Thomas Putnam: Ringleader of the Salem Witch Hunt?

Thomas Putnam was the father of afflicted girl Ann Putnam, Jr, and many historians consider him to be a major influence in the Salem Witch Trials.

Putnam himself accused and testified against 43 people while his daughter testified against 62 people. Many historians believe the Putnam family used the witchcraft hysteria in Salem as a way to get revenge against their neighboring rivals and enemies.

Thomas Putnam’s Early Life:

Thomas Putnam was born on January 12, 1652, into a wealthy, third-generation Salem family that owned a substantial amount of land in Salem Village and Essex County. Putnam was a sergeant in the local militia and had previously fought in King Phillip’s war.

In 1678 he married Ann Carr, of Salisbury, who also came from a wealthy family. They had 10 children together, including their eldest child, Ann Putnam, Jr, who was born in 1679.

In January of 1692, Ann Putnam, Jr., and the other “afflicted girls” began displaying strange symptoms: barking like a dog, suffering seizures and complaining of being pinched by invisible spirits.

By the end of February, a local doctor declared them bewitched and the girls named three women responsible for tormenting them: Tituba, Sarah Osborne and Sarah Good.

Since the girls were too young to do so themselves, Thomas Putnam and three other men, Edward Putnam, Thomas Preston and Joseph Hutchinson, filed complaints against the women on the girl’s behalf on February 29th.

House of Thomas Putnam & family in Danvers circa 1891

The women were arrested the following day and examined before a judge. During Tituba’s examination, she confessed to being a witch and claimed there were many others like her in Salem, thus sparking a massive manhunt for witches in Salem.

Thomas Putnam & the Salem Witch Trials:

After the witch trials began, Thomas Putnam and Ann Putnam, Jr, quickly became the main accusers in the trials, according to the book The Salem Witch Trials Guide:

“Following the removal of Betty Parris from Salem Village [she was sent to Salem town by her father Samuel Parris to avoid any further involvement in the trials], Ann and Abigail became the most active and aggressive of the so-called afflicted children. Ann Jr. ‘cried out against’ sixty-two people during the course of the trials. Ann’s father, Thomas Putnam, was one of the primary instigators of complaints against alleged witches in Salem Village. For this reason he has been identified by several key historians (including Paul Boyer and Stephen Nisenbaum) as a chief agitator and manipulator of the testimonies of both his daughter and his wife, Ann Putnam, Sr. Evidence indicates that many of those who were afflicted or gave testimony against the accused were connected to the Putnam family either by ties of kinship or faction.”

As if he wasn’t involved in the trials enough, in April, Putnam also wrote a letter to two of the witch trial judges, John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin, thanking them for their participation in the trials and offering to assist them in any way:

“Salem Village , this 21’st of April, 1692

Much honored:
After most humble and hearty thanks presented to your Honors for the great care and pains you have already taken for us, for which we are never able to make you recompense (and we believe you do not expect it of us; therefore a full reward will be given you of the Lord God of Israel, whose cause and interest you have espoused, and we trust this shall add to your crown of glory in the day of the Lord Jesus); and we, beholding continually the tremendous works of divine providence — not only every day but every hour — thought it our duty to inform your Honors of what we conceive you have not heard, which are high and dreadful: of a wheel within a wheel, at which our ears do tingle. Humbly craving continually your prayers and help in this dis-tressed case, so praying almighty God continually to prepare you, that you may be a terror to evil-doers and a praise to them that do well, we remain yours to serve in what we are able.  Thomas Putnam”

That same month, Putnam wrote a second letter to Judge Samuel Sewall complaining that Giles Corey was also bewitching his daughter.

In the letter, Putnam carefully reminded Sewall that Corey had beaten one of his farmhands to death years before and suggested Corey should be pressed to death:

“The Last Night my Daughter Ann was grievously Tormented by Witches, Threatning that she should be Pressed to Death, before Giles Cory. But thro’ the Goodness of a Gracious God, she had at last a little Respite. Whereupon there appeared unto her (she said) a man in a Winding Sheet; who told her that Giles Cory had Murdered him, by Pressing him to Death with his Feet; but that the Devil there appeared unto him, and Covenented with him, and promised him, He should not be Hanged. The Apparition said, God Hardened his Heart, that he should not hearken to the Advice of the Court, and so Dy an easy Death; because as it said, ‘It must be done to him as he has done to me.’ The Apparition also said, That Giles Cory was Carry’d to the Court for this, and that the Jury had found the Murder, and that her Father knew the man, and the thing was done before she was born. Now Sir, This is not a little strange to us; that no body should Remember these things, all the while that Giles Cory was in Prison, and so often before the Court. For all people now Remember very well, (and the Records of the Court also men-tion it,) That about Seventeen Years ago, Giles Cory kept a man in his House, that was almost a Natural Fool: which Man Dy’d suddenly. A Jury was Impannel’d upon him, among whom was Dr. Zorobbabel Endicot ; who found the man bruised to Death, and having clodders of Blood about his Heart. The Jury, whereof sev-eral are yet alive, brought in the man Murdered; but as if some Enchantment had hindred the Prosecution of the Matter, the Court Proceeded not against Giles Cory , tho’ it cost him a great deal of Mony to get off.”

Corey was indeed pressed to death in September when he was tortured by Sheriff Corwin for three days in a field near Howard Street in an attempt to force him to enter a plea for his trial.

“Howard Street Cemetery, Salem, Where Giles Corey Was Pressed to Death,” illustration published in the New England Magazine Volume 5, circa 1892

This type of torture, although common in England, had never been used in the colonies before and it appears the idea may have possibly originated from Putnam’s letter.

A recent handwriting analysis conducted by Professor Peter Grund from the University of Kansas has determined that over 100 of the Salem witch trial documents, including the depositions of the afflicted girls, were written by Thomas Putnam himself.

Since many of these depositions share similar language and phrases, it suggests that these phrases may have actually been Putnam’s own words, not those of the afflicted girls.

For example, many of the depositions speak of how the afflicted girls were “grievously afflicted” or “grievously tormented” and they describe how the girls “believe in my heart” that the accused is a witch. These same depositions also frequently refer to the accused as “dreadful witches” and “dreadful wizards.”

These depositions, combined with Putnam’s letters to the witch trial judges, suggests Putnam may have had a stronger influence on the trials then previously thought.

According to the book The Salem Witch Trials: A Reference Guide, in recent years a larger conspiracy theory has emerged concerning Putnam’s participation in the Salem Witch Trials:

“In 1991, Enders A. Robinson published The Devil Discovered: Salem Witchcraft, 1692, which introduces to the Salem episode a conspiracy theory on a far grander scale than previously suggested by an scholar. According to Robinson, Thomas Putnam and Samuel Parris formed a circle of local men who decided to take advantage of the testimony of the afflicted children and eliminate the opposing faction in the Salem Village Church. Among the leaders of this conspiracy who were responsible for instigating the witchcraft accusations he listed Reverend Samuel Parris, Sergeant Thomas Putnam, Dr. William Griggs, Deacon Edward Putnam, Captain Jonathan Walcott, Constable Jonathan Putnam, and Lieutenant Nathaniel Ingersoll. These ringleaders were assisted by an outer circle of co-conspirators including Thomas Putnam’s two uncles, John Putnam, Sr., and Nathaniel Putnam, his cousin Edward Putnam, Joseph Houlton, Thomas Preston, and Joseph Hutchinson. These men were less involved yet helpful when accusations and testimony were needed. Robinson alleged that what tied these conspirators together were bonds of kinship and friendship. Their goal was merely to reassert power over the families and forces that had gradually assumed control of Salem Village, seeking vengeance against those suspected of wrongdoing or what they deemed to be undesirable elements. In this task, they were ably assisted by their female children, servants, and relatives, including Mary Walcott, Sarah Churchill, Ann Putnam, Jr., Ann Putnam, Sr., Mary Warren, Susannah Sheldon, and Elizabeth Booth – in short, the majority of the ‘afflicted girls.’”

Thomas Putnam himself personally filed complaints and testified against 43 people during the trials. Of these 43 people, 12 were executed, 3 were found guilty but pardoned, 6 were found not guilty, 13 were never indicted and 2 died in jail. The rest either evaded arrest or escaped from prison:

Nehemiah Abbott jr – never indicted
Daniel Andrew – evaded arrest
Sarah Bassett –  never indicted
George Burroughs – found guilty and executed
Sarah Buckley – found not guilty
Edward Bishop jr – escaped prison
Sarah Bishop – escaped prison
Mary Black – never indicted
Martha Carrier – found guilty and executed
Martha Corey – found guilty and executed
Sarah Cloyce – never indicted
Elizabeth Colson – evaded arrest
Bethia Carter, Sr – never indicted
Bethia Carter, Jr – never indicted
Lydia Dustin – found not guilty – died in jail after trial
Sarah Dustin – found not guilty
Mary Easty – found guilty and executed
Mary English – escaped prison
Phillip English – escaped prison
Thomas Farrer – never indicted
Sarah Good – found guilty and executed
Dorcas Hoar – found guilty and pardoned
William Hobbs – never indicted
Deliverance Hobbs – plead guilty
Elizabeth Hart – found guilty and pardoned
Margaret Hawkes and her slave Candy – never indicted
George Jacobs, Sr – found guilty and executed
George Jacobs, Jr – evaded arrest
Rebecca Jacobs – found not guilty
Alice Parker – found guilty and executed
Sarah Proctor – never indicted
John Proctor – found guilty and executed
Elizabeth Proctor – found guilty and pardoned
Susannah Martin – found guilty and executed
Sarah Morey – found not guilty
Rebecca Nurse – found guilty and executed
Sarah Osborne – died in jail
Susannah Roots – never indicted
Ann Sears – never indicted
Tituba – never indicted
John Willard – found guilty and executed
Mary Witheridge – found not guilty
Sarah Wilds – found guilty and executed

The Salem Witch Trials eventually came to an end in 1693 and Thomas Putnam died six years later on May 24 in 1699.

“Court Trial of Witches,” illustration by unknown artist, published in “Witchcraft Illustrated” by Henrietta D Kimball, circa 1892

Putnam’s wife, Ann, passed away a few weeks later on June 8, leaving young Ann Putnam, Jr, to raise her nine siblings alone. She never married and in 1706, no longer under the influence of her parents, Ann Putnam, Jr., became the only afflicted girl to publicly apologize for her role in the Salem Witch Trials.

Thomas Putnam later appeared as a major character in Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible. Miller portrays Putnam as a greedy, vindictive landowner who accuses his neighbors of witchcraft so he can purchase their land after they are hanged, as can be seen in the line spoken by Giles Corey’s character:

“If Jacobs hangs for a witch he forfeit up his property – that’s law! And there is none but Putnam with the coin to buy so great a piece. This man is killing his neighbours for his land!”

Thomas Putnam Historical Sites:

Ann Putnam, Jr, Ann Putnam, Sr, & Thomas Putnam’s unmarked graves
Address: Putnam burial ground, 485 Maple Street, Danvers, Mass

Former Site of the Salem Courthouse
Address: Washington Street (about 100 feet south of Lynde Street), opposite the Masonic Temple, Salem, Mass. Memorial plaque located on Masonic Temple.

“An Interview with Peter Grund on the Salem Witch Trials and Checkley, An Open Source Handwriting Description Database.” Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities, University of Kansas, Nov. 2012,
Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, 1648-1706. Edited by George Lincoln Burr. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1914.
Upham, Charles W. Salem Witchcraft: With An Account of Salem Village, And a History of Opinions on Witchcraft and Kindred Subjects. Wiggin and Lunt, 1867. 2 vols.
Goss, K. David. The Salem Witch Trials Guide: a Reference Guide. Greenwood Press, 2008.