Ruth Putnam is the only surviving child of Ann and Thomas Putnam. Before the play's action begins, Ruth has apparently started behaving differently, which causes her family some concern. She is described by several other characters in Act 1, but she does not come onstage.
In Act I, the Parrises try to figure out what is wrong with their daughter, Betty. The Putnams go to their home and observe how Betty's condition is different from Ruth's, whose eyes are open. Ann says Ruth is not sick, but touched by the Devil.
It’s death, y’know, it’s death drivin’ into them, forked and hoofed.
Ann describes Ruth's new, ailing condition. Although her eyes are open, she is not awake; she can walk but shows no sign of hearing or seeing, and cannot eat. Her mother concludes, "Her soul is taken, surely."
Ann tells Rev. Parris that Ruth has been strange and secret:
I see her turning strange. A secret child she has become this year, and shrivels like a sucking mouth were pullin' on her life too...."
Mrs. Putnam had desired more children, but her seven other babies have died at birth. Believing that Tituba has powers, she sent Ruth to conjure with her and learn why the babies died. Now she believes that Ruth got close to the babies' spirits, which has rendered her mute--"some power of darkness stay her mouth."
Soon Mercy, the Putnam's servant arrives, reporting that Ruth has sneezed, which they optimistically take as a sign of imminent improvement.
After the adults leave the room, Mercy tells Abigail more about Ruth's "weirdish" condition, that "she seems to walk like a dead one...."
Not everyone agrees that Ruth is bewitched. Old Rebecca Nurse opines that Ruth is just in a "silly season" and will snap out when she gets tired of it and hungry. She also cautions against going off and looking for "loose spirits," but unfortunately no one listens.