Rebecca Nurse

Homestead
The homestead of Rebecca Nurse in Danvers. DenisTangneyJr / Getty Images

Rebecca Nurse was one of a number of people who were executed in Salem, Massachusetts, for the crime of witchcraft. The charges against Rebecca came as a surprise to her neighbors - in addition to being an elderly woman who was highly respected, she was also known for being a devout churchgoer.

Early Life and Family

Rebecca was born the daughter of William Towne and his wife Joanna Blessing Towne, in 1621.

As a teenager, her parents relocated from Yarmouth, England, to the village of Salem, Massachusetts. Rebecca was one of several children born to William and Joanna, and her two sisters, Mary (Eastey) and Sarah (Cloyce) were also accused in the trials. Mary was convicted and executed. 

When Rebecca was about 24, she married Frances Nurse, who made trays and other wooden household items. Frances and Rebecca had four sons and four daughters together. Rebecca and her family attended church regularly, and she and her husband were well-respected in the community. In fact, she was considered an example of "piety that was virtually unchallenged in the community."

Accusations Begin

Rebecca and Frances lived on a tract of land owned by the Putnam family, and they had been involved in a number of nasty land disputes with the Putnams. In March of 1692, young Ann Putnam accused her 71-year-old neighbor Rebecca of witchcraft.

Rebecca was arrested, and there was a great public outcry, given her pious character and standing in society. Several people spoke on her behalf at her trial, but Ann Putnam frequently broke into fits in the courtroom, claiming Rebecca was tormenting her. Many of the other teenage girls who were "afflicted" were reluctant to bring accusations against Rebecca.

However, despite the accusations, many of Rebecca's neighbors stood behind her, and in fact, a number of them even wrote a petition to the court, swearing that they could not believe the charges were valid. Some two dozen community members, including relatives of the afflicted girls, wrote, "We whose nams Are heareunto subscribed being desired by goodman Nurse to declare what we knewe concerning his wives conversation for time past: we cane testyfie to all whom it may concerne that we have knowne her for: many years and Acording to our observation her: Life and conversation was Acording to her profession and we never had Any: cause or grounds to suspect her of Any such thing as she is nowe Acused of."

A Verdict Reversed

At the end of Rebecca's trial, the jury returned a verdict of Not Guilty. However, there was much public outcry, due in part to the fact that the accusing girls were continuing to have fits and attacks in the courtroom. The magistrate instructed jurors to reconsider the verdict. At one point, another accused woman was heard to have said "[Rebecca] was one of us." When asked to comment, Rebecca did not reply -- most likely because she had been deaf for some time. The jury interpreted this as a mark of guilt, and found Rebecca guilty after all.

She was sentenced to hang on July 19.

Aftermath

As Rebecca Nurse walked to the gallows, many people commented on her dignified manner, later referring to her as a "model of Christian behavior". Following her death, she was buried in a shallow grave. Because she was convicted of witchcraft, she was seen as undeserving of a proper Christian burial. However, Rebecca's family came along later and dug her body up, so that she could be buried at the family homestead. In 1885, the descendants of Rebecca Nurse placed a granite memorial at her grave at what is now known as the Rebecca Nurse Homestead cemetery, located in Danvers (formerly Salem Village), Massachusetts.

Descendants Visit, Pay Their Respects

Today, the Rebecca Nurse Homestead is the only site where the public can visit the home of one of Salem's executed victims.

According to the Homestead website, it "sits on 25+ acres of an original 300 acres occupied by Rebecca Nurse and her family from 1678-1798. The property holds the traditional saltbox home lived in by the Nurse family... Another unique feature is a reproduction of the 1672 Salem Village Meeting House where many of the early hearings surrounding the Salem Witchcraft Hysteria took place."

In 2007, over a hundred of Rebecca's descendants visited the family homestead, shown in the photo above, in Danvers. The entire group was comprised of descendants of Nurse's parents, William and Joanna Towne. Of William and Joanna's children, Rebecca and two of her sisters were accused of witchcraft.

Some of the visitors were descended from Rebecca herself, and others from her brothers and sisters. Because of the insular nature of colonial society, many of Rebecca's descendants can also claim kinship with other "witch trial families", such as the Putnams. New Englanders have long memories, and for many of the families of the accused, the Homestead is a central place where they can meet to honor those who died in the trials. Mary Towne, a great-something-granddaughter of Rebecca's brother Jacob, probably summed things up best, when she said, "Chilling, the whole thing is chilling."

Rebecca Nurse is featured as a major character in the play The Crucible by Arthur Miller, which depicts the events of the Salem witch trials.

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Wigington, Patti. "Rebecca Nurse." ThoughtCo, Mar. 12, 2017, thoughtco.com/rebecca-nurse-in-salem-witch-trials-2562893. Wigington, Patti. (2017, March 12). Rebecca Nurse. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/rebecca-nurse-in-salem-witch-trials-2562893 Wigington, Patti. "Rebecca Nurse." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/rebecca-nurse-in-salem-witch-trials-2562893 (accessed December 11, 2017).