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

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DANVERS – OCTOBER 17: The frenzy that fueled the witch trials started in Salem Village – now called Danvers – and at the parsonage whose foundation remains. (Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Why did Tituba confess to witchcraft?

First, both prosaic and heartbreaking – she probably wanted the punishment to stop. Parris beat the confession out of her, after all. What other tortures could he have had in store? Perhaps she had been told of the methods other witch hunters had used to get confessions. There were thumbscrews, sleep deprivation, and ordeal by water, where the accused witch was dunked over and over into (often freezing) water. Could her situation get worse?

But then, why provide such an embellished, even lurid account? Her questioners certainly led her on, which accounts for fabulous details such as the devil’s book full of bloody signatures, and the nighttime flight.

Yet there were the odd details, the strange animals, the white man, that may have come from her Caribbean childhood or her own imagination. Why include that? Did she want to impress the Puritans with the vividness of her story? Did she in some way wish to frighten them, to exact some small revenge? How much did she feel the sting of her slavery, of her perceived inferiority, of the many years of service, even love for the Parris family, all undone with the accusation of some foolish girls?

If I were her, yes, I would be full of rage. But I am not her. None of us are. And, apart from her confession and a few records, we have nothing to show us the real Tituba.

She is now, more than anything, a legend of her own. But once she was a real, living woman.

An accused witch going through the judgement trial, where she is dunked in water to prove her guilt of practicing witchcraft.

So, what happened to her? Again, we know very little. Partially because of her confession, Tituba was spared the noose. Still, she languished in her cell for thirteen months, even after the panic had subsided. Parris refused to pay her jail fees, in part because she had recanted her testimony.

Later, someone paid these fees and took her away from Salem. This person’s name is not recorded, nor are their intentions. We do not know where they went or what happened to this individual and Tituba. After this point, Tituba leaves the record, never to be seen or heard from again.

Tituba’s fate has been the subject of some fiction, of course. In Maryse Condé’s novel, I Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, Tituba is set free and returns to Barbados. She becomes caught up in a slave revolt and is hanged, but remains in the spirit realm to encourage further rebellions in the Caribbean. In Tituba of Salem Village, by Ann Petry, she is released by Samuel Conklin, who shows her kindness and offers her work as a weaver. In The Crucible, she simply disappears, having served her narrative purpose.

“I justly fear that I have been instrumental… to bring upon myself and this land the guilt of innocent blood.”

We may never know what exactly happened to Tituba. No one afterward seemed concerned about her fate, at least not to the point that they cared to record it.

Salem itself has become a myth, a legend, a cautionary tale of foolishness and paranoia taken to deadly extremes. Participants would later apologize and repent their misdeeds; Ann Putnam, Jr., who had accused 62 people, publicly repented for her actions in 1706. Said Putnam, “I justly fear that I have been instrumental… to bring upon myself and this land the guilt of innocent blood.” She was the only one of the afflicted girls to apologize.

Now, if you visit Salem, you will see memorials to the trials. You will see police cars with a witch emblazoned on the side, proudly declaring the town to be “The Witch City”. You might visit the Salem Witch Museum and view mannequins, who reenact the trials for your enjoyment. The Tituba depicted there is black (some of the figures representing her appear, awkwardly, to be covered in brown paint).

Yet, very little of this gets to the truth of things. It hardly represents Tituba herself, the real human being, the scared woman who sat before the people of Salem and confessed to practicing witchcraft when she almost certainly believed herself innocent. Historically speaking, she is lost to us.

SALEM, MA – SEPTEMBER 18: Headstones in a cemetery outside of St. Peter’s Church in Salem, Mass. (Photo by Joanne Rathe/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

If all of this seems quaint – the specters, the ghostly animals, the screams and playacting of the girls – remember that we are not above deadly hysteria. In the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy led the witch hunts for Communists that ruined lives and careers. The 1980s had widespread panics about Satanic ritual abuse, which led to multiple arrests and imprisonments for innocent people. The moral panic of the “War on Drugs” and all its racial and social complexities infects us even today.

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We are not so removed from our frightened ancestors. What myths will our descendants make about this society? Who will be the next Tituba amongst us, and will she be forgotten, too?