Did you know the first woman ever accused of witchcraft in the United States was a black woman? Her name was Tituba, and her American story is rarely told in history books. When she was brought to the states as a slave, little did she know her fate would forever be linked to one of the most disturbing atrocities this young country had ever seen? Little did anyone know a slave from Barbados would be the first woman to be accused of practicing witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials in the early 1690s.
Some believed Tituba to be Native American, but her roots can be traced back to the tiny island nation located north of Trinidad and Tobago. Even though her past isn’t quite known, what is known is this colored woman was the catalyst to hundreds of women murdered for being so-called witches. Whether you believe in witches or not is irrelevant to this story. This is a tale of race, sexism, and America’s ugly past.
In 1692, Puritan minister Reverend Samuel Parris, a Salem Village native, heard tales of his daughter partaking in forms of witchery, which at the time was punishable by death. These stories also included his young slave woman, Tituba. Allegedly, Tituba was teaching Parris’ daughter Elizabeth and her friend Abigail voodoo and witchcraft. Parris was furious. Witchcraft to the Puritans meant nothing less than devil worship and any of its practitioners should be scorched in the pit of hell. Parris needed to get to the bottom of this quickly, so he approached the girls, who wouldn’t dare lie to the Puritan minister of Salem Village. The girls, understanding the swift punishment of witchcraft, promptly told the minister what he needed to hear; the slave Tituba was to blame.
Parris now needed one more admission and the truth he’d created in his head would be deemed reality. In his eyes, the validity of the truth didn’t need actual evidence of witchcraft, merely someone who wasn’t Tituba confirming his suspicions. If Tituba told him she was practicing and educating the girls in the works of witchcraft, the blame could easily be shifted. Salem only needed one witch, not three.
The minister attempted to gain a confession from Tituba via beatings. She vehemently denied practicing witchcraft but Parris continued to beat on her for hours until he got his desired result. Even if Tituba confessed to matching a “witch cake” and feeding it to the girls, the mere mention of “witch” satisfied Parris. She knew of women in her native country who practiced and for good measure, she named Sarah Good and Sarah Osbourne. Good and Osbourne weren’t witches either and Good’s family were considered “nuisances” by the general public. In a way similar to the modern criminal justice system and a lack of good societal standing being used to place guilt on anyone, the three were jailed and to await a trial where their guilt was long determined by the court of public opinion — and Parris in particular.
The Salem Witch Trials began in February 1692 and concluded in May 1693. In total, 30 people were found guilty of witchcraft and 19 people were executed by hanging. It was the deadliest witch hunt in the history of colonial North America and Titbua’s false confession started it all. She later recanted her story and confessed she made it up to escape persecution.
She would apologize to the girls and well as Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne. This infuriated Parris, who would later refuse to pay the jailer’s fee to allow her to be released from prison. She would then spend the next 13 months in prison until she was bought by another slave owner.
Her story is tragic but is a lesson in understanding the struggle for Black women in early colonial America. Not only was she subjugated to slavery, but she was also was used as a pawn in a deadly period of this county many people do not acknowledge.