The Witchcraft Trial of Rebecca Nurse

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.

"The Sheriff brought the witch up the broad aisle, her chains clanking as she stepped." illustration of Rebecca Nurse by Freeland A. Carter published in "The Witch of Salem, or Credulity Run Mad" by John R. Musick circa 1893.
“The Sheriff brought the witch up the broad aisle, her chains clanking as she stepped.” illustration of Rebecca Nurse by Freeland A. Carter published in “The Witch of Salem, or Credulity Run Mad” by John R. Musick circa 1893.

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.”

"The Lord knows that I haven't hurt them" illustration of Rebecca Nurse by Howard Pyle, published in "Dulcibel: A tale of old Salem" by Henry Peterson, circa 1907
“The Lord knows that I haven’t hurt them” illustration of Rebecca Nurse by Howard Pyle, published in “Dulcibel: A tale of old Salem” by Henry Peterson, circa 1907

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”

The statements had no effect on the court’s decision and Nurse was hanged at Proctor’s Ledge on July 19, along with Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin and Sarah Wildes.

Rebecca Nurse's Memorial Marker, Proctor's Ledge Memorial, Salem, Mass
Rebecca Nurse’s Memorial Marker, Proctor’s Ledge Memorial, Salem, Mass. Photo Credit: Rebecca Brooks

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.

Rebecca Nurse, Memorial Marker, Salem Witch Trials Memorial, Salem Mass, November 2015. Photo Credit: Rebecca Brooks
Rebecca Nurse, Memorial Marker, Salem Witch Trials Memorial, Salem Mass, November 2015. Photo Credit: Rebecca Brooks

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.

Rebecca Nurse Homestead, Danvers, Mass, circa 2013. Photo Credit: Rebecca Brooks
Rebecca Nurse Homestead, Danvers, Mass, circa 2013. Photo Credit: Rebecca Brooks

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.

About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is the author and publisher of the History of Massachusetts Blog. Rebecca is a freelance journalist and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in journalism. Visit this site's About page to find out more about Rebecca.

42 thoughts on “The Witchcraft Trial of Rebecca Nurse

      1. Kathy Frost

        My great grandma was Edith May Russell. Doing our family tree I found out Rebecca was my 8th great grandmother. How very terrified she and her sisters must of been.

    1. Tyler Gust

      Shes my 10 great grandmother too! we call are grandmother a witch ever since we found out as a joke (Shes okay with it though considering I can be called a witch by inheritance/ wizard)

      1. Tyler Gust

        Our grandmother* BTW when I mean shes okay with it, I mean the annoyed but not grounded okay with it. She knows its just for laughs

    2. lynn patty

      wow really idk what number she is to me but she is my great grandmother as well!!!! she died july 19, 1692, and i was born july 17, 1995 its pretty awesome actually like i was so close

  1. Sarah Fairbanks Duffy

    In doing research on my Great-Great Great Grandgfather, Benjamin Nourse Fairbanks, I learned that I am a descendant of Rebecca Towne Nurse (her grandson changed spelling to Nourse and moved to Westborough, MA). Benjamin’s grandmother was Sarah Nourse, great great grandaughter of Rebecca.

    1. Marsha Cutler Brothers

      I am also a descendant. My grandfather Richard Edgar Nourse was my grandfather on my mom’s side. I have a book written in 1930 by Charles Sutherland Tapley all about the family and the trial. And also it gives a list of the descendants from each child. Rebecca(Preston) then had 1715.Charles A Towns of Park Ridge , IL, who is collecting records of the descendants of William and Joanna Blessing Towne, parents of Rebecca Nurse, now has a record of 15,203 descendants of Rebecca Nurse and believes that these are at least 30,000 descendants of this worthy woman. This was taken from the book.

  2. Era

    This was very helpful, thank you! I would like to ask, though, were her famous words “I can say before my Eternal Father I am innocent and God will clear my innocency” said during her trial or her pre-trial examination? Thanks!

  3. Richard Nickless

    I once lived in Danvers Mass and of all places on Putnam Street. Two years ago I took my family to see the Nurse home on Pine street. This place has a very earthy smell too it and seemed to always have a hazy cloud hovering above it. The trees are majestic and you could almost go back in time just stand under one.
    Since my Mother is a “Noyes” her Great x 12 Grandfather was Nicholas Noyes (The Minister giving Sarah her last rites) Its amazing how each one of us have cross over each others path throughout the ages.

  4. Alan

    As a direct descendant of Rebecca Nurse, I appreciate the depiction of her as dignified and the court proceedings as unconscionable.

  5. Susannah Martin's 7th Great-Granddaughter

    Rebecca Nurse was hanged with my 7th great-grandmother (Susannah ‘North’ Martin). She is my friend’s 9th Great-grandmother which is how I learned they were hanged the same day. I am so appreciative of thorough research of these despicable acts and am beginning to see parallels in our own society. I am hopeful that sharing these historical events with others will prevent the “Putnam’s” of the 21st Century from having the the “Nurse’s” and the “Martin’s” of the world killed. If not, at least good will eventually triumph over evil – 30,000 descendant’s is quite a legacy ; ).

    1. Martha Cannon

      A few years ago I learned that I was descended from the Putnam family. Ann Putnam Jr. Is my 2nd cousin 10x removed and Captain John Putnam was my 10 Great Grandfather. I can’t tell you how much horror and shame I have felt knowing what my ancestors did. Today I learned that my boyfriend is the 10 Great Grandson of Rebecca Nurse’s brother Edmund. So over 300 years and half a country away, these two families have shared an almost 20 year friendship that turned into a loving and respectful relationship.
      Martha C.

      1. Cynthia Nurss

        This is the most delightful news to me, how God can bring unity to families over the generations. I pray your relationship with your boyfriend is flourishing. My husband is a descendant of Rebecca Nourse.

    2. Krista Cabral

      Rebecca Nurse was my 8th great grandmother. I descend from their son Samuel. At some point in the mid 1700’s they migrated to Nova Scotia where i was born. Rebecca’s great granddaughter Elizabeth Nurse married John Putnam’s great grandson Caleb. They are my 5th great grandparents.

  6. Charles R.

    She was my 9th great grandmother, through Bathsheba Nurse Newton, daughter of Joseph Nurse who fought in the Revolution. Nicholas Noyes the minister who accompanied the accused persons to their deaths, was a distant uncle, as I am descended from his sister Hannah Noyes. Wait Winthrop, one of the Judges was a distant cousin.

  7. Susan Jewell

    Rebecca (Towne) Nurse is my 8th great-grandmother through her son Benjamin. This is very, very interesting! Thanks you!

    1. Debby Leigh

      Just finding out that Rebecca Nurse is also a grandmother of mine . I believe it the 7th generation. My maiden name is Tracy.

  8. TD Collins

    Then we are related in some way because her brother Edmund is my 8th great-grandfather! LOL nice to meet you all cousins! 🙂

  9. Kelly J. Meister

    In doing my family tree I have found that I am a descendent of Rebecca Nurse. I was shocked to learn of her history. The Salem Witch Trails were something I read about in school, but never knew I would have such close ties to them.

  10. Christine Harris

    I am descended from Rebecca Nurse through her son, Samuel Nurse Sr. through my maternal grandfather (Smith line). I will be taking a trip to Salem this September as a tribute to my beloved 9th great-grandmother.

  11. Shirley Diane Cook

    I am a descendent of Rebecca Nurse as well. She is my 10 great grandmother on my mother’s paternal side of the family. This is so interesting!

  12. Nanette (Nan) Ferguson Young

    I must tell a story. My dad has been working on our linage for many years now and several years ago he connected us as direct descendants of John and Priscilla Alden (their son John Alden was an accused witch but escaped from prison never to be found). During these years my sisters (3) and I have been asking dad if he has found our “ROYAL” linage yet so we can go to England and claim our rightful place (LOL)? On Ash Wednesday of 2017 I ran into my dad after our respectful services and Mass at Captian D’s restaurant. My mother had told me to ask him about the new linage information, so I did. He said well I have good news and (laughing) bad news. “I found your “ROYAL” connections…….King George I (and should I say, the worst King in history)…..”really dad you couldn’t do better than that?”. He then proceeded to say, “Well then maybe you will find the next bit of news “good” news then. You are the (8? I don’t remember for sure) great granddaughter of Rebecca Towne Nurse, a witch.” (should I say he was laughing at me expression). Then I looked at him and said, “Well I wonder how many people can say that they are “ROYAL WITCHES”?” My two sons just about fell out of their chairs…….it was a good day in my opinion.

  13. Glorie Ann Morrow

    Rebecca Towne Nourse is my ninth great grandmother on my mother’s side. Mom is Mary Ellen, a very fair shinned, blue eyed redhead (copper) and an extremely pretty lady, mom is an artist. Mary Ellen (mom) is now 81 and doesn’t look her age at all. Mom looks very english, refined. Her mother was Margaret Joy Rahn (maiden name was Rahn). Grandma’s siblings were siblings were Dora, William & Frances (female). Mom or Mary Ellen has two sisters…Shirley and Quincy they all live in California.

  14. Jaime Knighton

    Rebecca Nurse is my 10th great grandmother. I have always been interested in the Salem Witch Trials… now I know why! What an interesting and in depth article. Thank you!

  15. Debby Leigh

    Hi to all you new, and old relatives. So many of us are descendants of Rebecca Nurse. Through my brother, I have learned that we are 6th 7th or 8 generation of her grandchildren through my father who was a Tracy.

  16. Hayley Seymore

    I’m a descendant if Rebecca Nurse too via her son John and grandson Benjamin Nourse. She’s my 9x great grandma on my maternal grandmother’s side. I’ve known since I was a teenager that I was related to her, but only just connected the dots via family tree recently.

  17. Ramona Medford Long

    Rebecca Nurse is my 8th great grandmother. I was lucky enough to be stationed in Natick and took a trip to Salem to visit the site of the trials.

  18. Luci Quinn

    Im an 8th grader currently working on my project focused on the Salem Witch trials and your article helped me so much! Thank you!

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