Anyone who’s read or seen Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible likely remembers Tituba, the enslaved woman who sets off the 1692 witch panic in Salem, Massachusetts. In literature and history, she’s been depicted as both a menacing Barbadian voodoo queen and a Black feminist touchstone. Who was the real Tituba? The answer is … well, not clear. But, today we’ll explore the history of how she has been used, interpreted, and sought out by scholars, poets, and playwrights since the early 18th century. Today, for this installment of our Bad Women series, we’re talking about Tituba, the “Black Witch” of Salem. 

We’re producing this series as a collaboration with historian Hallie Rubenhold’s new podcast Bad Women: The Ripper Retold. Rubenhold’s book The Five has earned critical acclaim: this social history about the victims of Jack the Ripper is the 2019 winner of the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-fiction and was shortlisted for the 2020 Wolfson History Prize.

Transcript for Tituba, The “Black Witch of Salem”

Written, researched, produced and recorded by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

Produced, and recorded by Marissa Rhodes, PhD

Sarah: At the beginning of The Crucible, mid 20th c. playwrightArthur Miller’s classic interpretation of the Salem Witch panic, Betty Parris, the 10 year old daughter of Salem minister Samuel Parris, lies catatonic in bed. She has been unconscious in bed since her father discovered her, and many of the other girls of the village, dancing around a fire in the forest. It’s likely just be a medical problem … but Parris can’t forget the weird dancing and chanting he heard around the fire, and deep down, he fears that something unnatural has happened to his daughter. He begs his niece, Abigail Williams, to tell him what she knows: “Abigail, if you know something that may help the doctor,” he begs, “for God’s sake tell it to me!”

He then describes what he saw in the woods, his suspicion going to Tituba, his enslaved African woman from Barbados, who he saw leading the dance: “I saw Tituba waving her arms over the fire when I came on you. Why was she doing that? And I heard a screeching and gibberish coming from her mouth. She were swaying like a dumb beast over that fire!”

Marissa: In hopes that he can get to the bottom of this unsettling situation, Parris has invited the Reverend Hale, a learned man of both science and religion, to come to Salem to investigate. He interrogates Abigail Williams, who quickly shifts the blame to Tituba. Hale turns to Tituba and expertly manipulates information out of her, whipping her into a spiritual frenzy by asking her to “open herself” and “let God shine his holy light” on her, helping her to reveal what she knows. Others in the room ask Tituba, their voices hysterical, whether she saw the Devil, and what members of the village may have been cavorting with him. The final scene of Act I of the play culminates in a desperate monologue from Tituba, where she reveals to Hale and Parris that she did see the Devil:

“Oh, how many times he bid me kill you, Mr. Parris! He say Mr. Parris must be kill! Mr. Parris no goodly man, Mr. Parris, mean man and no gentle man, and he bid me rise out of my bed and cut your throat! But I tell him, No! I don’t hate that man! I don’t want to kill that man! Be he say, “You work for me, Tituba, and I make you free! I give you pretty dress to wear, and put you way high up in the air, and you gone fly back to Barbados!” And I say, “You lie, Devil, you lie!” And then he come one stormy night to me, and he say, “Look! I have white people belong to me! And I look – and there was Goody [Sarah] Good!”

Sarah: Her accusation sets off a wild final scene. Abigail begins to beg for the ‘sweet love of Jesus,’ and screams that she too saw Goody Good with the Devil – and Bridget Bishop, and Goody Osborn. Betty Parris – who has thus far been unconscious – suddenly sit up and screams that she saw Martha Bellows with the devil. Parris shouts his thanks to God as the rest of the girls cry out the names of other women they saw cavorting the the Devil, and in the midst of this mass hysteria, the curtain drops on Act I.[1]

Marissa: It’s a powerful and intense scene. You see the dangers coming for the women accused by the girls. You see the sway that the cunning Abigail Williams – who is trying to get her former lover’s wife out of the way with her accusations – has over the younger girls. But what almost goes without notice is something in Tituba’s short monologue (the longest chunk of dialogue she has in the play) – that the Devil offered her freedom from enslavement, material goods she could not dream of as a bondswoman, a return to her homeland, and a position of literal height over white residents of Salem.

Sarah: Arthur Miller’s Tituba is a useful character – she’s the only non-white character, and she is the one who conducts the ritual in the woods, which Miller styles as a kind of Barbadian voodoo. The only “real” witchcraft in the witchcraft panic, in Miller’s telling, comes from the Black Tituba, who does knowledge of potions and enchantments. In the play, there’s more than one “Bad Woman” – there’s the plotting temptress Abigail Williams, the embittered crone Ann Putnam, the frigid wife Elizabeth Proctor  – but Tituba is set up as the simple, stupid, Black bad seed at the center of the witch panic. She may not have had a larger plot, but it is she who brought the foreign ‘devil’ (voodoo) to Puritan Salem.

The Crucible is now part of the American literary canon, taught in high schools across the United States, often interwoven in English and Social Studies curricula to explore literary tools like metaphor and allegory at the same time as teaching the history of the very real Salem Witch Panic of 1692. And while Miller – famously – wrote the play as an allegory to McCarthyism and the blacklist, he was also explicit in the introduction that the play was largely historically accurate. And yet there’s a glaring error in the play: the historical Tituba was not an ignorant pawn, nor, indeed, a Black Barbadian voodoo queen. Who was the real Tituba? The answer is … well, not clear. But, today we’ll explore the history of how she has been used, interpreted, and sought out by scholars, poets, and playwrights since the early 18th century. Today, for this installment of our Bad Women series, we’re talking about Tituba, the “Black Witch” of Salem.

I’m Sarah

And I’m Marissa

And we are your historians for this episode of DIG

Sarah: For those who have read The Crucible or learned about the witch trials at some point in their lives, it’s likely you have a vauge recollection of Tituba. She’s not the most important character in the play, and she mostly fades into the background after Act I. But her monologue in Act I, and her role in the dancing ritual (which takes place before the play begins, and thus is described but not seen) are critical to the rest of the action of the play. So if casual readers remember anything about Tituba, it’s that she’s of African descent, she’s Black, and she’s enslaved.

Marissa: The fact that Tituba is from Barbados is repeated several times in the book. When Abigail Williams is asked what Tituba said to call the Devil in the dancing ritual, she says “I know not – she spoke Barbados.” When asked what they were doing in the woods, Abigail says it was just for fun, and they did it often – that Tituba “always sings her Barbados songs, and we dance.” Later, Abigail escalates her claim, eager to blame the whole thing on Tituba, says that the slave came to her in her dreams: “Sometimes I wake up and find myself standing in the open doorway and not a stitch on my body! I always her her laughing in my sleep! I hear her singing her Barbados songs and tempting me!”[2] In the 1998 film adaptation of the play (in which Daniel Day-Lewis is hot af, I sorta get where Abigail was coming from) the opening scene depicts the unseen forest ritual. Tituba oversees the girls as they name men who they want to fall in love with them, and then holds up a chicken, swinging it around her head before dancing and singing in an unknown (presumably African) language while at the center of the ring of white girls. Though it’s not explicitly stated, this scene fashions Tituba as a voodoo priestess.

Sarah: So if you take anything from the play and the film about Tituba, it’s that she’s Afro-Barbadian and knowledgeable in foreign magic rituals. While the play doesn’t exactly say it, Miller is drawing on what he knows his audience assumes about Afro-Caribbean slave religion. And those assumptions aren’t conjured entirely out of nothing. As we’ve discussed in several episodes, like our those on sugar and slave rebellions, there was a great deal of separation between white enslavers and the enslaved in Caribbean sugar colonies like Barbados. As a result, the enslaved developed their own religious practices and there was little effort to formally convert them to Christianity.[3] These practices were often an amalgamation of different African traditions, including aspects of Christianity, as members of different West African tribes mingled on Caribbean plantations. Often, those practices included nighttime rituals of drumming, dancing, and singing.[4]

Marissa: To white observers, especially those who were adherent to strict and straight-laced European faiths, interpreted these rituals as not only animalistic and crude, but also vaguely Satanic. Felix Sporri (Spoeri), a Swiss physician, described these rituals as “idolatrous ceremonies….in honor of their God who is mainly the devil.” The slaves danced, he said, with “terrifying shrieks and bodily movements” that seemed vaguely demonic to buttoned-up Europeans. Other white viewers associated the rituals with dark magic, even more akin to what we might recognize now as voodoo. An English military office stationed in Barbados described the rituals as “diabolical Magic” lead by a man called the “obia,” who could torment others with physical and spiritual pain, causing “lameness, madess, loss of speech, loss of all their limbs.”[5] This viewer referred to obeah, a practice that probably originated in West Africa, in which practitioners (obeah men) harnessed spirits in order to work magic. The practice had many names and was practiced across the West Indies: shango in Trinidad, obeah in Jamaica, vudu in Haiti, santeria in Cuba, and ju-ju in Barbados.

Sarah: So Miller was pulling on that voodoo/obeah thread in The Crucible to create up the illicit ritual that sets off the initial tension in the play – that the girls have been caught doing something that would get them in huge trouble with the theocratic village leadership. But Miller also uses Tibua for another theme in the play: the contrast between white and black. When Hale, Parris, and Ann Putnam are questioning Tituba at the end of Act I, they ask who the Devil appeared with and she says a woman, but she couldn’t say home because it was “black dark.” A few lines later, Miller places emphasis on the word “white” when Tituba tells that the Devil said “Look! I have white people belong to me!” The bewitched girls are described as having “black hearts,” up to “black mischief.” Abigail and Samuel Parris both accuse others of “blackening” their names. And in the final scene of the play, where John Proctor almost saves his own life by flipping and falsely confessing and naming names of other “witches,” he accepts his fate by saying “I have confessed myself! Is there no good penitence but it be public? God does not need my name nailed upon the church! God sees my name; God knows how black my sins are! It is enough!” On the flipside, whiteness is associated again and again with cleanliness, pureness, and innocence. After resolving not to sign his name to the false confession, Proctor tears up the paper and proclaims through tears: “You have made your magic now, for now I do think I see some shred of goodness in John Proctor. Not enough to weave a banner with, but white enough to keep it from such dogs.” To preserve that white glimmer of goodness, John Proctor hangs. Tituba, who represents the ignorant and exotic evil that has set off the hysteria in Salem, is the only Black character. John Proctor, at the end, chooses to hang in order to cling to his whiteness.[6]

The cover of The Crucible
The cover of The Crucible by Arthur Miller | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: So Miller’s version of the witch panic in Salem hinges on a few things: that Tituba is Barbadian, that Tituba is Black, that Tituba had knowledge of foreign magic rituals, and that the audience will connect those things in their imaginations with some kind of popular idea of voodoo. And in turn, because The Crucible is the cultural artifact that most people associate with the Salem Witch Panic, the general modern understanding of Tituba has, in a way, been shaped by her depiction in the play.

Sarah: The only problem is — nearly every aspect of this depiction of Tituba is fiction. (I mean, come on, you must have seen that coming.) Tituba may have spent time in Barbados, but several scholars don’t think she was born there. She was enslaved, but she was almost certainly not Black or African. None of the actual folk magic rituals that the Salem girls participated in (with and without Tituba) were of Caribbean or voodoo origin. So this raises a couple of questions. First, of course – who actually was Tituba? Second – how did she morph into the version Miller latched on to? And finally – how have writers and scholars used different versions of Tituba to make their version of the Salem Witch Panic fit their own political or cultural ends?

So let’s start with what we know of the real life Tituba. In the first documents of the witch trials, the warrant for Sarah Osburn and Tituba’s arrest, Tituba is referred to as “titibe, an Indian Woman servant” and “titibe Indian” twice. In one of Tituba’s the interrogations on March 1, 1692, she’s referred to as the “Tituba an Indian Woman” twice. In the next document, she’s called “the Indyen woman.” On March 2, she’s referred to in another interrogation as “Tittuba the Ind Woem.” In another document from March she’s referred to as “Tituba Indian” twice. Altogether, I think Tituba is referred to as being Indian 19 times. (If I’m correct?) She is never referred to as African or Black. There is no evidence in the trial documents that anyone in Salem village thought that Tituba was African.[7]

Marissa: Historian Elaine Breslaw in her book Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem, did find reference to an enslaved child named Tattuba in Barbados in 1676. She argues that Tituba was likely an Arawak Indian, born in the “Spanish Main,” likely modern day Venezuela or Guyana. She makes this claim based on the fact that there were few Arawak Indians native to Barbados, and supports her hypothesis with an extended analysis of the potential origins of the name Tituba. (Side note: This is a good example of how historians try to use sources creatively when there is little source material!) The name, she says, has a “Spanish flavor,” and is similar to the names of several different bands of Arawaks, but particularly the Tetebetana, located near a river that flows through Venezuela and Guyana. She then explains that Arawaks often went by names that related to the name of their band or community, with endings that related to their sex. So for instance, a woman of the Tetebetana tribe would go by “Tetebetado.” Here’s the connection she makes from a name like Tetebetado and the historical Tituba: “A Barbados planter, hearing this Spanish-sounding name, may well have dropped the ending syllable and called a member of the tribe by the name of Tetebe, with its variant spellings including Tituba, Tattuba, and Titeba.”

Sarah: Breslaw isn’t the only scholar who rests their argument about Tituba’s ethnicity on the etymology of her name. Peter Hoffer, who has written several books about Salem, uses a similar methodology but comes to entirely different conclusions – he argues that Tituba was Yoruba, born in West Africa, sold into slavery, and transported to Barbados in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. He bases this, it seems, almost entirely on the fact that “Tituba” and “Yoruba” kinda sound the same? Which, to be fair, is also kind of what Breslaw does with her “Tetebatana-Tetebatado-Tituba” argument. Hoffer’s argument, though, doesn’t bear the same scrutiny that Breslaw’s does, simply because the vast majority of the actual documentation of the Salem Witch Trials refers to Tituba as Indian. He tries to suggest that this is because Tituba had a kind of common law marriage to a man named “John Indian,” but there’s no evidence from the time that women’s ethnicity would be changed or shaped by an interracial marriage. Further, Hoffer leans really heavily on the “uba” ending of Tituba — but that’s a problem, too, since her name is spelled a zillion different ways in the Witch Trials documents, including ways that don’t end with “uba” at all.

(Should we discuss this methodology? Seems like you should have thoughts on this early modern nonsense!)

Marissa: Now that we (sort of) know Titibua’s ethnicity, before we explore how Tituba became African in the public (and, well, scholarly) mind, let’s just clear up how the real Tituba was involved in the witch panic in Salem. Tituba was somehow enslaved, perhaps as a child in a slaving raid into Venezuela, and brought to Barbados, where she eventually came to be inherited by Samuel Parris, who was in Barbados overseeing the sugar plantation he inherited from his father. By the time she came to live with Samuel Parris, she was a teenager. Elaine Breslaw claims – with really no evidence – that it was likely that she served as Parris’s concubine, writing “Whether she found Parris attractive and was willing to satisfy his sexual needs or if she dreaded her new role in his household, can only be surmised. She came from a South American society in which chastity was not valued and girls were occasionally given to men to pay off debts.”[8]

Sarah: Either way, in 1680, Samuel Parris moved from Barbados back to Boston, bringing Tituba with him. She arrived in a city that was distrustful of Indians, still reeling from King Phillip’s War (also known as Metacom’s War), the protracted and destructive war between the New England colonists and several local Indian tribes from 1675-1678. Still, Indian house servants were quite common in New England, and Tituba would have had more rights than slaves in Barbados. Later in 1680, Parris married, soon had two children, and became a Puritan minister. In 1689, the family moved to Salem, where Parris had been called to pastor. Parris wasn’t exactly popular in Salem, and the villagers weren’t impressed with his preaching or his requested salary. In the fall of 1691, the Village committee out and out refused to pay Parris or to provide him with any firewood for the long cold Massachusetts winter. In turn, Parris’s sermons started to focus on the conspiracy of Satan against the Church and the people of Salem. Things were unsettled and anxious in the Parris household and in Salem.

Marissa: This is when, in the winter of 1692, the two little girls of the Parris household, Betty Parris and Abigail Williams (Parris’s niece), began to try to tell their fortune using an old English folk practice in which they cracked eggs into a glass and ‘read’ the shape of the yolk. They believed that they saw the shape of a coffin in the blobs. They did this on their own, and there is no evidence that Tituba was involved in the divination. But after their gross egg game, Betty Parris became mysteriously ill, with weird symptoms like the sensation of being choked, pinched, and seeing visions. Finally, after weeks of her suffering, the Parris’s neighbor, Mary Sibley, came up with a plan to figure out who was bewitching little Betty. She enlisted Tituba and the other enslaved Indian in the Parris household, John Indian, to help her prepare a so-called witch cake, made rye meal and pee. (Barf.) The witch cake was then fed to a dog, which would according to lore, reveal the name of its witch companion.

Sarah: Scholars are more or less agreed that this pee-flour cake was English folk magic. There’s no evidence at all that this was Tituba’s idea, or that Tituba had any particular knowledge or experience with white or dark magic. Instead, Elaine Breslaw has suggested that Tituba and John Indian were actually roped in by Mary Sibley because she assumed that they had experience with magic because they were Indians. In other words, they were brought into it because Indians, in general, were believed to have special magic knowledge, not *these* Indians in particular. Moreover, it would just be easy for Tituba to get the ingredients needed for the cake, as a house servant in the Parris household.

Marissa: From there, you likely know the story. Betty and Abigail became more and more hysterical, and their bizarre symptoms spread to other girls in the village. Soon the Reverend Parris had to call in outside experts to help him figure out what was happening to the girls. He interviewed the girls themselves, following the example ministers like Cotton Mather. In these interrogations, the girls identified three women as the culprits: Sarah Goode, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba, each a kind of social outcast in Salem village. The three were arrested, imprisoned, and interrogated in a series of hearings. Both Goode and Osborne denied all the charges, but Tituba, called last to take the stand, confessed to “consorting with the Devil,” blamed the other women for forcing her to hurt the children, and telling a wild tale about secret covens, evil animals, and hairy imps. From there, more and more and more people were implicated as those who were accused desperately tried to save themselves.

Sarah: It’s possible that before her arrest and questioning, Tituba was beaten by Samuel Parris. The evidence for this only comes from one writer, Robert Calef, who wrote a history of the witch trials in 1700. But Elaine Brelaw makes an argument about this potential beating that I think is really interesting: Parris obviously believed that something nefarious was afoot, and believed that Tituba was part of it. When he asked Tituba what she had done, and she insisted that nothing had happened (or only something innocuous like a pee cake), he beat her – which taught her pretty quick that that was not what her master wanted to hear. So when she got on the stand in the hearing, she simply said what she thought the interrogators wanted to hear. And the ultimate result was that, while the panic grew and more people were implicated, Tituba was rewarded for ‘flipping,’ and was not convicted or executed. In the end, 18 people were hanged (and one crushed) during the Witch Panic. Tituba, on the other hand, spent a miserable 18 months in prison, and then was sold off to pay for his prison fees. From there, Tituba disappears completely from the written record.

Marissa: That is what we actually know about Tituba’s role in the witch panic. So how did we get from an enslaved Indian woman, transported to New England and then reluctantly drawn into a witch panic to an African voodoo priestess conducting mysterious rituals in the dark of night? To answer that question, my friends, we need HISTORIOGRAPHY! We’ve actually already seen how the initial record is shaped by the histories that follow – take for instance the way that the allegation that Parris beat Tituba into eventually confessing changed the narrative, and that was among the very first things written about the witch panic. In 1828, we have the first novel about Salem called Rachel Dyer, in which author John Neal refers to Tituba as a “woman of diabolical power.” It’s here, says Salem scholar Bernard Rosenthal, that “the Tituba legend begins to assume its future shape.”[9] A few years later, Charles Upham, a reverend and member of Congress who fashioned himself a historian of the witch trials, wrote his first set of lectures on Salem. In 1867, he expanded those lectures into a full length history called Salem Witchcraft. In this text, Upham introduced two new details to the story: first, that Tituba and John Indian had brought ideas about Barbados magic into Salem, and second, that Tituba held secret meetings with the girls of Salem and “inflamed their imaginations with those tales” of Barbados voodoo. While he doesn’t quite call her diabolical, he suggests that she was superstitious and certainly an instigator of things to come.

Sarah: It was other works of fiction that helped to transform Tituba in the nineteenth century. Elizabeth Gaskell, the British author famous for her novel North and South, wrote a short story called “Lois the Witch” in 1859 that features two Indian women, one an “old Indian crone” named Natee,who has “weird stories” that she told to “young girls of the oppressing race, which had brought her down into a state little differing from slavery and reduced her people to outcases on the hunting-grounds that had belonged to her fathers.” The other was a gentler woman named Hota, who is nonetheless beaten into false confession because she is Indian like the maleficent Natee. She based her characters on Upham’s initial lectures, which in turn, it seems, influenced Upham’s book length history. Rosenthal writes this: “Gaskell’s probably use of Upham creates a striking irony. The British storyteller reads the American historian and embellishes his tale to create a fictional role for Tituba and a circle of girls. A decade later, Upham incorporates that fiction into his history, establishes an enduring myth, and the generations that follow subscribe to a tale told by a nineteenth century historian that may, indeed, have been invented by a nineteenth century British novelist.”[10]

Marissa: We can’t pin it completely on Gaskill. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow also wrote fiction about the witch trials in the form of an 1868 play called Giles Corey of the Salem Farms. Longfellow’s Tituba is first described as an Indian woman, but later as half African whose father was an “Obi man [who] taught her magic.” In the first lines of the play, Tituba has a length monologue in which she catalogs her herbal remedies and considers the power they give her over the white people in Salem:

I, Tituba, an Indian and a slave,

Am stronger than the captain with his sword,

Am richer than the merchant with his money,

Am wiser than the scholar with his books,

Mightier than Ministers and Magistrates,

With all the fear and reverence that attend them!

For I can fill their bones with aches and pains,

Can make them cough with asthma, shake with palsy,

Can make their daughters see and talk with ghosts,

Or fall into delirium and convulsions;

I have the Evil Eye, the Evil Hand;

A touch from me and they are weak with pain,

A look from me, and they consume and die.

The death of cattle and the blight of corn,

The shipwreck, the tornado, and the fire,–

These are my doings, and they know it not.

Thus I work vengeance on mine enemies

Who, while they call me slave, are slaves to me!

Sarah: When George Bancroft, the famed American historian of the nineteenth century, issued a updated edition of his History of hte United States in 1876, his description of the witch trials changed Tituba from Indian – as she had been in all previous editions – to ‘half-Indian, half-Negro.” It seems the ony source Bancroft had for this was Longfellow … which was a lyrical play and definitely not history. Historian John Fiske’s New France and New England, published in 1904, took the “half-breed” theory and further embellished Tituba’s character, maing her fit what can only be assumed was a preexisting idea he had about mysterious, exotic women of color. He wrote that Samuel Parris owned “two coulered servants who [he] had brought with him from the West Indies. The man was known as John Indian; the hag, Tituba, who passed for his wife, was half-Indian and half-negro. Their intelligence was of a low grade, but it sufficed to make them experts in palmistry, fortune-telling, magic, second-sight, and incantations.”[11] There’s not a shred of evidence for literally any of that.

Marissa: The modern historian Chadwick Hansen points out that while other 20th c. historians didn’t adopt Fiske’s explicitly racist description, they nonetheless allowed racism to color their writing about Tituba. He says it this way: “It is perhaps to the credit of American intellectuals that nobody has adopted Fiske’s inventions. Yet other writers’ portraits of Tituba and John have also been full of inventions, and if they are less vicious than Fiske’s they are nevertheless attributable to racial stereotyping.”[12] In Marion Starkey’s classic The Devil in Massachusetts, published in 1949, Tituba is described as John Indian’s “consort,” who is “half-Carib and half-Negro” and also “half-savage.” She’s described as lazy and stupid with slow “Southern” speech, then later as the “trembling black woman.” She also, according to Starkey, “yielded to the temptation to show the children tricks and spells, fragments of something like voodoo remembered from the Barbados.”[13]

Sarah: Remember, there was no evidence of any voodoo rituals at all, or any evidence that Tituba knew anything about voodoo. But once one historian said that Tituba used voodoo, it was fair game. Sociologist Kai Erikson, in his study of deviance centered on the witch trials called Wayward Puritans, relied almost entirely on Starkey for his description of Tituba, who he says “had grown up among the rich colors and imaginative legends of Barbados and who was probaby acquainted with some form of voodoo.” Later, he says that she was an “excitable woman who had breathed the warmer winds of the Caribbean and knew things about magic her crusty old judges would never learn.”[14] Again, this is based on nothing – well, except previous secondary sources.

Marissa: In 1950, another fictional adaptation transformed Tituba even more. William Carlos William, the pediatrician-poet of the ice-box plums, wrote a play called Tituba’s Children. Williams draws heavily on Starkey’s Devil in Massachusetts, using whole quotes from the history in between his dialogue. (Arthur Miller did exactly the same thing in The Crucible a few years later, but his is not purely quoted material.) In Williams’ play, Tituba is – unsurprisingly – lazy and stupid with “drawling” speech. Williams has Tituba writing in what can only be assumed was his idea of black “slave speech,” (what is the word????) Then there’s Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, first published in 1953. Miller’s Tituba isn’t even half-Indian, but described only as the “Negro Slave.” In the play, Tituba actually has been conducting a ritual in the woods, boiling a live frog in a kettle, slaughting chickens for their blood, and brewing love potions. This is all designed to be vaguely voodoo.

Sarah: And Chadwick Hansen has a really interesting take, I think, on why Miller sets up Tituba as Black. First, of course, is to dramatize her as a kind of voodoo priestess. But in a more literary flourish, Miller also uses Tituba to underscore the white clergy as the true villains of the witch panic. In the scene where Hale gets Tituba to confess, he first whips her into a frenzy almost exactly in the way a camp meeting itinerant minister might induce a revival-goer into giving her heart to Jesus. All around her, the other girls start shouting their confessions, giving the whole scene the feeling of a ecstatic religious service. Hansen pulls no punches in explaining his opinion of the scene – he says “it is as vulgar a scene as Miller ever wrote, with Tituba featured as Aunt Jemima at the Same Camp Meeting.”[15] Yeesh!

A black mannequin grins menacingly at two white children. A Native American man stands behind her.
A photograph from 2001 of a display in the Salem, Massachusetts Witch Museum depicts Tituba as both Black and menacing the two innocent white girls. John Indian stands behind her.

Marissa: After Miller’s version of the story was publicized in very successful The Crucible, even professional historians seemed to import that version of Tituba into their histories. Even John Demos, who is a very well-written historian on early America and the witch trials, refers to Tituba as a “Negro slave” in hist work. Hansen sees this is the moment it was cemented that Tituba was now African: “When [Demos] adopted Miller’s distortion of Tituba’s race, as earlier historians had adopted Longfellow’s, her metamorphosis was complete.”[16] At the end of his 1974 essay on Tituba’s racial transformation, Chadwick Hansen makes a really interesting case that this is really all the product of racism – not always overtly, but more insidiously. As white historians have tried to make sense of the (ultimately irrational) witch trials, they’ve ended up adding things to the story that help it make sense. It made sense to 19th and 20th century scholars that a Black Barbadian woman would have imported exotic magical practices (generally just called “voodoo”) from exotic magical places. “We are not free from racism” as intellectuals, even those who call themselves allies, Hansen wrote, “or we will not be free of it until we recognize, among other things, that beliefs and practice which we regard as superstitious do not necessarily have racial boundaries – until we recognize, in short, that witchcraft, when it is found in New England, is more likely to be English in origin than Indian or Negro.”[17]

Sarah: But there’s yet one more transformation. Starting in the 1980s, Tituba was reclaimed by poets and novelists as not only a Black woman, but as an empowering story of a powerful Black wise woman, oppressed by ignorant, close-minded white oppressors. Probably the best example of this writer Maryse Conde’s Moi, Tituba, Sorciere Noir de Salem, (I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem) which imagines Tituba’s long and eventful life ranging from Barbados to Boston and back to Barbados. In this book, Tituba really is a ‘wise woman,’ or an herbal healer, having learned the practice from her adopted mother, an elderly slave maroon who teaches her herbalism. (I wanted to read some of this to include it, but I could not find a translated copy for the life of me!) One edition of Condé’s book includes a forward by none other than Angela Davis (!!) who writes that “those who dispute [Tituba’s] African descent, countering that was Indian, perhaps hoping to sitr up enmity between black and Native American women as we seek to recreate our respective histories.”[18] Davis’s point here, I think, is to protect an history that, once repressed, is now being reclaimed by an oppressed people. But the problem is that it’s wrong. In this case, it doesn’t matter all that much because Condé’s book is fiction, and in fiction, you can do whatever you want – allowing the writer to imagine a history that otherwise can’t be reconstructed.

Tituba’s mythic role as wronged ancestor in that “we are the daughters of the witches you burned” sort of way continues to this day. In doing research for this episode, I came upon several modern poems about Tituba, which almost all fashioned Tituba as African or actually possessing some amount of magic knowledge. Take, for instance, the poem Tituba Speaks by Jacqueline Bishop, published in 2017:                                                                    

The magic I brought wrapped up tight in the bosom of my chest to Salem, Massachusetts                        

Came not from slaves, nor from my Guyanese Indian people, but from a white woman                             

Who taught it to me back in Barbadoes

where I forcefully taken. She the one, those days we alone                                             

On the plantation, showed me how to curse someone and how to turn-back-the-curse to cure somehow   

Some nights that woman and I would look up at the flat white face of the moon—                                    

And it is true, we both called the moon mother. She had a black cat about her                                         

She called familiar. There was a broom she never touched leaning against the far wall in the corner.

Marissa: While in The Crucible and even in histories of the witch panic, Tituba seems to fade into the background as the frenzy in Salem ramps up, it’s clear that Tituba is an eminently useful  character. She serves as the central explanation for the whole, irrational, incomprehensible thing – her foreign influence is the thing that set this whole panic in motion. And there’s a kernel of truth to that. In the documents of the Salem panic, Tituba is the first to confess, and the first to implicate others in her confession – which undoubtedly saves her life. So in a sense, she did kick the whole thing off. But she didn’t introduce the folk magic pracitices that set the whole thing in motion – indeed, she didn’t even suggest those occult practices at all. Instead, she was drawn into it because of the assumptions of those around her – that because she was Indian, because she had come to Salem from Barbados, she would obviously have experience that could help the bewitched Betty Parris. As time went on and the historical Tituba faded from the record, the imagined Tituba continued to be useful, mostly to white writers and intellectuals who sought to make some sense of the insensible Salem Witch Panic.


Bishop, Jaqueline. “Tituba Speaks.” Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism 1 (2017): 49.

Breslaw, Elaine G.  Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies New York: New York University, 1996.

Hansen, Chadwick. “The Metamorphosis of Tituba, or Why American Intellectuals Can’t Tell an Indian Woman from a Negro.” New England Quarterly 1 (March 1974): 3-12.

MIller, Arthur. The Crucible: A Play in Four Acts. New York: Viking Press, 1952, 1953, 1954.

Miller, D. Quentin. “The Signifying Poppet: Unseen Voodoo and Arthur Miller’s Tituba.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 4 (2007): 438–454.

Rosenthal, Bernard. Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt. Cambrige: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Rosenthal, Bernard. “Tituba.” OAH Magazine (July 2003): 48-50.

Rosenthal, Bernard. “Tituba’s Story.” New England Quarterly 2 (1998): 190-203.

Thornton, John K.  “On the Trail of Voodoo: African Christianity in Africa and the Americas.” The Americas 1 (2018): 261-278.


[1] Arthur Miller, The Crucible (New York: Viking Press, 1952, 1953, 1954), 42-48.

[2] Miller, The Crucible, 44.

[3] Elaine Breslaw, Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 46.

[4] John K. Thornton, “On the Trail of Voodoo: African Christianity in Africa and the Americas.” The Americas 75, no. 1 (2018): 261-278.

[5] Breslaw, Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem, 48.

[6] D. Quentin Miller, “The Signifying Poppet: Unseen Voodoo and Arthur Miller’s Tituba.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 43, no. 4 (2007): 438–454.

[7] Bernard Rosenthal, Records of the Salem Witch Hunt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[8] Breslaw, Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem, 61.

[9] Bernard Rosenthal, “Tituba’s Story,” 191

[10] Bernard Rosenthal, “Tituba’s Story,” 194.

[11] Chadwick Hansen, “The Metamorphosis of Tituba, or Why American Intellectuals Can’t Tell an Indian Woman from a Negro.” New England Quarterly 1 (March 1974),  7.

[12] Hansen, “The Metamorphosis of Tituba,” 7.

[13] Hansen, “The Metamorphosis of Tituba,” 8.

[14] Hansen, “The Metamorphosis of Tituba,” 9.

[15] Hansen, “The Metamorphosis of Tituba,” 11.

[16] Hansen, “The Metamorphosis of Tituba,” 11.

[17] Hansen, “The Metamorphosis of Tituba,” 12.

[18] Rosenthal, “Tituba’s Story,” 196.


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