Joseph Houlton is pictured alongside the gravestone of James Houlton, a member of the family that founded the town of Houlton in Aroostook County. The family had ties to the Salem Witch Trials. Credit: BDN Composite by Leela Stockley

HOULTON, Maine –  Every year around Halloween, interest in the 17th century Salem Witch Trials peaks.

Rooted in fear of the unexplained, the Salem witch hysteria has a long and storied lineage that directly ties to Houlton’s first families as both accusers and accused.

Take WHOU local radio personality Chris Putnam of the Chris in the Morning Show. His name is synonymous with Salem and the witch trials because a Putnam was doing the accusing and a Putnam was a judge in the trials, he said.

“It goes both ways. The story I like to tell that really ties it all together is that my dad of course is a Putnam and comes from that lineage of the accusers of witches and my mother is related to the Bradfords who were some of the witches accused,” Putnam said.

As Oct. 31 approaches, thousands of witch hunters will again flock to Salem, Massachusetts, eager to immerse themselves into this dark historical time by following the Salem Witch Trial maps, depicting the homes of the alleged witches and their accusers. The home of Houlton’s namesake, Joseph Houlton, along with many other Houltons (sometimes spelled Holton) and Putnams are along the route.  

The Houlton, Putnam, Cummings, Carr, Towne, Bradford and Cloyce families figure prominently in historical accounts of the infamous 1692 trials. And as Aroostook County Historical and Art Museum Curator Leigh Cummings details the long list of names, his own family included, a tangled and convoluted web of disparate connections and deception emerges.

At the time, hundreds were accused, 141 suspects went to trial with 20 executed for demonic possessions and witchcraft. Nineteen were hanged and one 81-year-old man pressed to death with large rocks. But it took over 300 years for those convicted or killed or to be cleared of false charges, with the last convicted witch, Elizabeth Johnson Jr., exonerated last summer, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Additionally, the Connecticut Witch Trial Exoneration Project, made up of witch trial victim descendants, worked to clear the names of those convicted in the state during the same time as the Massachusetts trials. In May, 45 accused witches were exonerated.

The witchcraft hysteria began when young girls started getting sick with fits, seizures and hallucinations, and when doctors couldn’t identify what was happening the religious leaders said it must be the work of the devil, it must be witchcraft.

“They said if it’s witchcraft we have to identify who’s involved,” Cummings said. “This inner circle quickly understood they had a tremendous amount of power And the girls named people who were traditional enemies of the family or those who spoke out against them.”

Cummings’ family and Joseph Houlton’s family came to the defense of Rebecca Towne Nurse, 71, who was eventually hanged.

According to Cummings, 9-year-old Ann Putnam accused as many as 50 people in one night.

“My Towne ancestors were the enemies of the Putnams because they had won the land in the southern divisions of Topsfield,” he said.

But it wasn’t just personal vendettas, he said, sharing that his family spoke out against a neighbor, Elizabeth Howe, who they believed was responsible for the ill health of their horse.  

“We were part of the reason she was hanged,” he said.

 It is a somber piece of history for many, including local descendants.

“It was a really huge deal that is part of American history that has negative and positive sides,“ Putnam said. “We’re all really well aware of everything and we talk about it, but it isn’t something we dwell on.”

At a Cummings family reunion in Topsfield this summer, Cummings read aloud Mary Towne Easty’s plea to the magistrates before her execution. Easty was Rebecca Towne Nurse’s sister.

Cummings said it is considered the best piece of legal writing in 17th century America by a woman.

“The strength of the plea is its simplicity,” he said. “She says, ‘hey I know I’m going to hang but I also know that since I’m innocent there must be other people who are innocent too.”

Anita Hutton of Kingston, New York is a direct descendent of Joseph Houlton. Her grandfather was also Joseph Houlton. Hutton and her daughter Sara visited Houlton last summer to learn more about her heritage, although she said she did not know about her family’s connection to Salem.

Nonetheless, she shared a story about her daughter. A few years ago Sara wanted to get away for a few days and she picked Salem, long before they knew about their family’s connection, she said.

“Of all the places she could have picked, she picked Salem,” Hutton said.

Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli is a reporter covering the Houlton area. Over the years, she has covered crime, investigations, health, politics and local government, writing for the Washington Post, the LA...