Advent Calendar of Witches, Day 16, Titiba

Today I’m thinking about Titiba (or Tituba as you have likely seen her name spelled). There are many versions of her story, but the one I prefer is the one that highlights how her testimony turned the eye of the mob and its inquisitors away from the poor and marginalized and towards the wealthy elites for a change.

I wrote an article about her trials for The Public Domain Review. You can read that piece in its entirety here. I’ll also paste a few excerpts here:

“Of all the accused witches, Titiba is the one who seems to have been the most radically transformed from who she actually was into who certain people wanted her to be. Unlike the white people of Salem, whose names, lineages, and racial identities have remained fixed since that time, hers went from Titiba in the trial records to Tituba in the popular culture. She was called “Indian” in court, but imagined in the histories that followed as African, African-American, and Afro-Caribbean. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in Giles Corey of the Salem Farms, fictionalized her into “the daughter of a man all black and fierce,” while in The Crucible, that play performed in high schools all over the country every October, Arthur Miller called into being a reckless storyteller sowing wild fancies in the minds of the village girls.   

Glamour, grammar, and grimoire all share the same root. The Inquisitors imagined in one testimonial after another the transformation from person to demon before their eyes, even as they clung more fiercely to the illusion they held about themselves, that they were not the ones conjuring such nightmares. It was Goodwife Sibley who asked Titiba to perform that old English spell with bread, dirt, and urine to ease the suffering of the poor afflicted child Betty, but that moment glimmered back in court as Titiba’s idea, her spell, her fault. And though she was compelled by the violence of Samuel Parris’s open hand into this line of questions by Constable John Herrick,  the dominant narrative that emerged in the historiographies was that her confession was the reason for the craze that followed, that Titiba’s words conjured what we would come to know as the Salem Witch Hunt.

I’m always surprised by the number of intellectuals I have seen throw up their hands and say we’ll never be able to understand what happened in Salem or why. It is, after all, fairly identical to what happened in Bamberg, where three mayors in ten years were executed as witches along with hundreds of others, not to mention in Paisley and Scotland, all across Spain and its colonies, etc., etc. – there is the same line of questioning, the fear, and then the fear, hunger and drought or winter, a fungus, maybe, in the damp grain which causes delusions, something like what the DSM-5 might call PTSD from the most recent war, gaslighting gaolers and judges, a little torture, then a lot of torture…. In most of the trials you can tell nothing about the lives of the judges or the accused or afflicted or the audience feels sustainable based on how often one person will say and another person will agree that the world is surely ending soon.

And then there is that same old faith. In general the inquisitors won’t relent until a confession includes something new. New variations reassure them that they aren’t just being told what they want to hear. This is why they torment the accused past mere confession to the point where the trembling person accuses someone else.

So let’s observe that Titiba never points the finger at anyone else. This is the only thing about the trials in Salem that is actually unusual at all. When asked who was torturing the girls, Sarah Good said it must be the insufferable Sarah Osbourne. Sarah Osbourne said if anything Sarah Good was the bewitched one and anyway she’d had a dream of being pricked by “something like an Indian.” When pressed, Titiba, who was often referred to by her neighbors as “Indian” or “Titiba Indian” named the two already-accused Sarahs, sure – they were already in shackles and accusing each other; what could she do for them? But when asked to name more, she said she could not make out any other names or faces. There was a powerful act of resistance in this description of the nameless and faceless members of a coven, dressed in the fine clothes of well-to-do people. Her testimony turned the usual script of a witch trial on its head. Suddenly anybody could be a witch, not just the marginalized. Powerful and influential people were accused, tried, even executed in Salem before the ruling class suddenly and conveniently realized nothing they had believed mades sense anymore.

Capitalism, it is widely known but seldom said, is dependent on the invention of scarcity. Salem villagers were obsessed with firewood, which had been made very scarce by their over-harvesting. As it became clear it would not be so easy to simply spread European colonization north, a three-generation-old feud over a tract of land between the influential Putnam and Proctor families was more and more on everyone’s mind. It came up each time the village had to agree to hire or fire a minister, build or not build a new meeting house, issue a warrant for some new arrest. You can grow and then cut down and burn a lot of trees on 1000 disputed acres.

In the negotiations conducted by letters from that Barbados plantation, Samuel Parris had secured a promise of firewood as well as a home to go along with his modest paycheck as part of his contract with the convening members of the church. But when winter arrived, neither the wood nor his paychecks were delivered.

It is all too easy for those who benefit from the power, land, and wealth that trickles down through the generations from this moment in Salem and the other colonial villages to say there is nothing to learn from the uncertainties of these trials. That the mist of spectral evidence clouds all judgement. This is, after all, what the Governor eventually said when he issued a general pardon to all of the accused who had not already been executed. But in fact there is a great deal the afflicted know quite well and anyone who cared to could learn.

Did you know that Titiba was likely married to John Indian? He also survived the trials. He joined the ranks of the afflicted, trembling and fainting and accusing, which was a clever way then for anyone to stay alive, or exact vengeance, or both in that strange year. His name was probably not really John Indian. I like to imagine he and Titiba knew each other by the names their mothers or grandmothers or aunts or fathers or brothers or whoever it was loved and cared for them had given at their beginnings.

What was known then and is known now, but almost never is included in the story is that Titiba had a child who was about two years when the trials began, just over three years old when it was over. Her name was Violet.”

But there’s so much more to be said about Titiba, the circumstances that led to the Salem Witch trials, and how much of the spirit of Salem still permeates the dominant discourse about justice, power, and what it means to live together in a community. You can read my complete essay, “Titiba & the Invention of the Unknown at The Public Domain Review.

Published by Kathryn Nuernberger

Kathryn Nuernberger's latest books are THE WITCH OF EYE (Sarabande), an essay collection about witches and witch trials coming out in February 2021, and RUE (BOA, 2020), a collection of poems about plants historically used for birth control and pissed off feelings about patriarchal bullshit. The End of Pink (BOA 2016) won the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Her collection of lyric essays is Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past (The Ohio State University Press, 2017). A recipient of fellowships from the NEA, American Antiquarian Society, Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life, H. J. Andrews Research Forest, She teaches in the creative writing program at University of Minnesota. Recent work appears in 32 Poems, Cincinnati Review, Copper Nickel, Gulf Coast, Paris Review, The Southern Review, and Waxwing.

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