17 January 2013

Thou Shalt Not Suffer A Witch To Live

Salem Village 1692 by W.P. Upham

My interest in genealogy started at an early age.  My mother had a group of typed pages that she had copied from some pages that my great great grandmother had kept in a trunk.  Granny gave her exactly 24 hours to have those pages copied and back to her.  This was before copiers and scanners.  When Granny said 24 hours, she meant 24 hours.  Mom spent all night typing up those pages.  So those pages sparked an interest in where I came from.

Several years later, I was a freshman in college and taking a prerequisite history course.  That day's topic was the Salem Witch Trials.  I was half paying attention when the TA started writing names on the chalkboardIsrael Porter, John Putnam, Thomas Putnam, etc.  Hold on a minute.  One of those ring a bell.  After class was over, I went back to the dorm and called my mother.  I asked her to find Granny's stack of papers and look for the name Putnam.  Sure enough, there it was.  Thomas Putnam.  After some checking of names, dates, children, etc. , it was clear that Thomas Putnam of Salem Village and the Thomas Putnam in Granny's papers were one in the same.  This further stoked my interest in my family history, but I was young, so I just noted it and went on with college life. Then about ten years ago, the genealogy bug came back and bit me in a big way.  I wanted to know everything about every one of my ancestors.  Naturally, an ancestor that was involved in the Salem Witch Trials was a good place to start.  Little did I know how involved my ancestors would be.

The required reading for the course was Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissembaum.  This is where my education began. I'm not going to go into detail on the Putnam family of Salem Village or present day Danvers, MAThe family is well documented and information is easy to find concerning the family and it's origins.  My descent comes down through two of the children of Thomas Putnam Sr. and Anne Holyoketheir daughter Ann who married William Trask(e) and their son Edward who married Mary Hale.  The Putnams were a prominent family in Salem Village who were land owners and members of the church as well as involved in village politics.  

Then the madness began.  When it ended, my ancestor Deacon Edward Putnam had participated in thirteen cases and the family had participated in no fewer than 46 cases.  Edward had given testimony against Rebecca (Towne) Nurse, George Burroughs, Martha Corey, Mary (Towne) Easty, and Sarah (Solart) Good, all of which were found guilty and executed.  So my 9th great grandfather had the blood of at least five people on his hands.  Now, that's a skeleton in the family closet!

Edward Putnam v. Martha Corey

That's when the inner conflict began.  When I first learned that my ancestors were involved in the Salem Witch Trial, that pivotal moment in American History, I was excited.   My ancestors made history!  Here I am reading about them in a college history course 300 years later!  Then to learn that they were actually instrumental in the loss of innocent lives, was to say the least, devastating.  I can't help but feel the guilt for the acts that happened over 300 years ago.  I had absolutely nothing to do with this and yet, I feel the guilt.  

Since that first introduction into the Salem Witch Trial, I have read all that I can on the subject hoping to get some insight to what drove my ancestors to believe what they did.  The theories as to the cause of the hysteria are numerous.  Boyer and Nissembaum believe it arose from a power struggle between the two prominent families of Salem Village, the Porters and the Putnams.  (Interestingly, Granny's sister and Putnam descendant, Katie Coretta VanSant married a Porter.)  Recently Katherine Howe, an author and historian,  put forth the theory that the Rev. Samuel Parris was to blame for the trials in Salem: Unmasking the Devil on the National Geographic Channel.  Historian Mary Beth Norton believes it was due to tension with the Native Americans at the time.  Ergot poisioning, meningitis, the list goes on and on.   None of these really told me why Edward and his family did what they did.  The truth is, I will never know nor will anyone else for that matter.  He could have been acting as his conscience dictated.  Maybe he really believed the girls were afflicted.  Then again, maybe it was done out of spite and vengeance towards the Porters and the anti-Parris faction.  Maybe it was a combination of both of these or some completely different reason.  I just find it fascinating that the guilt can be there 300 plus years later.  Perhaps I over think it.  Perhaps it's because I love genealogy and want to really know my ancestors that the guilt is there. I suppose I will just chalk it up to human nature.







  1. I am so glad you wrote about this. I became interested in the Salem Witch trials in high school or earlier. I wrote one of my first real research papers on the topic during high school. I've been to Salem a couple of times. I also read a few Nathaniel Hawthorne novels and went to see the house of seven gables in Salem. I did have some relatives who lived in the area during the 17th century but haven't found an actual connection to any of the families affected. I did discover that a good friend of mine is related to the family of Rebecca Nurse, not a direct line but Rebecca would have been a great, great...aunt. It's good to know I'm not the only one fascinated by this subject. Did you see the episode of Who Do You Think You Are? with Sarah Jessica Parker. One of her ancestors was accused of being a witch but they were waiting in jail when the witch hunt was declared over.

    1. Visiting Danvers is on my bucket list! The Thomas Putnam house still stands there and I would very much like to stand in it one day! It is so fascinating to try to untangle all the different threads that lead up to the trial themselves.

      I did see the Sarah Jessica Parker episode! I was so hoping I would have an accused witch in my line somewhere also. I have a tentative line to Hezikiah Usher who was accused but never tried. I can't believe with that New England background you have that you haven't come across any of the participants in your line!!

  2. My link to the Salem witch trials is that Judge Samuel Sewall is my 7th great grandfather! I haven't blogged about him yet, but I will soon, as I've had a request from a cousin of mine who wanted to confirm that he is an ancestor.

    And although I have lots of other New England lines, I have found no witches.

    The Sarah Jessica Parker episode of WDYTYA was one of my favorites!

  3. You and I share the same ancestor. Deacon Edward Putnam was my 8th great grandfather. I have always been interested in this period in history and was familiar with the Putnam family so when they showed up in my research I was shocked to say the least. I had been told there was a connection to the trials, I just never guessed it would be that. I totally understand the part about the guilt. It's a crazy feeling even though it happened so many years ago.