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Rebecca Towne NurseRebecca Nurse Homestead

The Rebecca Nurse Homestead, Danvers, MA. Photo © Paul Rocheleau

Text by Dana A. Wildes

Rebecca (Towne) Nurse and her sisters Mary (Towne) Estey and Sarah (Towne) Cloyce were my Greatx8 Aunts. Rebecca, along with 18 others who were tried by an illegal court, was heinously murdered by hanging in Salem, Massachusetts. There has probably been more literature written about her than any other victim of the so called "Witch Hysteria".

There were several reasons why she was targeted. First, her relationship to a prominent citizen of the town of Topsfield, Francis Nurse, her husband. The town of Topsfield had for some time been in dispute over land along the border of Salem Village; that is to say, the Putnam family estate.

Second was her affiliation with the church in Salem Town. She was a member of the church in Salem Town and her husband was an outspoken leader of the anti-Parris committee. This was a committee who believed the reverend Parris was not hired properly and should be removed from the position of minister for the church of Salem Village. Again, the Putnams were the leaders of the pro Parris committee.

Third, this may have been a test for the Putnams. If they could bring down such a highly respected, deeply religious, pious pillar of the community, then surely they'd have absolute freedom over those they'd bring charges against in the future.

Rebecca was 70 years old when she was tried by the Court of Oyer and Terminar (Hear and Determine). The court was formed by Governor Phipps at the request of the Lieutenant Governor, William Stoughton. Stoughton was then assigned by Phipps to serve as Chief Magistrate. It should be noted that only the Judicial Branch of the Provincial Government can form a court as a part of governmental checks and balances. Clearly, Phipps was overstepping his own authority. Additionally, none of the magistrates of the Court of Oyer and Terminar had any legal training and relied heavily on their various religious backgrounds.

Rebecca's two sisters were also accused for many of the same reasons. Several years earlier Rebecca's mother had been accused of witchcraft. She was, however, never tried. Local gossip during the trials suggested the profession was passed down from mother to daughters.

The trial itself was a sham and a virtual mockery of the judicial system. The complaint was signed by Edward and Jonathan Putnam. The charge was for afflicting Ann Putnam Jr. and Abigail Williams. Ann Putnam, Sr. testified that the ghosts of Benjamin Houlton, Rebecca Houlton, John Fuller, and her sister Baker's children (6 of them) as well as her sister Bayley and her three children came to her at various times in their winding sheets and cried for justice of being murdered by Rebecca Nurse. John Putnam, Sr. and his wife Rebecca (Prince) Putnam actually refuted charges that their daughter Rebecca Shepard and their son-in-law John Fuller had been murdered by Rebecca Nurse. Sarah Nurse (Rebecca's daughter) testified she saw Goodwife Bibber (an afflicted woman in the trial) pull pins out of her clothes and hold them between her fingers, and clasp her hands around her knees, and then she cried out and said, "Goody Nurse pricked me." On June 2, 1692, two physical exams to search for witches marks were performed by midwives. On June 28, 1692, Rebecca petitioned the court for another physical exam citing one previous examiner to be of contradictory opinion from the others. At her trial, testimonials regarding her Christian behavior, care, and education of her children brought a verdict of not guilty. William Stoughton then politely asked the jury to again retire and reconsider their verdict. So much for not being tried twice for the same offense.

On July 3, 1692, the Reverend Nicholas Noyes had Rebecca brought from her prison cell to the church. When she arrived, the Reverend excommunicated her before the congregation. How shattering would this be to such a deeply religious person as she was known to be?

A petition was drawn up and signed on May 14, 1692 by most of the richest and most influential people such as Israel Porter (his name appears first), Daniel Andrews, even John Putnam, Sr. and his wife along with 35 other were cosigners of the petition. The petition was sent to Governor Phipps who responded with a temporary reprieve. The reprieve ran out and Rebecca, along with four other ladies, was hanged on July 19, 1692. She was buried in such a shallow grave on that rocky hill that some body parts remained exposed. Her family came in the dark of night, collected her remains, and reburied her on the family's property.

John Greenleaf Whittier wrote the epitaph for her gravestone:

Rebecca Nurse
Yarmouth, England 1621
Salem, Mass. 1692

O Christian Martyr who for truth could die
When all around thee owned the hideous lie!
The world redeemed from Superstition's sway
Is breathing freer for thy sake today

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please contact Dana A. Wildes.

For additional biographical information see Rebecca Nurse

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