Rebecca Nurse – Family or Not?
Our family has often talked about the possibilities of being related to the famous Salem witch Rebecca Nurse. She is mentioned in The Crucible which is a 1953 play by the American playwright Arthur Miller. It was initially called “The Chronicles of Sarah Good”. It is a dramatized and partially fictionalized story of the Salem Witch trials that took place in the Province of Massachusetts Bay during 1692 and 1693. Miller wrote the play as an allegory of McCarthyism, when the U.S. government blacklisted accused communists. It was first performed at the Martin Beck Theater on Broadway on January 22, 1953. Miller felt that this production was too stylized and cold and the reviews for it were largely hostile (although The New York Times noted “a powerful play [in a] driving performance”). Nonetheless, the production won the 1953 “Best Play” Tony Award. A year later a new production succeeded and the play became a classic. It is a central work in the canon of American drama.
When our grandchildren studied this work in school they became very excited about the possibilities of being related to Rebecca Nurse. I tried several lines and I stumbled on to her by accident or maybe not so much of an accident when you consider the pace of technology and the spirit of Elijah. I was actually looking in my Grandfather Howard’s line to see if I was related to my best friend (seems like we are all related somehow). The name Luther Warner came up. From this point on you can follow it on the chart I reference at the bottom.* With fan charts and Tree charts, I found Elizabeth Nurse and her mother was Rebecca (Town) Nurse. December 1, 2013, I finally connected Rebecca Nurse to me and my sisters. We celebrated all day to know that she truly was in our line. She is our 9th great Grandmother on the Howard side. This leaves no doubt why all the Howard daughters hold such spells over their husbands and are extra scary on Halloween. What follows is the biography of Rebecca Towne Nurse 1618-1692 as researched by her 9th Great Granddaughter and information found on the internet.
Rebecca Towne Nurse was born February 16, 1621 in Great Yarmouth Norfolk England to William Towne and Joanna Blessing. The exact date they left England and the name of the ship used is not known for sure. He was a puritan and apparently left England because of religious persecution like most of the people who left England for Massachusetts at that time. Around 1645, she married Francis Nurse, who had also been born in England, sometime between 1618 and 1620. In 1672, Francis served as Salem’s Constable. Together the couple had eight children, four daughters and four sons. The Nurse family frequently attended church and she was well respected in Salem Village. It was later written that she had “acquired a reputation for exemplary piety (well respected) that was virtually unchallenged in the community,” making her one of the first “unlikely” witches to be accused in the famous “Salem Witch Trials”.
Rebecca and her family lived on a vast homestead which was part of a 300-acre grant given to Townsend Bishop in 1636. The family had been involved in a number of acrimonious land disputes with the Putnam family. On March 23 a warrant was issued for her arrest based upon accusations made by Edward and John Putnam. Upon hearing of the accusations the frail 70-year-old, who is often described as an invalid, said, “I am as the child unborn, but surely, what sin hath God found out in me un-repented of, that He should lay such an affliction on me in my old age.”
In March 1692, Rebecca and two of her sisters were arrested and jailed based on accusations by the Putnam girls that claimed Rebecca’s specter had attacked them. At age 71, she was one of the oldest accused. Her ordeal is often credited as the impetus for a shift in public opinion about the validity of the witch trials. On March 19th, Abigail Williams started the first claim against Rebecca and shortly afterwards, the other afflicted girls joined in. On March 24th she was arrested and brought to the village meetinghouse for questioning.
There was a public outcry over the accusations made against her, as she was considered to be of very pious character. Thirty-nine of the most prominent members of the community signed a petition on Nurse’s behalf. Her trial began on June 29, 1692. A widow accused her of killing her husband three years earlier by casting a spell on him. Another woman testified that Nurse’s specter was sticking her with pins right in court. She had a bloody knee to prove it. However, the woman had been seen jabbing herself with pins.
At one point in the proceedings, Rebecca’s sister, Sarah Cloyse, stormed out of church one day in protest. She too was accused and arrested for witchcraft.
By dint of her respectability, some testified on her behalf including her family members. However, the young Ann Putnam and her siblings would break into fits and claim Nurse was tormenting them. In response to their outbursts Nurse stated, “I have got nobody to look to but God.” Many of the other afflicted were hesitant to accuse Nurse.
In the end, the jury ruled Nurse not guilty, probably because of the petition and her strong Christian reputation. There was a great public outcry and renewed fits and spasms by the afflicted girls when the not guilty verdict was announced. This uproar surprised and startled the magistrates who asked that the verdict be reconsidered. At issue was the statement of another prisoner “she was one of us” to which Nurse did not reply, probably because of her loss of hearing. The jury took this as a sign of guilt and changed their verdict.
Governor Phipps granted her a reprieve, but public outcry scared him into recalling it. Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Good, Sarah Wilds, Elizabeth Howe and Susannah Martin were sent to the gallows in Salem town on July 19, 1692. There a minister urged Nurse to admit her guilt. “You are a liar!” Nurse shot back. “I am no more a witch than you are a wizard!” Minutes later she and the others were dead from hanging. Many people labeled Nurse as “of Christian behavior”, due to her dignified behavior on the gallows.
As was the custom after hanging, Nurse’s body was buried in a shallow grave near the gallows, along with other convicted witches, who were considered unfit for a Christian burial. Nurse’s family secretly returned after dark and dug up her body which they interred properly on their family homestead. In July 1885, her descendants erected a tall granite memorial over her grave in what is now called the Rebecca Nurse Homestead cemetery in Danvers (formerly Salem Village), Massachusetts. In 1892 a second additional monument was erected nearby recognizing the 40 neighbors who took the risk of publicly supporting Nurse by signing a petition to the court in 1692.
One of Rebecca’s sisters, Mary (Towne) Estey, was also hung on charges of being a witch. The last of the hangings in Salem took place in September 1692. In all, 20 people were put to death (including five men and eight others died in jail). The trials ended perhaps because too many people of good reputation had been accused. By 1703 the General Court made payments to the heirs of the victims and 25 pounds was paid to the heirs of Rebecca Nurse. In 1706, Ann Putnam, one of the original four hysterical young women, made a written statement of remorse. She said that the devil had deceived her into accusing people and mentioned “Goodwife Nurse” in particular. In 1712 the pastor who had cast Rebecca out of the church formally cancelled the excommunication.
At this point Rebecca Nurse has not been sealed to her parents as far as I know. We hope to reserve these names for our family to do. We will do it in the Logan temple when we get home from our mission in Mesa, Arizona. This is only one more year and after waiting 322 years, we hope this will not make them mad. I am sure they have more power now than they did in Salem. The wicked witches of Salem have brought a family closer together. I am sure many people can trace their line through the Nurse family but none have been so excited to discover the story and the relationship they share with the Witches of Salem than the Larsen and Howard families. The great injustices of the trial and now the possibilities of an eternal family from relatives who have grown close to them through their hardships will tie us together forever. Elder Larsen and I will spend the next Halloween in 2014 making a special spell for the ROC in Mesa Arizona. However, this will be a good spell to make the work at the center flow easier and faster for all the witches in the world.
*My Dad in Lucine Howard and his dad is Stanton Howard
Stanton Howard’s Dad was Ira Stanton Howard (1864-1932)
Ira Stanton Howard’s Mom was Tirza Paermelia Warner (1835-1900)
Tirza Paermelia Warner’s dad was Luther Warner (1798-1850)
Luther Warner’s mother was Mary Russell (1743-1846)
Mary Russell’s dad was Archelaus Russell(1730-1902)
Archelous Russell’s Dad was Ebenezr Russell (1688-1761)
Ebenezr Russell’s Mom was Elizabeth Nurse (1665-1733)
Elizabeth Nurse’s Mom was Rebecca Nurse