The Salem Witch Trials - The True Story of Rebecca Nurse
In 1640, English immigrants William Towne and Joanna Blessing Towne settled their large family in Salem, Massachusetts, where three of their daughters would later be accused of witchcraft, and inspire the famous play "The Crucible" by Arthur Miller.
In the late seventeenth century the Massachusetts counties of Suffolk, Middlesex and Essex were in the grip of mass hysteria; delusions of witches and devils brought on by religious fervor, and the stress on the community by the many land disputes erupting throughout the area. In total 98 people were accused of witchcraft, and 18 executed, including two of my own ancestors.
Rebecca (Towne) Nurse, and her sisters Mary Easty and Sara Cloyes were accused by a group of young girls of bewitching them, causing fits. According to the eyewitness account of Rev. Deodat Lawson, the girls screamed and made strange noises, threw things, crawled under furniture, and contorted their bodies.
At the time of her arrest, Rebecca Nurse was 71 years old. She was a pious woman and a respected member of the community. Her husband, Francis Nurse, was a prominent land owner, and involved in disputes with Thomas Putnum, father of Ann Putnum, Jr. Ann was among the eight girls who accused and testified against Rebecca and her sisters.
There was a great public outcry at the arrest of Rebecca Nurse. Numerous people testified on her behalf, and it was said that she was, because of her age, appearance, and position, the only person the magistrate seemed reluctant to indict. Years later Ann Putnum would publicly renounce her accusation of Rebecca, her pastor reading the following to the entire congregation:
"I desire to be humbled before God for that sad and humbling providence that befell my father's family in the year about ninety-two; that I, then being in my childhood, should, by such a providence of God, be made an instrument 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; and that it was a great delusion of Satan that deceived me in that sad time, whereby I justly fear I have been instrumental, with others, though ignorantly and unwittingly, to bring upon myself and this land the guilt of innocent blood; though, what was said or done by me against any person, I can truly and uprightly say, before God and man, I did it not out of any anger, malice, or ill will to any person, for I had no such thing against one of them; but what I did was ignorantly, being deluded by Satan.
And particularly, as I was a chief instrument of accusing Goodwife Nurse and her two sisters, I desire to lie in the dust, and to be humble for it, in that I was a cause, with others, of so sad a calamity to them and their families; for which cause I desire to lie in the dust, and earnestly beg forgiveness of God, and from all those unto whom I have given just cause of sorrow and offense, whose relations were taken away or accused."
On July 19, 1692 Rebecca Nurse was hanged for her supposed crimes, alongside Sarah Good, Susannah Martin, Elizabeth Howe and Sarah Wildes. On September 22, 1692, her sister Mary Eastey was also exicuted, with Martha Corey, Ann Pudeator, Samuel Wardwell, Mary Parker, Alice Parker, Wilmot Redd, and Margaret Scott. The third sister, Sarah Cloyes, was later released, having outlived the hysteria.
Though the victims of the witch trials were buried in shallow, unmarked graves, it's rumored that the Towne family stole back the remains of Rebecca and Mary under the cover of night, and gave them a proper burial. The family erected a monument to Rebecca's memory on the grounds of the Nurse homestead in 1882.
In 1992, the Massachusetts House of Representatives decided to issue a resolution honoring those who had died during the trials. When it was finally signed on October 31, 2001 by Governor Jane Swift, more than 300 years after their deathes, all the accused were finally proclaimed innocent. There are many groups and societies that are dedicated to preserving and honoring the memories of the men and women involved in the Salem witch trials, as well as the Towne family.
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