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Crowd in Salem

While most of the accused witches in 1692 lived in Salem Village, which is now known as Danvers, the city of Salem, for obvious reasons, takes most of the “credit” today for the witch trials.

 

And they’ve leaned in hard on this identity over the years, to say the least.

 

Salem is often called “Witch City.” The Salem Police Department incorporates a witch flying on a broom stick on its patch (And the chatbot icon on the city’s website is also a flying witch.) Can you guess what the Salem High School mascot is? Of course you can!   

 

While it’s difficult to blame the city for trading on its infamous past—particularly when more than a million tourists visit Salem annually, mostly to revel in its witchiness during the fall ‘spooky’ season—it’s entirely incongruent with the actual events that occurred more than 330 years ago.

 

Of course, there were no witches in Salem three centuries ago. And as far as we know, nobody ever claimed to be a practicing witch, as we would view them today. To a seventeenth-century Puritan, a witch was somebody who had sold their soul to the devil. Somebody who existed well within the Calvinist belief system that the Puritans practiced. For Puritans, witches weren’t practicing a nature-based spirituality. They were doing the devil’s work to undermine everything that they held dear. It was deadly serious business. Being a witch was nothing short of the worst thing a person could be.

 

But, then again, maybe Salem is just being smart. A million visitors a year can’t be wrong, right? Maybe connecting Salem’s infamous past with present-day witch practices is the way to go. At least it seems to be working for them.

 

Still, it makes me wonder how many of those million plus people who visit Salem each year actually understand what really happened there.

 

What do you think?      

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One of the narrators of my novel, The Putnams of Salem: A Novel of Power and Betrayal During the Salem Witch Trials, is Thomas Putnam, Jr. 


Thomas, who turned 40 years old as the witch hysteria struck in 1692, is my seventh great grandfather on my mother’s side. He was a third generation resident of Salem Village and his grandfather, John Putnam, as well as his father, Thomas Sr, arrived there from Buckinghamshire, England around 1634. John was in his mid-50s and Thomas, Sr. was close to 20 years old at the time of their arrival in America. John Putnam acquired large tracts of land and he and his son continued to build upon the family’s holdings in the decades ahead. It wasn’t long before they were among the wealthiest residents of the community.


Historically, wealthy families have often followed a similar trajectory: the first generation establishes wealth, the second generation builds that wealth further, and the third generation squanders the wealth entirely. While the Putnams didn’t exactly follow this traditional roadmap, Thomas, Jr was never quite able to build upon the successes of his grandfather and father. In fairness, the deck was stacked against him. The growing population of Salem Village created more competition for land, making it more difficult for the people of Thomas’ generation to build wealth like their forefathers had during the early days of the Great Puritan Migration.


Thomas served as a sergeant in the military during King Philip’s War, which was a brutal, two-year conflict between English settlers and native peoples fought throughout New England during the mid-1670s. The impact of the war on those who experienced it cannot be overstated. King Philip’s War was transformational, helping to set into motion increasingly fraught relations between settlers and natives, as well as a greater sense of independence between Americans and England.


Around the time of the war, Thomas married Ann Carr. The couple would go on to have a dozen children, one of whom is the other narrator of my novel, his oldest daughter, Ann Putnam, Jr., who was twelve-years-old in 1692. 


Thomas famously lost out on much of his expected inheritance from his father when the widowed Thomas, Sr. married his second wife, Mary, who was from the rival Porter family. The couple had a son together, Joseph, who inherited the lion’s share of the Putnam family wealth.


When the witch crisis struck, Thomas was an enthusiastic participant. By the end of the year, he had accused over 40 people of witchcraft and his daughter had accused more than 60. Thomas was also thought to have written the depositions of many of the afflicted girls himself. He also wrote letters to the judges and magistrates, encouraging them to arrest and convict certain individuals.


When the tide turned against the witch hunt in the fall of 1692, we don’t know how Thomas reacted. Yet it’s easy to imagine his frustration and anger when he suddenly found himself on the wrong side of history. Did he feel contrition or shame? Did he feel slighted or wronged in some way? We’ll likely never know. 


Thomas and his wife both died—just two weeks apart—in 1699, leaving their oldest child, Ann, to care for their remaining children. 


Exactly why Thomas Putnam, Jr. took such an active role in the witch hunt remains a mystery. Simple explanations about accusing his neighbors so he could steal their land don’t hold up under scrutiny. Were his prolific accusations an attempt to show “leadership” during the crisis? Was Thomas trying to recapture the fading glory of his family? 


Like everything about the Salem witch trials, the truth is far more complex than we would like it to be. In truth, the mystery of why Thomas Putnam, Jr. became such a prolific accuser during the Salem witch trials will likely never be known with any certainty. 


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When I was a master’s student in history many years ago, I did what many graduate students do: I took myself too seriously.

 

I wanted to be a good historian. I wanted to be somebody who seeks the truth in the historical record. I wanted to be capable of synthesizing scant pieces of information in order to make it make sense. I never progressed beyond a master’s level study of history, but it wasn’t because of a lack of seriousness. In any case, much of what I learned about being a good historian has stuck with me. And I remain in awe of historians who are capable of stitching together details of the past to provide lucid and meaningful answers about why it’s important today.

 

As a serious grad student, I scoffed at historical fiction. The idea that anyone would use conjecture when addressing the past—potentially making things up as they go—seemed ridiculous, if not dangerous, to me. Shouldn’t we just stick to what we know is true?

 

Yet, as the great novelist, E. L. Doctorow, once said, “the historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.”

 

For an event that occurred over three hundred years ago in a relatively primitive colonial backwater, the Salem witch trials are fairly well documented. Yet, as any good historian will tell you, much of the primary source material (such as the transcripts of the examinations of the accused written mostly by Reverend Samuel Parris, for example) are potentially biased. Still, this primary source documentation gives us a pretty good sense of the who, what, when, where, and how of the witch crisis. We generally know, for example, who was arrested and when, who made the accusations against them, what occurred during their trials, whether they were executed or not, and even much of what was taking place politically behind the scenes as well. But what we do not know in any meaningful way is perhaps the most critical component for understanding what the Salem witch crisis was all about.

 

What were the people involved thinking and feeling as it was happening?

 

That is the question that drew me to writing a historical fiction novel about the Putnam family during the Salem witch crisis. Afterall, this family—my own relatives—where at the very center of it all, making dozens of accusations that helped to propel the events forward at a frenetic pace.

 

When Ann Putnam, Jr. began acting strangely that cold winter in early 1692, claiming to see the specters of her neighbors who poked and prodded her, what did her father Thomas think? When Ann and the other so-called “afflicted” girls suffered “fits” that caused them to contort their bodies into impossible positions, make strange vocalizations, and claim to see devilish visions, how did that make the people of Salem feel?

 

Ultimately, how they felt about these highly unusual happenings and, more importantly, how those emotions caused them to react, is essential to understanding the “why” of the Salem witch crisis. Simple explanations about lying aren’t enough. Yes, there were undoubtably liars involved in the Salem witch crisis, but it is not credible to pin the entire tragedy on their actions. More than anything else, it was the human emotion of fear generated by this collection of odd occurrences that drove the crisis forward. Yet how are historians supposed to quantify such things?

 

This is where historical fiction comes it. Novelists have the freedom to credibly explore these important human emotions in ways that historians simply cannot. Most of the details in The Putnams of Salem are factual (with one notable exception) but I focused on exploring the emotional decent that Thomas and Ann made as they got deeper into the crisis. After all, they were human beings, with a full range of human emotion. And there’s little doubt that those emotions were getting a serious workout in 1692.

 

While historians are often at a loss when asked to quantify how human emotions such as fear, anger, jealousy and the like impact events, historical fiction thrives at it. And because of this, reading historical fiction can often provide a more complete picture of how these critical human feelings can be a driving force behind a historical event.     

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