Rebecca Nurse was a 71-year-old grandmother and wife of a local artisan when she was accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials.
Nurse was also the sister of accused witches, Mary Easty and Sarah Cloyce, and the daughter of suspected witch Joanna Blessing Towne.
Born in Yarmouth, England in 1621 to William Towne and Joanna Blessing, her entire family immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony sometime between the years 1638 and 1640. Rebecca married Francis Nurse in 1640 and raised a family of eight children on a farm in Salem Village.
Rebecca Nurse & the Salem Witch Trials:
Rebecca Nurse’s arrest on March 24, 1692 came as a complete surprise to the citizens of Salem because she was considered such a pious and upstanding citizen.
Nurse was accused of witchcraft by Ann Putnam, Jr, Ann Putnam, Sr, and Abigail Williams of Salem village, as well as several others, including Reverend Deodat Lawson of Boston, who claimed to have seen Nurse’s spirit tormenting Ann Putnam, Sr, at her home that March.
Many historians believe that the Putnam family was behind the accusations against Nurse.
The farm that Nurse and her husband lived on became the center of a long-standing dispute between Townsend Bishop, the farm’s owner who leased it to the Nurses, and Zerubabel Endicott, a neighbor who disputed the boundary of their adjoining land, according to Emerson Baker in his book A Storm of Witchcraft:
“The farm that Rebecca and Francis Nurse leased from Reverend James Allen was the focus of a long and complicated boundary dispute between Allen, the Nurses, and the abutting Endicott and Putnam families. This dispute and another between the Putnams and several Topsfield landowners likely influenced the charges against Rebecca and her sisters Mary Esty and Sarah Cloyce, for their brother, Ensign Jacob Towne, was one of the Topsfield men” (Baker 152.)
Yet, historian Winfield S. Nevins doesn’t agree and believes it was a different dispute that earned Rebecca Nurse the wrath of the Putnams, as he discussed in an article in New England Magazine in 1891:
“The first trouble appears to have come to this family after the purchase of the Bishop farm. Allen had guaranteed the title. He was soon called upon to defend it against the claims of Zerubabel Endicott, who claimed a boundary line to the Endicott possessions that pushed back the eastern bounds of the Bishop farm. The controversy was a long one, going finally to the General Court for settlement. It was decided against Endicott. Nurse, to be sure, was only indirectly interested in the suit. Allen was the principal, and he kept his promise to defend the title. Thomas Putnam became involved in the suit. Some writers allege that Nurse thus incurred his hostility, and that this was one of the incentives to the subsequent prosecution of Rebecca Nurse. It would seem that Putnam, if anything, was united with Allen and Nurse in fighting Endicott. It is far more likely that the Topsfield controversy engendered ill-feeling between the Village people and the Nurse family.” (Nevins 718).
The Topsfield controversy Nevins mentions was a dispute that began in 1658 when a portion of disputed land in Topsfield that a number of Topsfield residents had already settled on was made a part of Ipswich by the General Court.
The dispute culminated in John Putnam and members of his family meeting the Eastys and the Townes on the disputed land where they got into a heated argument. Whether this dispute resulted in the Putnam family accusing Rebecca Nurse of witchcraft is debatable, but some historians speculate that it did.
After all, all of Rebecca Nurses’ accusers, including Abigail Williams, Ann Putnam, Jr, Ann Putnam, Sr., Edward Putnam, Thomas Putnam, Henry Kenney, Mary Walcott, and Elizabeth Hubbard were either Putnam family members or friends of the family.
In addition, Rebecca Nurse often criticized the afflicted girls for dabbling in fortune-telling prior to the witch trials, according to the book An Account of the Life, Character, & c. of Reverend Samuel Parris:
“It had been said that Rebecca Nurse was an object of special hatred to Parris, but this we have failed to discover. We cannot imagine the cause of the alleged complaint of witchcraft. She appears to have been an amiable and exemplary woman, and well educated for the times in which she lived. We suspect, from an examination of the charges brought against her at the courts, that she had several times severely rebuked the accusing girls for their folly and wickedness, when meeting in their circles. In this way, she probably incurred the displeasure of Ann Putnam and her mother – her principle accusers. “
Since many Salem residents who criticized the witch trials and the people involved were often accused of being witches themselves, Nurse’s criticism made her even more of a target.
Nurse’s numerous accusers testified that she regularly appeared at their homes in spirit form to torment and attack them. Nurse denied all of the accusations, stating during her examination on March 24:
“I can say before my Eternal Father I am innocent and God will clear my innocency…The Lord knows I have not hurt them. I am an innocent person.”
At the end of her trial in June of 1692, Nurse was found not guilty by the jury. The verdict was not surprising as Nurse was well-liked in Salem and 39 people had risked their lives to sign a petition in support of her.
However, after the “not guilty” verdict was read in court, the afflicted girls began having fits and cried out against Nurse, according to the book The Salem Witch Trials: A Reference Guide:
“When Thomas Fiske, the jury foreman, announced the verdict the afflicted children raised such an outcry that Chief Justice William Stoughton asked Fiske to reconsider. Stoughton suggested that perhaps the the jury had not heard Rebecca make an incriminating statement when another prisoner was brought in to testify against her. When Fiske later questioned Rebecca as to the exact meaning of her statement, she would not reply. This lack of a response, probably due to Rebecca’s partial deafness, was unexpected. Fiske waited briefly, then returned to the jury, and soon came back with a verdict of guilty. Stoughton sentenced her to be executed on July 19, 1692.”
This so-called incriminating statement refers to when Nurse called accused witch Goody Hobbs “one of us” during her trial.
Although Nurse didn’t respond when questioned about it in court, after the trial Nurse wrote a statement explaining that she only meant Hobbs was a fellow prisoner, not a fellow witch.
On July 3, just days after Nurse was convicted, she was taken to the church and publicly excommunicated, according to the book Salem-Village Witchcraft:
“1692, July 3 – After sacrament, the elders propounded to the church, and it was, by unanimous vote, consented to, – that our sister Nurse, being a convicted witch by the court, and condemned to die, should be excommunicated; which was accordingly done in the afternoon, she being present.”
The following day, at the request of the Nurse family, Fiske gave a statement explaining why the jury changed their verdict to guilty:
“July 4, 1692. I Thomas Fisk, the subscriber hereof, being one of them that were of the jury the last week at Salem-Court, upon the trial of Rebecca Nurse, etc., being desired by some of the relations why the jury brought her in guilty, after her verdict not guilty; I do hereby give my reasons to be as follows, viz. When the verdict not guilty was, the honoured court was pleased to object against it, saying to them, that they think they let slip the words, which the prisoner at the bar spake against her self which were spoken in reply to Goodwife Hobbs and her daughter, who had been faulty in setting their hands to the devils book, as they have confessed formerly; the words were ‘what, do these persons give in evidence against me now, they used to come against us.’ After the honoured court had manifested their dissatisfaction of the verdict, several of the jury declared themselves desirous to go out again, and thereupon the hounored court gave leave; but when we came to consider the case, I could not tell how to take her words, as evidence against her, till she had a further opportunity to put her sense upon them, if she would take it; and then going into court, I mentioned the aforesaid, which by one of the court were affirmed to have been spoken by her, she being then at the bar, but made no reply, nor interpretation of them; whereupon these words were to me principal evidence against her. Thomas Fisk”
According to local legend, Nurse’s son, Benjamin, secretly rowed a boat after nightfall to the execution site to claim his mother’s body so he could give her a Christian burial at her home.
According to the book Women in Early America, Nurse’s conviction and execution marked the beginning of the end of the Salem Witch Trials. The citizens of Salem doubted that such a pious woman could be guilty of witchcraft. This made them wonder if any of the other accused witches were possibly innocent.
The accusations continued throughout the spring and into the summer but opposition to the trials began to grow. By the autumn, the court banned the use of spectral evidence in trial, rendering most of the accusations baseless and eventually brought the trials to an end in 1693.
The Nurse Family After the Salem Witch Trials:
On October 17, 1711, the Massachusetts legislature passed a bill restoring some of the names of the Salem Witch Trials victims, including Rebecca Nurse.
On December 17, 1711, the General Court awarded the Nurse family £25 in restitution for Rebecca’s wrongful conviction and death.
In 1909, Rebecca Nurse’s home in Danvers, Mass was purchased by the Rebecca Nurse Memorial Association and opened to the public as a historic house museum.
In 1992, the Salem Witch Trials Memorial was built in Salem, Mass and a marker was established for Rebecca Nurse.
In 2017, the Proctor’s Ledge Memorial was built in Salem, Mass and a marker was established for Rebecca Nurse.
The Rebecca Nurse homestead is still a museum. Also located at the homestead is the Nurse family cemetery and a replica of the Salem Village Meetinghouse.
Rebecca Nurse Historical Sites:
Rebecca Nurse Homestead
Address: 149 Pine Street, Danvers, Mass
Salem Witch Trials Memorial
Address: Liberty Street, Salem, Mass
Proctor’s Ledge Memorial
Address: 7 Pope Street, Salem, Mass
Site of the Salem Witch Trials Executions
Address: Proctor’s Ledge, wooded area between Proctor Street and Pope Street, Salem, Mass
Former Site of the Salem Courthouse
Address: Washington Street (about 100 feet south of Lynde Street), opposite the Masonic Temple, Salem, Mass. Memorial plaque located on Masonic Temple.
Nevins, Winfield S. “Stories of Salem Witchcraft.” New England Magazine, September 1891 – February 1892, New England Magazine Corporation, pp: 717
Towne, Abbie Peterson and Marietta Clark. “Topsfield in the Witchcraft Delusion.” The Historical Collections of the Topsfield Historical Society, vol. XIII, 1908, pp: 23- 38.
Baker, Emerson W. A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience. Oxford University Press, 2014.
Fowler, Samuel P. An Account of the Life, Character, & c. of Reverend Samuel Parris. 1857.
Roach, Marilynne K. The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-By-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege. Taylor Trade Publishing, 1993.
Boyer, Paul S. Salem-Village Witchcraft: A Documentary Record of Local Conflict in Colonial New England. Wadsworth Publishing Co, 1972.
Records of Salem Witchcraft: Copied from the Original Documents, Volume 1. W. Elliot Woodward, 1864.
Kimball, Henrietta D. Witchcraft Illustrated. Geo A. Kimball, 1892.
Mays, Dorothy A. Women In Early America: Struggle, Survival, And Freedom In A New World. ABC-CLIO, Inc, 2004.
Goss, K. David. The Salem Witch Trials: A Reference Guide. Greenwood Press, 2008.