The Tragic Tale of Rebecca Nurse

 

 

 

 

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Rebecca Nurse lived in seventeenth century Salem Massachusetts.  Her troubles came late in her life after she bore her children , else our family might not be here to read about it. Born Rebecca Towne she is my  grandmother with nine greats. Rebecca was hung as a witch in the year 1692 when she was seventy one years old.  She, of course, was innocent. These were the famous Salem witch trials and Rebecca is a grandmother ten generations removed on the Philley side of the family. The exact relationship can be seen in the Family Data section of this collection. A very full treatment of the Salem witch trials can be seen at http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/SALEM.HTM 

Much of what follows is derived from that excellent source.

Nineteen men and women were killed, eighteen hung and one, an eighty year old man, pressed to death under stones, all based mostly on unsupported accusations, the behavior of four teenage girls who claimed to have been bewitched, and the arrogance of fundamental religion gone berserk. Some recent studies have suggested that the strange behavior seen in these girls and reported in several other persons who had died or claimed to have been bewitched was due to a rare poisonous fungus which grew on the kernels of Emmer grain that was raised and eaten by the settlers in Salem. However, the most accepted explanation was that these girls began their behavior as a prank or in an attempt to avenge some slight, but soon got caught up and became hysterical and probably then were afraid to back down. They may also have enjoyed the attention. At least one of them in later years recanted and regretted her testimony. That they were believed and indeed encouraged by otherwise "sober" adults is astounding. Self interest on the part of the accusers and the community as a whole completes a picture of brutality and ignorance in an otherwise civilized society. Such incidents gave eventual impetus to our founding fathers' insistence on the separation of church and state.  

Nevertheless, this astounding episode went forward. My concern will be confined to Rebecca. although her sisters, Mary Estey, and Sarah Cloyce were also accused. Mary was hung and Sarah confined to prison.

Rebecca and her husband were well respected members of the community. He was a craftsman, a "traymaker" and carried on farming. Over the years, the couple had several disputes about land boundaries, notably with the Putnam family.(one of the teenaged girls was a Putnam) However, the great majority of the community took the side of the Nurses. Rebecca, a widow by the time she was tried, was considered to be a pious, and exemplary person. In her old age she was infirm. After all, she had borne and raised eight children under very difficult circumstances. This 1893 drawing by F. A. Carter captures the situation well as the sheriff brings her before the judge. Her principal accusers were several members of the Putnam family. 

Rebecca comes before the benchThe accusation was made that Rebecca had placed a curse on Mr. Putnam and he had sickened and died because of it. Interestingly, Jonathan Putnam recanted his part in the accusation and testified in Rebecca's behalf and said the death of his father was natural and nothing unusual. At every attempt of Rebecca to defend herself or explain, the girls would begin to shriek and roll on the floor. Women were ordered to examine Rebecca's body for any "sign of the devil". Two of five women said there was a suspicious mark but when Rebecca asked to be examined by women who were midwives the request was refused. Many witnesses were called for and against, some claiming their cows had been made sick by her and others saying she was an honest and upright woman. Thirty nine persons signed a petition in her behalf. Each time the trial seemed to go in favor of Rebecca, the girls would start their wailing. It greatly affected the judges.

Even after all the adverse testimony and the exhibition of fits and screaming, the jury withdrew and came back with a verdict of  "not guilty." This was not the end, however.  Some of the accused women confessed to being witches and falsely pointed the finger of guilt at others thinking that by so doing they would save themselves from death. One of them, Goody Hobbs, had accused Rebecca, "Rebecca had questioned why her testimony was asked for and said .. "she's one of us." She had meant they were prisoners together. The judge asked her to explain what "one of us" meant, but Rebecca, who was deaf, did not hear him and was silent. Chief Justice Stoughten reminded the jury of this incident and her silence and sent them back to deliberate again. They got the idea and came back with a guilty verdict. This was June 30, 1692. On July 4 she was excommunicated from her church with no dissenting votes and on July 19 she was hung. Her demeanor on the scaffold was deemed " a model of Christian behavior."

As a result of these trials and particularly of the obvious travesty of justice in Rebecca's case the community rose up in opposition of such proceedings. In 1699 the Nurse family were allowed back into their church, but Rebecca's excommunication was not revoked for fifteen more years. In 1711 the family was compensated by the government for Rebecca's wrongful death. The Nurse home and burying ground are a tourist attraction today but no amount of latter day apologies can erase this fact:

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