Early Life and Family:
Rebecca was born the daughter of William Towne and his wife Joanna Blessing Towne, in 1621. As a teenager, her parents relocated from Yarmouth, England, to the village of Salem, Massachussetts. When Rebecca was about 24, she married Frances Nurse, who made trays and other wooden household items. Frances and Rebecca had four sons and four daughters together. Rebecca and her family attended church regularly, and she and her husband were well-respected in the community.
In fact, she was considered an example of “piety that was virtually unchallenged in the community.”
Rebecca and Frances lived on a tract of land owned by the Putnam family, and they had been involved in a number of nasty land disputes with the Putnams. In March of 1692, young Ann Putnam accused her 71-year-old neighbor Rebecca of witchcraft. Rebecca was arrested, and there was a great public outcry, given her pious character and standing in society. Several people spoke on her behalf at her trial, but Ann Putnam frequently broke into fits in the courtroom, claiming Rebecca was tormenting her. Many of the other teenage girls who were “afflicted” were reluctant to bring accusations against Rebecca.
A Verdict Reversed:
At the end of Rebecca’s trial, the jury returned a verdict of Not Guilty. However, there was much public outcry, due in part to the fact that the accusing girls were continuing to have fits and attacks in the courtroom. The magistrate instructed jurors to reconsider the verdict.
At one point, another accused woman was heard to have said “[Rebecca] was one of us.” When asked to comment, Rebecca did not reply — most likely because she had been deaf for some time. The jury interpreted this as a mark of guilt, and found Rebecca guilty after all. She was sentenced to hang on July 19.
As Rebecca Nurse walked to the gallows, many people commented on her dignified manner, later referring to her as a “model of Christian behavior”. Following her death, she was buried in a shallow grave. Because she was convicted of witchcraft, she was seen as undeserving of a proper Christian burial. However, Rebecca’s family came along later and dug her body up, so that she could be buried at the family homestead. In 1885, the descendants of Rebecca Nurse placed a granite memorial at her grave at what is now known as the Rebecca Nurse Homestead cemetery, located in Danvers (formerly Salem Village), Massachusetts.
Descendants Visit, Pay Their Respects:
In 2007, over a hundred of Rebecca’s descendants visited the family homestead in Danvers. The entire group was comprised of descendants of Nurse’s parents, William and Joanna Towne. Of William and Joanna’s children, Rebecca and two of her sisters were accused of witchcraft.
Some of the visitors were descended from Rebecca herself, and others from her brothers and sisters. Because of the insular nature of colonial society, many of Rebecca’s descendants can also claim kinship with other “witch trial families”, such as the Putnams. New Englanders have long memories, and for many of the families of the accused, the Homestead is a central place where they can meet to honor those who died in the trials. Mary Towne, a great-something-granddaughter of Rebecca’s brother Jacob, probably summed things up best, when she said, “Chilling, the whole thing is chilling.”
Rebecca Nurse is featured as a major character in the play The Crucible by Arthur Miller, which depicts the events of the Salem witch trials.
Author: Patti Wigington