Was Rebecca Nurse Really A Witch?

Rebecca Nurse

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.”

Accusations Begin:

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.



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In The News……Haunted Happenings in Salem

Massachusetts town famous for its 1692 witch trials is the busiest Halloween tourist destination in North America

By DAVID JOHNSTON, The GazetteOctober 15, 2011

The busiest Halloween tourist destination in North America has no shortage of costumed ghosts and goblins wandering through town in the weeks before the arrival of the witching hours of Halloween night Oct. 31.

But there was nothing theatrical about the shock and the horror that gripped the seaside Massachusetts town of Salem in 1692, when 20 local residents were accused of witchcraft and put to death after the infamous Salem witch trials.

Ever since then, witch hunts in various shapes and forms have been a recurring metaphor in U.S. society. When Arthur Miller based his 1952 play The Crucible on the events of 1692, it was seen as an allegory for the anti-Communist fear and hysteria that was sweeping the United States at the time.

The historical and cultural backdrop to the Salem witch trials is a subject that is exhaustively interpreted by the many different niche museums in Salem devoted to this grim chapter in early U.S. history.

But the witch trials have also given rise, more than three centuries later, to a busy local tourist industry revolving around witchcraft in general, one that peaks in October with an annual Halloween festival, Haunted Happenings that attracts more than 200,000 people. (hauntedhappenings.org/)

The month-long celebration features parades, costume balls, various children’s events and witch-themed activities ranging from light fun to serious exploration of the world of witchcraft past and present. These activities include Ask a Witch – Make a Wand, a weekend event hosted by the local Witches Education League, where the public gets to ask questions of women and men who are self-described witches.

The Witches Education League is an outreach organization that reflects the demographic reality of Salem, a city north of Boston with a population of 38,000 where 2,000 people describe themselves as witches. Some are formally affiliated with the worldwide religious movement of Wicca, while others are known locally for their commercial profile. The commercialism is evident along the downtown Essex St. pedestrian mall where stores like Omen or Bewitched in Salem sell witch-themed products, but also conduct crystal-ball readings and seances, and give workshops in witchcraft magic.

The best way to see Salem is to start out by taking the Salem Trolley tour of the downtown area. It begins in the city’s fascinating old port district, the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, and then loops back from there into the downtown area, pointing out places of special interest relating to the Salem witch trials, and to architectural history as well.

The spiritual centre of Salem’s tourist industry is the Salem Witch Memorial, inaugurated in 1992 by Nobel Laureate Eli Wiesel. It’s a little garden bounded on three sides by a low stone wall. Embedded into the interior sides of the wall are 20 stone benches, each one bearing the name, date and method of execution of one of the 20 people put to death in 1692.

Not to be missed is the Salem Witch Museum, which tells the story of the witch trials using special sets, and life-size figures in a darkened auditorium, and then projects forward in time in connecting rooms to show how outbreaks of mass fear and intolerance have been a recurring theme in U.S. history.

The narrator of the auditorium show explains how the early Puritan settlers of Salem lived with a variety of overlapping fears that induced a form of paranoia. There was fear of their colonial charter being revoked, of Indian raids, of smallpox, of crop failure. Most of all, there was fear of the Devil, as common belief among the Puritans held that the Devil had come to New England to undo God’s new Kingdom – even creaky floors suggested the Devil’s presence.

And so when a group of local girls in Salem in 1692 started going into hysterical fits and accusing fellow citizens of having bewitched them, the underlying conditions were already in place to produce a witch hunt. Family feuds over property rights were also a contributing factor, and those forced Salem’s 550 residents to take sides during the witch trials.

Today, of course, Salem is a much different place. It is a busy northern Boston suburb, part of the metropolitan transit network. And so while Salem can be visited by commuter train as a day trip from Boston, Salem can also be used as a place to stay while visiting Boston more generally. Hotels are generally cheaper in Salem than in Boston.

The two main hotels in downtown Salem are the Hawthorne Hotel and the Salem Waterfront Hotel; there are also plenty of bed and breakfasts. The Salem Waterfront has an indoor pool and might be the better option for families with young children. The Hawthorne, built in 1925 when 1,000 local residents chipped in to buy shares to create a new “modern” hotel for the town, has a well-regarded local restaurant, Nathaniel’s (named after Nathaniel Hawthorne, a noted 19th-century Salem author), which serves up a famous apple-pumpkin bisque soup. Another renowned Salem edible delight is Gibraltar rock candy, which is sold at Ye Olde Pepper Compagnie, near Salem harbour. The store was founded in Salem in 1806 and is the oldest candy store in the U.S.

Short hops returns in mid-December with ideas for winter excursions.


To get to Salem from Montreal by car, drive as if you are going to Boston. That is to say, take Interstate 93 South. There are two ways to get to the 93 – either from Interstate 89 at the Philipsburg/ Highgate Springs, Vt., border crossing, or Interstate 91 from the Stanstead/Derby Line, Vt., crossing. As you approach Boston on the 93, take Exit 37A in order to get on Interstate 95 North. After a brief stint on the 95, take Route 128 North and Route 114 East into Salem. There are also air and bus options to Boston, but no direct rail link.