Rebecca Nurse and the Salem Witch Trials

Salem Witch Trials - Key People

Salem Witch Trial
Salem Witch Trial - Disorder in the Court. Douglas Grundy / Three Lions / Getty Images

Known for: hanged as a witch in the 1692 Salem witch trials

Age at time of Salem witch trials: 71
Dates: February 21, 1621 - July 19, 1692
Also known as: Rebecca Towne, Rebecca Town, Rebecca Nourse, Rebecka Nurse. Goody Nurse, Rebeca Nurce

Family, Background: Her father was William Towne and her mother Joanna (Jone or Joan) Blessing Towne (~1595 - June 22, 1675), accused once of witchcraft herself. William and Joanna arrived in America around 1640 with their family. Among Rebecca Nurse's siblings were Mary Easty (or Eastey, arrested April 21 and hanged September 22) and Sarah Cloyce (or Cloyse, arrested April 4, case dismissed January 1693).

Rebecca Nurse Before the Salem Witch Trials

Rebecca married Francis Nurse in 1644 who was also from Yarmouth, England. They had four sons and four daughters, all but one of them married in 1692. In 1692, Rebecca and Francis Nurse lived in Salem Village on a large farm. She was known for her piety, and was a member of Salem church. She was also known for occasionally losing her temper. Francis Nurse and the Putnam family had fought in court several times over land. Francis had once served as Salem constable.

Rebecca Nurse and the Salem Witch Trials

The public accusations of witchcraft in Salem Village began on February 29, 1692. The first accusations were leveled against three women who were not considered very respectable: the Indian slave Tituba, a homeless mother Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborne who had a somewhat scandalous history.

Then on March 12, Martha Corey was accused, and on March 19, Rebecca Nurse found herself accused, despite both being church members and respected community members.

A warrant was issued on March 23 by John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin for the arrest of Rebecca Nurse. In the warrant were complaints of attacks on Ann Putnam Sr., Ann Putnam Jr., Abigail Williams and others.

Rebecca Nurse was arrested and examined the next day. She was accused by 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." When she held her head to one side, those claiming afflictions moved their heads to the side as well "set in that posture." Rebecca Nurse was then indicted for witchcraft.

That Sunday was Easter Sunday, no particular special Sunday in the Puritan calendar. With Rebecca Nurse in prison, as were Tituba, Sarah Osborne, Sarah Good and Martha Corey, Rev. Parris preached on witchcraft, emphasizing that the devil could not take the form of anyone innocent. During the sermon, Sarah Cloyce, Rebecca's sister, left the meetinghouse and slammed the door.

On April 3, Rebecca's younger sister, Sarah Cloyce, came to Rebecca's defense -- and was then accused, arrested on April 8. On April 21, another of their sisters, Mary Easty, was arrested after defending their innocence.

On May 25, John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin ordered the Boston jail to take custody of Rebecca Nurse, Martha Corey, Dorcas Good, Sarah Cloyce, and John and Elizabeth Parker for acts of witchcraft committed on Ann Putnam Jr., Abigail Williams, Elizabeth Hubbard and others.

A deposition written by Thomas Putnam, signed on May 31, details accusations of torment of his wife, Ann Putnam Sr., by the specters of Rebecca Nurse and Martha Corey on March 18 and 19. Another deposition details accusations of afflictions on March 21 and 23 inflicted by Rebecca Nurse's specter.

On June 1, Mary Warren testified that when she was in prison, George Burroughs, Rebecca Nurse, Elizabeth Proctor, and several others said they were going to a feast at the Parris house, and that when she refused to eat some bread and wine with them, they "dreadfully afflicted her" -- and that Rebecca Nurse "appeared in the roome" during the taking of the deposition and afflicted Mary, Deliverance and Abigail Hobbs, and that Philip English appeared and injured Mary's hand with a pin.

On June 2, at 10 in the morning, the Court of Oyer and Terminer convened in its first session. Rebecca Nurse, Bridget Bishop, Elizabeth Proctor, Alice Parker, Susannah Martin and Sarah Good were forced to undergo a physical examination of their bodies 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 that day at 4 in the afternoon stated that several of the physical abnormalities they saw in the morning had changed; they attested that on Rebecca Nurse, the "Excresence ... apprears only as a dry skin without sense" at this second exam. Again, nine women's marks are on the document.

On June 3, a grand jury indicted Rebecca Nurse and John Willard for witchcraft. A petition from 39 neighbors was presented on behalf of Rebecca Nurse, and several neighbors and relatives testified for her. Nathaniel Ingersoll, at whose tavern many of the examinations had been held, and Hannah Ingersoll, his wife, testified that Benjamin Holton had had violent fits before he died of them two years before. Ann Putnam Jr., Ann Putnam Sr., Thomas Putnam, Edward Putnam, Elizabeth Hubbard, Abigail Williams, Sarah Bibber, Samuel Parris and others. This was the last day that Abigail Williams testified; she disappears from the historical record after that.

On June 16, Cotton Mather wrote to the Court of Oyer and Terminer. He urged that they not rely on spectral evidence alone. He also recommended that they make the prosecutions "speedy and vigorous."

Witnesses testified for and against Rebecca Nurse on June 29 and 30. The jury found Rebecca Nurse not guilty, even while returning guilty verdicts for Sarah Good, Elizabeth How, Susannah Martin and Sarah Wildes. The accusers and spectators protested loudly when that decision was announced. The accusers and spectators protested loudly when the not guilty verdict was announced. The court asked them to reconsider the verdict, and they found her guilty, discovering on reviewing the evidence that she had failed to answer one question put to her (perhaps because she was nearly deaf). She, too, was condemned to hang. Gov. Phips issued a reprieve but this was also met with protests and was rescinded. Rebecca Nurse filed a petition protesting the verdict, pointing out she was "something hard of hearing, and full of grief."

On July 3, the Salem church excommunicated Rebecca Nurse.

On July 12, William Stoughton signed the death warrant for Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Good, Susannah Martin, Elizabeth How and Sarah Wilds. She was hanged on July 19, along with Sarah Good, Elizabeth How, Susannah Martin and Sarah Wildes. Sarah 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 unexpectedly, hemorrhaging from the mouth.)

That night, her family took her body from Gallows Hill and buried it secretly on their family farm.

On July 21, Mary Lacey Sr., confessing, testified that she saw Mary Bradbury, Elizabeth How and Rebecca Nurse "Baptised by the old Serpent," the devil.

Rebecca Nurse After the Trials

In December, Salem Village demanded that several members, including Rebecca's husband Francis Nurse, explain their recent absence from church. Francis Nurse died November 22, 1695, after the witch trials had been ended (in 1693) but before Rev. Parris finally left Salem Village and before the 1711 reversal of attainder bill that also gave some compensation to Rebecca Nurse's heirs. In 1712, Salem church reversed the excommunication of Rebecca Nurse and Giles Corey.

On August 25, 1706, Ann Putnam Jr., in formally joining the Salem Village church, 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 Rebecca Nurse specifically.

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

Rebecca Nurse in The Crucible

Rebecca Nurse is portrayed as a kind and good woman in Arthur Miller's The Crucible. Read more: Crucible Character: Rebecca Nurse