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The Salem Witch Scare Previous Next
Digital History ID 3582


In 1691, a group of girls in Salem, Massachusetts, accused an Indian slave named Tituba of witchcraft. Tituba's confession ignited a witchcraft scare which left 19 men and women hanged, one man pressed to death, and over 150 more people in prison awaiting trial.

For two decades, New England had been in the grip of severe social stresses. A 1675 conflict with the Indians known as King Philip's War had resulted in more deaths relative to the size of the population than any other war in American history. A decade later, in 1685, King James II's government revoked the Massachusetts charter. A new governor, Sir Edmund Andros, sought to unite New England, New York, and New Jersey into a single Dominion of New England. He also tried to abolish elected colonial assemblies, restrict town meetings, and impose direct control over militia appointments, and permitted the first public celebration of Christmas in Massachusetts. After William III replaced James II as King of England in 1689, Andros's government was overthrown, but Massachusetts was required to eliminate religious qualifications for voting and to extend religious toleration to sects such as the Quakers. The late seventeenth century also marked a sudden increase in the number of black slaves in New England.

The 1637 Pequot War produced New England's first known slaves. While many Indian men were transported into slavery in the West Indies, many Indian women and children were used as household slaves in New England. The 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties recognized perpetual and hereditary servitude (although in 1643, a Massachusetts court sent back to Africa some slaves who had been kidnapped by New England sailors and brought to America). Tituba was one of the growing number of slaves imported from the West Indies.

Probably an Arawak born in northeastern South America, Tituba had been enslaved in Barbados before being brought to Massachusetts in 1680. Her master, Samuel Parris, had been a credit agent for sugar planters in Barbados before becoming a minister in Salem, Massachusetts. In late 1691, two girls in Parris's household and two girls from nearby households began to exhibit strange physical symptoms including convulsions and choking. To counteract these symptoms, Tituba made a "witchcake" out of rye meal and urine. This attempt at counter-magic led to Tituba's arrest for witchcraft. She and two other women--Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne--were accused of bewitching the girls. Tituba confessed, but the other two women protested their innocence. Good was executed; Osborne died in prison.

As Elaine G. Breslaw has shown, Tituba's confession that she had consorted with Satan and attended a witches' coven fueled fears of a diabolical plot to infiltrate and destroy Salem's godly community. In her testimony, Tituba drew upon Indian and African, as well as English, notions of the occult.

Tituba later recanted her confession, saying that she had given false testimony in order to save her life. She claimed "that her Master did beat her and otherways abused her, to make her confess and accuse...her Sister-Witches."

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