Tituba Of Salem: Paranoia, Race, And The Genesis Of An American Myth

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The Salem witch trials remain a powerful American story. But what happened to Tituba, the woman at the center of the Salem panic?

The infamous witch trials of Salem, Massachusetts peaked in 1692 and led to the deaths of twenty people (fourteen of whom were women).

For better or worse, it is now part of our national mythology. Countless high school students have read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which used the trials to critique 1950s McCarthyism. Today, someone flipping through the channels near Halloween might find a documentary about the trials. An uninformed acquaintance might even ask about the witch burnings that took place in America (though all those executed in Salem were hanged).

Salem has become little more than a spooky story. It is often a way for us to feel superior to our uninformed, frightened ancestors. Yet, it was a real town, with real people, and it underwent real horror.

At the start of it all was Tituba. She was a slave in the household of local minister Samuel Parris, who had taken her from Barbados to Massachusetts. She was the first to be accused and the first to confess to witchcraft. Because she admitted to her supposed wrongdoing, Tituba was spared execution. Others who steadfastly maintained their innocence were sent to the scaffold to be hanged. From her confession arose the panic which took Salem by storm and led to the deaths of innocent townspeople.

Reverend John Hales (Charlie Steiger), Thomas Putnam (Lee Meadows),Tituba (Tamira Patterson), Reverend Samuel Parris (Steven Somers),Giles Corey (Roger Kroll) performing in “The Crucible” at Carroll Community College (Staff Photo/ Brandon O’Brien)

To fully understand the events which took place in Salem, you need to understand the Puritan worldview. Today, it is easy for us to think of the Puritans as simple, superstitious folk, easily taken by panic and too foolish spot a sham perpetrated by teenage girls.

In fact, Puritans were about as diverse as we are today. Some were stupid, surely, but there were also many intelligent, canny individuals. Previous witch trials in Connecticut were slowed by cautious judges and critical juries. Even in Salem, some townspeople were doubtful. For every person who cried “witch!” at each misfortunate, there was likely to be another who cast a skeptical eye on the proceedings.

Even well-known figures who became wrapped up in the Salem controversy were learned and respected throughout the colonies. Cotton Mather, for instance, was an incredibly influential minister and author who was well respected for his religious writings. Though he was not directly involved in the Salem trials, his previous work provided an intellectual basis for the witchcraft accusations. He was also an observer at some of the hearings.

Mather was also a neurotic individual who channeled much of his energy into his work. This included Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions. Part religious treatise, part sociological study, part tell-all, Memorable Providences records some of the witchcraft cases that preceded Salem. It argued that witchcraft was alive and well in New England and that the ever-present witches sought to tear down Christian communities. The judges in Salem took note.

An engraved portrait of Cotton Mather (1663-1728), a Boston Congregationalist minister and writer whose writings include a commentary on the witchcraft trials in Salem, Massachusetts. Mather also supported the controversial introduction of smallpox inoculations in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Even after the trials, Mather would defend what happened in Salem. He said that “If in the midst of the many Dissatisfaction among us, the publication of these Trials may promote such a pious Thankfulness unto God, for Justice being so far executed among us, I shall Re-joyce that God is Glorified….” For Mather, the ends, however horrible, justified the means.

He was not the only anxious individual in Puritan society. Indeed, it sometimes seemed as if the Puritan anxiety about both earthly and heavenly life were carried across the ocean by their British forebears.

Much of this took root thanks to John Calvin, a French theologian and pastor who died in 1564. We hardly have room here to discuss Calvinist theology, but a select few beliefs were relevant to the inhabitants of Salem. These include:

  • Total depravity, which holds that humans are born inherently corrupted. Regardless of whether or not an action is outwardly deemed good or bad, if it displeases God, it is “depraved”. However, this does not mean that someone can choose not to sin. Evil is within all of us, but we can actively choose to resist it or not.
  • Unconditional election, or predestination. Essentially, God has already decided who is damned and who is saved. God maintains absolute sovereignty over humanity. Those chosen by god (the “elect”) have done nothing to deserve their grace. No amount of good works or participation in holy sacraments can save someone; only God may decide their ultimate fate.
  • Perseverance of the saints, which claims that those truly “born of God” will be unable to tear themselves away from a love of God and all that is good. Once saved, always saved.

Thus, Puritans acknowledged that some would be saved and brought to Heaven, and would experience a deep and abiding love of God during their lifetimes. This meant, however, that some people were necessarily damned. Moreover, these individuals might succumb to the evil dwelling within their souls to join the devil and become witches.

Settlers in the region also felt pressure to maintain Godly composure in the face of a harsh and unforgiving life. While still on the swaying deck of the ship Arbella, bound for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, future governor John Winthrop preached that “We shall be as a city upon a hill; the eyes of all people are upon us”.

John Winthrop (1588-1649) led the Massachusetts Bay Company that settled the Massachusetts area for England. Under his direction as a twelve-term governor of the colony, Boston was founded and the rigid religious and political policies of the early Massachusetts Bay Colony were formulated.

The settlers meant to create a perfect Christian community, a utopia of charity and unity for all the world to see. If they failed, Winthrop said, “we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world” of God’s punishment.

“We shall be as a city upon a hill; the eyes of all people are upon us.”

What must the Puritans have thought, then, when they starved or squabbled? When the specter of witchcraft appeared in Salem, who did the Puritans blame amongst themselves? It appeared that they wanted to punish those within their community for allowing evil into their midst, through intent or carelessness. Yet, they also wanted to pick a scapegoat, an “other” that could easily be expelled from their midst or blamed on another community. If they could move the fault onto an outsider, perhaps they could escape God’s judgment.

In the Puritan world, witches were unequivocally evil and in league with Satan. They were rumored to gather in large groups, undertaking elaborate sabbaths that mocked the Christian service. With the Devil’s help, witches sought to undermine the Puritan people and take down the shining “city on a hill” that had only just been built.