Thursday, July 19, 2012

Rebecca Towne Nurse - accused Salem witch

On 19 July 1692 Rebecca Towne Nurse and others were hanged for witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts. Rebecca Nurse is my 9th great grandmother on my father's side. And for some reason my  family isn't surprised that I descend from a witch. Because today is the 320th anniversary of her execution I'd like to honor her memory today...

Rebecca Towne was born 21 February 1621 in Great Yarmouth, England to William and Joanna Blessing Towne. She had three sisters and three brothers - Susan, Mary, Sarah, Edmund, Jacob and Joseph. The family settled in Salem Village (now Danvers) Massachusetts in 1640 in the early days of the American colonies.
Rebecca Nurse Homestead
Four years later Rebecca married Francis Nurse, who was also from England. Francis was a "tray maker" and was an esteemed artisan and the Nurse family lived well on a 300-acre homestead.
Francis and Rebecca Nurse had eight children, four daughters and four sons - Rebecca, Sarah, John, Samuel, Mary, Elizabeth, Francis, and Benjamin. Rebecca was very pious and her family was well-respected in Salem Village. Her husband served as Constable in 1672. All of which makes it seem so unlikely that Rebecca would be someone accused of witchcraft.
The Nurse family and the Putnam family had been involved in a number of land disputes. Edward and John Putnam made accusations against Rebecca and a warrant was issued for her arrest on March 23, 1692. Rebecca was 70 years of age at that time and reportedly an invalid. She stated, "I am innocent as the child unborn, but surely, what sin hath God found out in me unrepented of, that He should lay such an affliction on my in my old age."
Thirty-nine prominent community members signed a petition on Rebecca Nurse's behalf because she was considered very pious. Her trial began on June 30, 1692 with Rebecca representing herself as they were not allowed lawyers. Many family and community members testified in her behalf. But Ann Putnam and other children would have fits claiming that Rebecca was tormenting them. Responding to their outbursts Rebecca said, "I have got nobody to look to but God." Several of the other afflicted girls hesitated to accuse her.
Rebecca Nurse was ruled not guilty by the jury but due to public outcry and the fits and spasms by the girls the magistrate asked for the verdict to be reconsidered. So the jury changed their verdict and sentenced Rebecca to death on July 19, 1692.
Rebecca died on the gallows with dignity. She and the others accused were buried in a shallow grave near where they were hanged because they were supposedly unfit for a Christian burial. Rebecca's family returned after dark and dug up her body. They buried her at their family homestead.  Nearly 200 years later in 1885 her descendants erected a tall granite memorial at the gravesite. with the inscription:

Rebecca Nurse, Yarmouth, England 1621. Salem, Mass., 1692.

O Christian Martyr who for Truth could die
When all about thee owned the hideous lie!
The world redeemed from Superstition's sway
Is breathing freer for thy sake today.
(from the poem "Christian Martyr" by John Greenleaf Whittier)

It took seven years before the Nurse family was welcomed back to communion in the church and it was fifteen years before Rebecca's excommunication was revoked. In 1711 the Nurse family was compensated for her wrongful death by the government.
Two of Rebecca's sisters were also accused of witchcraft. Her sister, Mary Eastey was also executed, while sister, Sarah Cloyce escaped execution.
The Nurse family has been main characters in film and on stage in depictions of the Witch Trials. Rebecca Nurse is the central character in Arthur Miller's play, "The Crucible".
Rebecca's accuser, Ann Putnam later publicly apologized to the Nurse family for accusing innocent people.

Our linkage to Rebecca Nurse:
Rebecca Towne Nurse - 1621
Samuel Nurse - 1649
Rebecka Nurse - 1688
Elizabeth Kenney - 1724
Jonathan Gale - 1744
Vilate Gale - 1770
Vilate Stockwell - 1794
Harrison Burgess - 1814
Abram Burgess - 1857
Milton Burgess - 1887
Clive Burgess - 1927
Cynthia Burgess - 1952 (me)

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