The Salem Witch Hunt is arguably the most infamous display of mass-hysteria in the United States to date. But did you know that the bizarre witch trials all began with one woman? This is the story of Tituba and how her actions sparked the notorious Salem Witch Hunt.
Tituba’s trek to Salem
Tituba’s early history is still a mystery. Historians don’t have a full grasp on the life Tituba led before her days in Salem. She was born in an Arawak Village in South America and relocated to Barbados as a child to serve as a slave. She was later purchased by a Puritan minister, Samuel Parris, who took her Boston. In 1689, Parris got a new job as the minister of Salem Village. He packed himself and his family up and relocated the group to Salem. However, things in the Parris’ household quickly took a turn for the worst.
In early 1692, Tituba played a strange game with Parris’ daughter, Betty Parris, and her cousin, Abigail Williams. The trio dropped an egg into water with the hopes that it would reveal the girls’ future spouses. Instead, they saw coffins. Pretty unsettling, right? Shortly after the fortune-telling game, Betty and Abigail began to suffer from strange medical symptoms. By February, they were grappling with seizure-like fits, full-body aches, and other odd pains. Tituba thought that the Devil might be behind the girls’ suffering. So, along with her husband and their neighbor, Tituba created a snack sure to reveal the root of their pain: a “witchcake.” Do you see where this is going?
A bizarre confession
The witchcake—which included urine from Betty and Abigail—was fed to their dog in hopes that the pup would bark out the name of the person bewitching them. In reality, the witch cake didn’t accomplish much of anything. As the girls’ condition worsened, it was clear the canine couldn’t do much to shed insight on their symptoms. However, Betty and Abigail decided to point their fingers at women in the village for bewitching them… including Tituba. After the witchcake, she already had a stain on her reputation. Unfortunately, her testimony wasn’t super self-defensive.
While Sarah Osborne and Sarah Good—the other two women accused—denied their involvement in any witchcraft rituals, Tituba did not. Her testimony was bizarrely over-the-top, dramatic, and revealing. Tituba confessed to her accused role as a witch. “The devil came to me and bid me serve him,” she admitted. When asked if she played any part in the harm of Betty and Abigail, she said, “yes, but I will hurt them no more.” She even described having various demons communicating through animals to get her to do the Devil’s bidding. But how exactly did her confession lead to the largest witch hunt in history?
Spurring the witch hunt
While this confession is quite remarkable, it may have been due in part to the abusive nature of Salem’s slaveholders. They likely beat the confession of witchcraft out of Tituba. She also may have done it to avoid getting hung or burned at the stake; those who confessed to their crimes had better chances of going to prison than being sentenced to death. Additionally, Tituba wasn’t exactly at the top of the social food chain. What did she have to lose in confessing? No matter the reason, her confession of “guilty” sparked the true beginning of the Salem Witch Hunt.
After Tituba seemed to admit to the fact that the Devil was present in Salem, all hell broke loose (literally). The Salem Witch Hunt led to the pursuit and capture of dozens of innocent women, men, and children, all of whom the judges of Salem attempted to weasel a confession of practicing witchcraft out of. The unfortunate irony of the situation was that after the trials began and Tituba went to prison, she retracted her confession. She claimed that she was abused into saying that she practiced witchcraft and that she wanted to protect herself by pleading guilty. However, it was far too late to take the consequences of her confession back. The leaders of the Salem Witch Hunt continued to capture and accuse many more innocent people of witchcraft across the course of 1692.