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Collection Connections: ‘I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem’

Held on the first Thursday of the month, the Folger’s new virtual book club is free and open to all. To spark discussion, Folger staff provide historical context, throw in trivia, and speak to relevant items from the library collection in a brief presentation to participants before small-group discussion begins. Here, Dr. Emma Poltrack shares the items she presented on October 1, 2020 as an introduction to I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé. Discussion questions from the evening can be found here.


The Folger Shakespeare Library’s vast collection of Shakespeare and Shakespeare-related material helps us understand the ideas and beliefs that shaped William Shakespeare as a playwright and that are reflected in his plays. With the Salem witch trials of 1692-3 a central event of the plot, Maryse Conde’s I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem offers an opportunity to illustrate how the witchcraft beliefs of Shakespeare’s England impacted this important event in American history.

Title page of 'The Discovery fo Witchcraft" by Reginald Scot
The discouerie of witchcraft…by Reginal Scot, 1584. Folger Shakespeare Library: STC 21864 copy 1.

We start with Reginald Scot’s A discoverie of witchcraft. Published in 1584, Scot’s volume was actually a skeptical push-back on the witchcraft beliefs of the age. Witchcraft, according to Scot, was not the result of supernatural power but an irrational explanation for social relationships gone sour, a method by which accusers could assuage their guilt at refusing Christian charity to their neighbors. As part of his argument, Scot pointed out that accused witches tended to be older women who existed on the fringes of their community. The strong connection between sex and susceptibility to the Devil was a key point made in the Malleus maleficarum, written in 1487 by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger and which detailed how to recognize and prosecute a witch. Scot cited Malleus in his writing, as did Purtian preacher Increase Mather at the end of the 17th century. The discoverie of witchcraft also contained observations about the changing perception of “good” and “bad” magic and illustrations of how illusions might be accomplished to fool people, such as this one demonstrating how “to cut off ones head, and to laie it in a platter.”

Illustration from 'The Discovery of Witchcraft" by Reginald Scot, 1584.
Illustration from The discouerie of witchcraft…by Reginal Scot, 1584. Folger Shakespeare Library: STC 21864 copy 1.

These illustrations were subsequently heavily plagiarized and influenced the performance of magic, and Scot’s influence was further found in the plays of the time. References to the hobgoblin, Robin Goodfellow, and the transformation of a man into an ass made their way from discoverie to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream. Our favorite playwright also demonstrated a familiarity with Scot when he created the Weird Sisters of Macbeth. Another early modern playwright, Thomas Middleton, lifted sections from Scot for his play The Witch, portions of which later appeared published as part of Macbeth, bringing it full circle. King James VI/I, a fervent believer in witches, was less impressed with Scot, banning his book when he ascended the English throne in 1603 and writing his own rebuttal, Daemonologie, in 1597. Joseph Glanville, a philosopher and English clergyman, was also inspired by Scot to publish arguments in favor of believing and fearing witches. Though Glanville’s writings were published in the second half of the 17th century, at a time the European witchcraft panic was winding down, they bridged the gap of time between Scot and the Puritan minister Cotton Mather (son of Increase), whose account of the Salem witch trials derived many of its arguments from Glanville’s posthumous Saducismus triumphatus, published in 1681.

Cotton Mather is the star of our next item, this page from The Athenian Gazette from 1691 (click the images to expand the picture). Alongside a worried father’s query about getting his sons positions in the church and an assurance “the Ladies Questions will be Answer’d next Tuesday” (the Gazette pioneered the advice column format) this volume of the periodical contained an advertisement for “The TRYALS of several WITCHES . . .” by Mather. This is likely referring to Memorable Providences, an account by Mather of the Goodwin children of Boston and their supposed enchantment by Goody Ann Glover. The convulsions, cries, loss of bodily control, and complaints of pain exhibited by the young Goodwins were all symptoms shared by Salem’s afflicted children. Mather’s publication has been cited as the inspiration for the behavior at the heart of those Salem trials. Though it does not appear Mather attended the Salem trials in person, he followed their progress closely, publicizing them widely and corresponding with those involved.

A true & exact history of the island of Barbadoes by Richard Ligon, 1673. Folger Shakespeare Library: L2076.
A true & exact history of the island of Barbados by Richard Ligon, Second edition, 1673. Folger Shakespeare Library: L2076.

Salem’s witch trials are a pivotal event in I, TitubaBlack Witch of Salem, but they are only a part of Tituba’s story. Our last item circles back to consider the historical context of Tituba’s life as a way to reclaim some of her lost history. Barbados, shown here in a map published as part of Richard Ligon’s account of his time on the island, was first settled by the English in 1627. The English experimented with a variety of crops, hitting upon success in the 1640s when the Dutch introduced them to sugar production. This lucrative crop required extensive labor, and as a result the enslaved population of the island exploded. In 1661, a code was introduced that provided the legal basis for slavery on the island, defined enslaved persons as property, and denied them protection under English common law. As this code was the first of its kind among the English colonies, it influenced many others, including those created and adopted by Virginia and South Carolina.

We know that the real Tituba arrived in New England from Barbados with Samuel Parris, but not how she initially found herself on the island. In Salem court documents she is referred to as “Indian,” but her name bears similarities with a clan name from the Arawak tribe of modern-day Venezuela, causing some people to wonder if she may have been South American and been enslaved as a child. We do know that she was one of the original three women accused of witchcraft in Salem, alongside Sarah Good and Sarah Osborn—both women with troublesome reputations in the community and fitted Scot’s theories about who were the likeliest to people to be accused of such crimes. In her testimony, she confessed, apologizing to the girls but also pointing out that her status as an enslaved person robbed her of agency and therefore she could not deny what was asked of her by the Devil.

Condé’s Tituba frequently predicts that her story will be lost and she will be reduced to a single sentence in history:“Tituba, a slave originating from the West Indies and probably practicing ‘hoodoo.’” Unfortunately, this has proven correct. We simply do not have records to tell her story as it deserves to be told. It is a great loss that we cannot explore who this woman was—what she thought, how she felt, her family, her relationships—but it is a call to use what materials we do have to try and learn as much as we can about those whose stories have so far been overlooked by history.


Shakespeare bust with glassesRegistration for the November 5 session’s on Jacopo della Quercia’s License to Quill opens Tuesday, October 6 at 4pm. We hope you make a plan to join us!

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