Local authorities seemed to understand before she opened her mouth that she had to make a confession. No other suspect would claim such attention; Several reporters sat ready to write down Tituba's words. And someone - presumably the hard-edged, 51-year-old John Hathorne, the Salem City Judge who handled most of the early testimonies - made the decision to question her last.

It began with a denial, one that the court clerks scarcely bothered to deal with. Hathorne had asked the first suspects who they hired to hurt the girls. The question went to Tituba with a different twist. "The devil came to me," she revealed, "and asked me to serve him." As a slave, she could not easily afford to adopt a defiant tone. And it was undeniably easier for her to admit that she had served a powerful man than it would have been for her fellow inmates, both white women. It was scoffed at in custody that the word of a well-spoken slave should carry no weight. She was right about the smooth talk, miserably wrong about the rest.

Who was it, Hathorne asked, that tortured the poor girls? "The devil, as far as I know," Tituba replied before beginning to describe him in a hushed room. She introduced a full, malevolent cast, their animal accomplices, and various superpowers. She was a sort of satanic Scheherazade, masterful and delightfully persuasive. Just the day before, a tall, white-haired man in a dark serge coat had appeared. He traveled from Boston with his accomplices. He ordered Tituba to hurt the children. He would kill her if she didn't. Had the man appeared to her in some other form? asked Hathorne. Here, Tituba made it clear that she must have been the life of the corn-pounding, pea-shucking Parris kitchen. She presented a vivid, garish, and demented account. More than anyone else, she fueled America's infamous witch hunt, providing its imagery and shaping its form.

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She had seen a pig, a big black dog, a red cat, a black cat, a yellow bird, and a hairy creature that walked on two legs. Another animal had also appeared. She didn't know what it was called and had a hard time describing it, but it had "wings and two legs and a head like a woman's". A canary accompanied their visitor. If she served the man dressed in black, she could have the bird. She implicated her two fellow suspects: one had shown up with her cat just the night before while the Parris family was praying. She had tried to negotiate with Tituba by covering her ears so Tituba could not hear the writing. After that she remained deaf for some time. The creature she claimed she had so much trouble describing (and vividly described) was, she explained, Hathorne's other suspect in disguise.

She proved a brilliant storyteller, all the more convincing for her simple declarative statements. The accent may have helped. She was as clear and persuasive as one could get when describing transparent cats. And she was rambling: her testimony is among the longest of any Salem testimony. After making no fewer than 39 requests that Tuesday, Tituba proved just as accommodating over the next few days. She admitted to pinching victims in several homes. She has answered each of Hathorne's main questions. If he mentioned a book, she could describe it. If he asked about the devil's disguises, she could get them for him.

Unravel the many mysteries of Tituba, star witness to the Salem witch trials (3)

While she was hauntingly specific, she was also delightfully vague. In fact, she had seen the devilish book. But she couldn't tell if it was big or small. The devil might have had white hair; maybe he didn't have it. Although the book contained many markings, she was unable to decipher any names other than those of the two women already arrested. Other confessors would not be so careful. Has she seen the book? "No, he didn't let me see her, but he tells me to see her next time," she assured Hathorne. Could she at least say where the nine lived? "Yes, some in Boston and some here in this town, but he wouldn't tell me who they were," she replied. She had signed her pact with the devil in her blood, but wasn't sure how it was done. God played little part in their testimony.

Eventually she realized that she just couldn't go on anymore. "I'm blind now. I can't see!" She wailed. The devil had incapacitated her, angry at Tituba's liberal revealing of his secrets. There was every reason why the girls — who had cried and squirmed during the earlier hearings — were still for held an Indian slave. For the same reason, Tituba would later freeze grown men. Hours after her testimony, they trembled before "strange and unusual beasts," translucent creatures that mutated before her eyes and merged with the night. And she herself would join the underwent a series of strange and unusual transformations with the support of some of America's leading historians and literary figures.

Witchcraft confessions were rare. Compelling, satisfying, and the most kaleidoscopically colorful of the century, Tituba changed everything. She assured the authorities that they were on the right track. She doubled the number of suspects and stressed the urgency of the investigation. It introduced a dangerous recruiter into the process. She urged the authorities to arrest more suspects. A satanic conspiracy was afoot! Tituba had seen something every villager had heard about and believed in: a real deal with the devil. She had spoken to Satan, but also resisted some of his requests; she wished she had held him back completely. She was respectful and cooperative. Everything would have turned out very differently if she had been less accommodating.

Parts of her March account would soon be gone: the tall, white-haired man from Boston would be replaced by a short, dark-haired man from Maine. (If she had a culprit in mind, we'll never know who it was.) Her nine conspirators soon grew to 23 or 24, then 40, later 100, eventually a staggering 500. According to one source, Tituba retracted every word of her sensational confession , to which she claimed her master bullied her. By this time, however, the arrests had spread to eastern Massachusetts based on their March history. A pious woman would not admit that witchcraft was at work: how could she say that, she was asked in the face of Tituba's confession? The woman was hanged and - like every victim of 1692 - denied any part of the sorcery to the end. All agreed on the supremacy of Tituba. "And so," one minister wrote in her hypnotic report, "this matter was taken forward." Her revelations went viral; An oral culture is similar to an internet culture in many ways. Once she testified, devilish books and witch meetings, flights and familiars were everywhere. Others among the accused adopted her imagery, some slavishly. It's easier to borrow a good story than to make it up; a confessor changed her portrayal to match Tituba's.

There would be less consensus after that, especially when it came to Tituba's identity. Described as Indian no less than 15 times in the court filings, she continued to put herself in shift form. As scholars have noted, Tituba, victim of a centuries-old telephone game, evolved from Indian to half-Indian to half-Black to black over two centuries with the assistance of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (who apparently ripped her from himMacbeth), historians George Bancroft and William Carlos Williams. At the time Arthur Miller was writingThe CrucibleIn 1952 Tituba was a "negro slave". She dabbled in a different kind of dark arts: to her new inheritance, Miller provided a live frog, a kettle, and chicken blood. He has Tituba sing her West Indian songs over a fire in the forest while naked girls dance about. Sounds like a distant cousin to Mammy inBlown by the wind, she says things like, "Mister Reverend, I do think someone else is putting a spell on these children." She was last seen in a moonlit prison, sounding half-mad, begging the devil to carry her home to Barbados. After thisThe Crucible, she would be better known for her voodoo, for which there is not a shred of evidence, than for her psychedelic confession, which stands on paper.

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Why the retrofitted racial identity? Arguably bias played a role: a black woman at the center of the story made more sense, just as - as Tituba saw it - a man in black belonged at the center of a devilish conspiracy. Her story was written by men who worked when African voodoo was more electrifying than old-fashioned English witchcraft. All wrote after the Civil War, when a slave was considered black. Miller believed Tituba took an active part in devil worship; He read her confession—and the 20th-century sources—at face value. By replacing the Salem judges as the play's villain, Tituba exonerated others, most notably the Massachusetts elite. In her testimony and in her afterlife, prejudice shaped the story neatly: Tituba provided Hathorne's clues as she knew their writing well. Their statements matched accurately with the reports of the bewitched. Also, her account never fluctuated. "And it was thought that if she had faked her confession, she wouldn't have remembered what she said exactly," an observer later explained. A liar, it was clear, needed a better memory.

The opposite seems to be the case: the liar avoids all inconsistencies. The fortuneteller rarely tells his story twice in the same way. With the right technique, you can tease answers out of anyone, although what you extract won't necessarily be factual answers. In front of an authority figure, an impressionable witness will reliably provide implanted or absurd memories. In the longest criminal trial in American history -- the California child abuse cases of the 1980s -- children swore that daycare workers were slaughtering elephants. Tituba's details, too, grew more voluptuous with each retelling, as do coerced confessions. Whether coerced or willing to cooperate, she gave her interrogators what she knew they wanted. One gets the feeling of a servant following her cues, dutifully taking on a given role and telling her master exactly what he wants to hear - as she did in the days of Shakespeare or Molière.

Even if the spooky cats and devilish compacts sound strange, the invented hysteria remains eminently modern. We are no less prone to adrenaline-charged overreactions, which are all the more easily transferred at the click of a mouse. A 17th-century New Englander had many things to worry about; he battled marauding Indians, invading neighbors, a deep spiritual insecurity. He felt physically, politically and morally besieged. And once an idea - or an identity - has seeped into the groundwater, it's difficult to flush out. The memory is indelible, as is the moral stain. We, too, are dealing with out-of-control allegations and pointing fingers in the wrong direction, as we did after the Boston Marathon bombing or the 2012 University of Virginia rape case. We continue to prefer the fancy explanation to the simple; we are more likely to be deceived by a great delusion - by a hairy creature with wings and a woman's face - than by a humble one. When computers fail, it seems far more likely that they were hacked by a group of conspirators than that they malfunctioned at the same time. A jet disappears: It's more plausible that it was detached from a Middle Eastern country than that it's sitting on the seabed in fragments. We like to lose ourselves in an issue to justify our private hurts in public outrage. We don't like it when others refute our beliefs any more than we like when they deny our hallucinations.

After Tituba had introduced flights and familiars to the process, and provided a story that could not be rash, Tituba was neither questioned nor named again. She was finally tried on May 9, 1693 after 15 harrowing months in prison for making a covenant with the devil. The jury declined to indict her. The first to confess to signing a diabolical pact would be the last suspect released. She appears to have left Massachusetts with whoever paid her prison fees. It is unlikely that she ever saw the Parris family again. After 1692 no one cared about them anymore. She disappears from the records but escaped with her life, unlike the women she named as her allies this Tuesday in March. Tituba suffered only the humiliation of a distorted afterlife, for reasons she might have thought of: It was a better story.

Unravel the many mysteries of Tituba, star witness to the Salem witch trials (4)

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Stacy Schiff is the award-winning author of several books includingVera: (Frau Vladimir Nabokov), who won a Pulitzer Prize. She writes regularly for theNew York Times book review. Her bookThe Witches: Salem, 1692will be released in October 2015.

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