How does a town founded in 1788 have any ties whatsoever to the Salem Witch Trials which caused such havoc in 1692? Take a walk back in time with me.
One girl, Ann Putnam, had the unfortunate claim to fame that she caused the highest number of deaths as a direct result
of her witchcraft accusations. Out of her 64 accusations, 17 were hanged. Ann Putnam, as in, Rufus Putnam, the morally upright and honorable Revolutionary War General who helped to build our dearly beloved Marietta?
That’s right. Two branches of the Putnam family settled in Marietta. Rufus Putnam and his cousin, Israel Putnam Jr., are direct descendants of the villagers involved in the Salem Witch Trials.
The Salem Witch Trials actually took place in a suburb of Salem Town, once called Salem Village. Salem Village was renamed as Danvers in 1752. The Witch Trials of such fame took place in 1692.
It was a time of severe hardship: famine, sickness, and Indian attack were everyday worries. In addition, many of the colonists living in Salem Village were extremely religious, and of Puritan faith. To a Puritan, the Devil was a constant fear, as real as the threat of starvation. So while their bodies were suffering physically, so too were their souls in constant torment from the Devil and his followers.
So what exactly happened? There are multiple theories and controversies on the topic of the Witch Trials. But here are some facts: 2 girls within the Parris family started having fits and seizures. These fits were labeled ‘ of supernatural origin’ and soon the girls started saying that the specters of local women were coming into their room to pinch, shake, suffocate and harm them. In 1692, superstition ran rampant throughout the colonies, and back home in merry old England as well. This was not the first place in the colonies to hold witch trials, nor was it the last. But this scare overtook the entire region, and hundreds were arrested, while 19 were executed.
After 2 women were arrested for witchcraft against Betty Parris and Abigail Williams, suddenly other girls and women in the community complained of attacks by specters of witches. The most prolific accusers were Ann Putnam, 12 years old, and her mother, Ann Putnam Sr.
Why would Ann and her mother accuse others of witchcraft? To answer this question, one must try to navigate the politics of colonial Salem Village. Ann Putnam Sr. was married to Thomas Putnam, a bitter man who was cut out of his father’s will, along with his brother, Edward. The money and business went to his half-brother, Joseph Putnam. Thomas and Edward therefore hated Joseph Putnam and his family. Ann Putnam Sr. suffered childbirth after childbirth, only to lose quite a few of those babies very soon after their birth. Her midwife was a wealthy land-owning woman, who had many healthy children: Rebecca Nurse.
Perhaps suffering from post-partum depression, and most definitely suffering from jealousy, Ann Putnam Sr. took no time to accuse Rebecca Nurse of witchcraft. Why else would Rebecca have so many healthy children, while Ann lost so many of her own? Thomas and Edward Putnam looked with greed at the Nurse Homestead and knew that if Rebecca was guilty of witchcraft, her land may be forfeit to the town. Indeed, it was Thomas who wrote out many of the accusations in the name of his wife and daughter, almost assuredly in a gamble to gain more land and money from the jailed and executed ‘witches’. Soon the entire town took sides, with neighbors accusing neighbors, husbands accusing wives, and everyone eager to settle a score against another.
Thomas and Edward’s hated half-brother, Joseph, took action. Some of the earlier accused ‘witches’ were outcasts, and social pariahs. However, Rebecca Nurse was known to be a humble, elderly, and saintly woman. Along with others, Joseph signed a petition stating his belief that Rebecca Nurse was innocent of all charges and that the accusers were at best, delusional, and at worst, liars. This was an intense risk. Anyone that doubted the witchcraft trials was soon turned on by the accusers and charged of witchcraft themselves.
Unfortunately it did no good. Sweet Rebecca Nurse was hanged as a witch, along with one of her sisters. In the end, 13 women and 6 men were hanged. And one man was pressed to death by large stones. Rebecca’s execution, however, was a turning point. More and more people began doubting the accusers, wanting more proof, and feeling ashamed at the
way they had allowed their fears and greed to turn savage.
By the end of the trials, officials were starting to doubt that the ‘witches’ they had executed were actually guilty. Once spectral evidence was no longer accepted in court, it was hard to prove that the defendant was guilty of witchcraft, and the trials fell apart. By the end of 1692, the court was dissolved. In 1702, the courts declared the trials unlawful. The accusers and accused alike eventually continued on with their lives. The only accuser to apologize publicly was Ann Putnam.
By 1706 Ann Putnam’s parents had died. She was left alone to raise her seven little brothers and sisters. That same year, she had a statement read aloud and made the confession: “I desire to be humbled before God for that sad and humbling providence that befell my father’s family in the year about ‘92; that I, then being in my childhood, should, by such providence of God, be made an instrument for the accusing of several persons of a grievous crime, whereby their lives were taken away from them, whom now I have just grounds and good reason to believe they were innocent persons; and that it was a great delusion of Satan that deceived me in that sad time, whereby I justly fear that I have been instrumental, with others, though ignorantly and unwittingly, to bring upon myself and this land the guilt of innocent blood…”
Ann Putnam only lived to the age of 37, never marrying nor having children. Rufus Putnam, our town’s founder, is the grandson of Ann’s cousin, Elisha, son of Edward Putnam. Israel Putnam Jr., one of the founders of Belpre, Ohio, is the grandson of Joseph Putnam.
It can be assumed that the lesson of the terrible consequences of letting fear and greed go unchecked was not lost upon Rufus or Israel Putnam Jr. Nor did the enmity of the families last.
Out of such terror arose a generation of honorable and moral men, ready to fight for the right to make their own choices and to protect the freedom of others. Though ardent Congregationalists, Rufus Putnam and the associates of the Ohio Company created a distance between religion and government. Their ideals were in education of the community, a just court system, and law.
We are lucky that Marietta was founded on such ideals, but it always does well to look back and remember what could be if we let our judgments and differences separate us.