Biography of Rebecca Nurse, Victim of the Salem Witch Trials

Salem Witch Trial

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Rebecca Nurse (February 21, 1621–July 19, 1692) was a victim of the notorious Salem witch trials, hanged as a witch at 71 years of age. Despite being a fervent churchgoer and an upstanding member of the community—a newspaper of the day referred to her as "saint-like" and "a perfect example of good Puritan behavior"—she was accused, tried, and convicted of witchcraft and put to death without the legal protections Americans would come to enjoy.

Fast Facts: Rebecca Nurse

  • Known For: Hanged during the 1692 Salem witch trials
  • Also Known As: Rebecca Towne, Rebecca Town, Rebecca Nourse, Rebecka Nurse. Goody Nurse, Rebeca Nurce
  • Born: February 21, 1621 in Yarmouth, England
  • Parents: William Towne, Joanna Blessing
  • Died: July 19, 1692 in Salem Village, Massachusetts Bay Colony
  • Spouse: Francis Nurse
  • Children: Rebecca, Sarah, John, Samuel, Mary, Elizabeth, Francis, Benjamin (and sometimes Michael)

Early Life

Rebecca Nurse was born on Feb. 21, 1621 (some sources give this as her baptism date), in Yarmouth, England, to William Towne and Joanna Blessing. Her entire family, including several siblings, immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony sometime between 1638 and 1640.

Rebecca married Francis Nurse, who also came from Yarmouth, around 1644. They raised four sons and four daughters on a farm in Salem Village, now Danvers, Massachusetts, 10 miles inland from the bustling port community of Salem Town, now Salem. All but one of their children were married by 1692. Nurse, a member of Salem Church, was known for her piety but also for occasionally losing her temper.

She and the Putnam family had fought in court several times over land. During the witch trials, many of the accused had been enemies of the Putnams, and Putnam family members and in-laws were the accusers in many cases.

Trials Begin

Public accusations of witchcraft in Salem Village began on Feb. 29, 1692. The first accusations were leveled against three women who weren't considered respectable: Tituba, an Indian slave; Sarah Good, a homeless mother; and Sarah Osborne, who had a somewhat scandalous history.

Then on March 12, Martha Corey was accused; Nurse followed on March 19. Both women were church members and respected, prominent members of the community.

Arrested

A warrant issued on March 23 for Nurse's arrest included complaints of attacks on Ann Putnam Sr., Ann Putnam Jr., Abigail Williams, and others. Nurse was arrested and examined the next day. She was accused by townspeople Mary Walcott, Mercy Lewis, and Elizabeth Hubbard as well as by Ann Putnam Sr., who "cried out" during the proceedings to accuse Nurse of trying to get her to "tempt God and dye." Several spectators adopted head motions indicating that they were in Nurse's thrall. Nurse was then indicted for witchcraft.

On April 3, Nurse's younger sister, Sarah Cloyce (or Cloyse), came to Nurse's defense. She was accused and arrested on April 8. On April 21, another sister, Mary Easty (or Eastey), was arrested after defending their innocence.

On May 25, judges John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin ordered the Boston jail to take custody of Nurse, Corey, Dorcas Good (Sarah's daughter, age 4), Cloyce, and John and Elizabeth Parker for acts of witchcraft committed against Williams, Hubbard, Ann Putnam Jr., and others.

Testimony

A deposition written by Thomas Putnam, signed on May 31, detailed accusations of torment of his wife, Ann Putnam Sr., by Nurse's and Corey's "specters," or spirits, on March 18 and 19. Another deposition detailed accusations of afflictions on March 21 and 23 caused by Nurse's specter.

On June 1, townsperson Mary Warren testified that George Burroughs, Nurse, Elizabeth Proctor, and several others said they were going to a feast and that when she refused to eat bread and wine with them, they "dreadfully afflicted her" and that Nurse "appeared in the room" during the taking of the deposition.

On June 2, Nurse, Bridget Bishop, Proctor, Alice Parker, Susannah Martin, and Sarah Good were forced to undergo physical examinations by a doctor with a number of women present. A "preternathurall Excresence of flesh" was reported on the first three. Nine women signed the document attesting to the exam. A second exam later that day stated that several of the observed physical abnormalities had changed; they attested that on Nurse, the "Excresence ... appears only as a dry skin without sense" at this later exam. Again, nine women signed the document.

Indicted

The next day, a grand jury indicted Nurse and John Willard for witchcraft. A petition from 39 neighbors was presented on Nurse's behalf, and several neighbors and relatives testified for her.

Witnesses testified for and against Nurse on June 29 and 30. The jury found Nurse not guilty but returned guilty verdicts for Good, Elizabeth How, Martin, and Sarah Wildes. The accusers and spectators protested loudly when the verdict was announced. The court asked the jury to reconsider the verdict; they found her guilty after reviewing the evidence and discovering that she had failed to answer one question put to her (perhaps because she was nearly deaf).

She was condemned to hang. Massachusetts Gov. William Phips issued a reprieve, which was also met with protests and rescinded. Nurse filed a petition protesting the verdict, pointing out she was "hard of hearing and full of grief."

On July 3, the Salem Church excommunicated Nurse.

Hanged

On July 12, Judge William Stoughton signed death warrants for Nurse, Good, Martin, How, and Wildes. All five were hanged on July 19 on Gallows Hill. Good cursed the presiding clergyman, Nicholas Noyes, from the gallows, saying "if you take away my life God will give you blood to drink." (Years later, Noyes died of a brain hemorrhage; legend has it that he choked on his blood.) That night, Nurse's family removed her body and buried it secretly on their family farm.

Of Nurse's two sisters who also were charged with witchcraft, Easty was hanged on Sept. 22 and Cloyce's case was dismissed in January 1693.

Pardons and Apology

In May 1693, Phips pardoned the remaining defendants accused of witchcraft. Francis Nurse died on Nov. 22, 1695, two years after the trials had ended. That was before Nurse and 21 others of the 33 who had been convicted were exonerated in 1711 by the state, which paid compensation to the families of the victims. In 1957, Massachusetts formally apologized for the trials, but It wasn't until 2001 that the last 11 of those convicted were fully exonerated.

On Aug. 25, 1706, Ann Putnam Jr. publicly apologized "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..." She named Nurse specifically. In 1712, Salem Church reversed Nurse's excommunication.

Legacy

The abuses of the Salem witch trials contributed to changes in U.S. court procedures, including the guarantee of the right to legal representation, the right to cross-examine one’s accuser, and the presumption of innocence instead of guilt.

The trials as a metaphor for the persecution of minority groups remained powerful images into the 20th and 21st centuries, particularly in playwright Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" (1953), in which he used events and individuals from 1692 allegorically for the anti-communist hearings led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the Red Scare of the 1950s.

The Rebecca Nurse homestead still stands in Danvers, the new name of Salem Village, and is open to tourists.

Sources

  • "Salem Witch Trials: American History." Encyclopedia Britannica.
  • "The Witchcraft Trial of Rebecca Nurse." History of Massachusetts blog.
  • "An Unexpected Turn in the Trials." The Salem Journal.