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Tuesday, February 26, 2019

February 26, 2019: The Salem Witch Trials: Tituba

[On March 1st, 1692, authorities in Salem, MA questioned Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and the slave known as Tituba over allegations of witchcraft, the first event in what would become the Salem Witch Trials. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Salem Witch Trials contexts and legacies.]
On a couple significant histories to which the mysterious Witch Trials figure helps us connect.
As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, one of the three Salem women initially accused of witchcraft—alongside two older Puritan women, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne—was Tituba, an enslaved woman owned by John Parris (father of one of the initial accusers, Elizabeth). Tituba had been brought to the town from Barbados some years prior, and by 1692 was married to an enslaved Native American man known as John Indian. As the first hyperlinked article above argues, much of Tituba’s life story remains unknown and mysterious, and as a result has often been represented inaccurately; for example, she has frequently if not consistently been depicted in cultural images and texts (including recent TV shows such as Salem and American Horror Story: Coven as well as books like Ann Petry’s 1956 Tituba of Salem Village and Maryse Condé’s 1986 I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem) as African American, but most historians now believe she was the descendent of native peoples in the Caribbean rather than African arrivals. In any case, she played a central role in the unfolding Witch Trials, and can help remind us a couple important historical contexts for them.
For one thing, I think it’s worth repeating and dwelling on one of my concluding points in yesterday’s post: that late 17th century Salem (and Massachusetts and New England more broadly) was a slaveholding community. When we include non-Anglo communities in our collective narratives of the Puritans at all, it’s almost always to recognize Native American cultures outside of Puritan New England—too often still as helpful neighbors, sometimes as the victims of genocidal violence, but almost always as an external presence in any case. Of course those cultures are worth remembering (much more on their own terms than in relationship to the Puritans), but in terms of American histories it’s at least as important to recognize that by the end of the 17th century Puritan New England itself was potently (if complicatedly) multi-cultural, featuring both Native American and African American slaves among other presences. As the case of Tituba reveals, it can be very difficult to trace the individual stories and histories of those 17th century enslaved peoples (and she’s one of the most well-known bya  long shot)—but the broader communal point, the presence of these peoples and all their resulting contributions to Puritan New England, nonetheless holds and is a vital one. To quote Mechal Sobel’s book, we have a long way to go in considering the world they made together.
On a more individual note, the story of Tituba’s role in the Salem Witch Trials also reminds us of a community we tend to minimize in our collective memories of the trials: the hundreds of accused witches who were imprisoned. It’s of course natural that memories have tended to focus on the 20 accused witches who were executed in the course of the trials, but many imprisoned victims likewise died, often in painfully ironic circumstances; exemplifying those ironies is the case of Lydia Dustin (or Dastin), who was imprisoned in April 1692, found not guilty in January 1693, but could not pay her jail fees and thus remained in prison where she died in March 1693. While most imprisoned people did not die in jail (including Tituba, who was released sometime in late 1692 after more than half a year in prison), all of their lives—and the lives of their families, loved ones, and communities—were inexorably changed by their time in prison, and remembering them thus helps us understand the true scope and effects of the witch trials far more fully and accurately. One more reason to remember the mysterious, telling life of Tituba.
Next Witch Trials context tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

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