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The Tragedy of Ann Putnam, Jr.

A depiction of an afflicted girl during the Salem witch crisis

"I desire to be humbled before God for that sad and humbling providence that befell my father's family in the year about '92”   From Ann Putnam's 1706 apology

One of the narrators of my book, The Putnams of Salem, is twelve-year-old Ann Putnam, Jr. Ann was among the first people to be “afflicted” by so-called witches during the Salem witch crisis. Her claims of affliction happened early, shortly after the first girls—Betty Parris and Abigail Williams—claimed to be afflicted during the cold, early days of 1692.


Ann spent the entire witch crisis—most of the year 1692—suffering from her affliction. She claimed to see visions, contorted herself into unusual positions, complained about being pinched and poked and prodded, among other things. With the help of her father, Thomas Putnam, Jr. (who is the other narrator of my book), Ann became the most prolific accuser during the witch crisis, pointing her finger at more than 60 people, including nearly all of those who were executed.


Ann’s infamous role in this tragedy cannot be denied. Without her claims, it is very likely that fewer people would have been wrongly convicted, jailed, and executed.


But why did she do it?


Did Ann really suffer from some kind of affliction that caused her to see visions? Was she simply making it all up? Did she step into a lie and then find herself unable to get out of it? Was she a victim of conversion disorder, or what we used to call mass hysteria?


It’s our desire as human beings to want to provide definitive answers to such questions. Unfortunately, however, the truth is not so easy to know. In many ways, that’s what makes this moment in history so alluring for us today. Much like our current-day obsession with true crime, we can’t help but rack our brains and wonder how such a thing could have happened. But, as much as we’d like to have an easy answer, it alludes us.


One thing we do know for certain is that the world that young Ann Putnam inhabited was a frightening one. And there are several reasons why this was the case.


The first was embedded in her religion. Puritans believed in the notion of predestination, which means that a person was destined by God to go to heaven or hell before they were even born and there was nothing that that person could do change their destiny. Imagine a child sitting in the meeting house listening to the minister spewing fire and brimstone sermons about devil and the fiery pits of hell, all the while knowing that they might be destined to be sent there for all eternity. That's pretty harrowing, particularly for a young person. It’s easy to image how these troubling thoughts could stir up palpable anxiety and fear.


The second reason is embedded in the world that they lived in. Late-seventeenth-century New England was a fraught and dangerous environment. The relative calm that had existed for decades after the Pilgrims first landed in Plymouth was broken during the mid-1670s when King Philips’ War broke out across the region. Conflict between European settlers and the native peoples of the region became a constant and existential threat. Horrific stories—both real and embellished—circulated widely across the region. And many who experienced such brutal conflict ended up in Salem, directly involved with the witch crisis.   


We also can’t forget that Ann was a twelve-year-old girl. That’s not an easy age for anyone—whether they lived more than three hundred years ago or are living today. Perhaps it was Ann’s desire to be seen, to fit in, to be part of a group that led her down this dark path. Or perhaps she was guided there by her father, an imposing and forceful presence in her life.


In any case, Ann’s story is a tragic one. A few years after the witch hysteria faded, both her parents died just weeks apart. She was an orphan, forced to care for her many siblings, at the ripe young age of twenty. A few years later, in 1706, Ann wrote a confession of sorts that was read to the congregation by the pastor of Salem Village church. She had been asked to do so as a condition of her becoming a member of the church.


It her confession, Ann wrote, “I, then being in my childhood, should, by such a 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…”


While we shouldn’t feel too much pity for somebody who caused so much needless harm to so many innocent people, Ann is a tragic figure of her own. Ten years after her confession—at the relatively young age of 37—Ann died. She never married and never had children.


One can imagine the internal torment that Ann must have endured during the remaining twenty-five years of her life after the witch crisis had passed. She never left Salem, and everyone there knew who she was and what she had done. She was infamous. Of course, none of this excuses her critical role in this tragedy. But it is impossible to ignore the fact that Ann Putnam herself was a tragic figure as well.


In many ways, Ann’s story helps to illustrate the enormous complexity of this horrific moment in history. There are no easy answers.

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