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Who was Thomas Putnam, Jr.?

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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