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Rebecca Towne Nurse (or Nourse) (February 21, 1621 – July 19, 1692) was executed for witchcraft in the Salem witch trials. She was the wife of Francis Nurse (1618–22 November 1695).

Contents

Early life

The daughter of William and Joanna Towne (née Blessing), Nurse was born in Great Yarmouth, England in 1621. Her family settled in Salem Village in 1640. She had one older sister, Susan (baptized 26 Oct 1625 – died 29 Jul 1630) and two younger sisters, Mary Easty (baptized 24 Aug 1634) and [Sarah Cloyce] (born ca. 1642), both of whom were also accused of witchcraft. She also had four brothers: John (baptized 16 Feb 1622/23), Edmund (baptized Jun 1628), Jacob (baptized 11 Mar 1631/32) and Joseph (born abt 1639).

Around 1645, she married Francis Nurse, also born in England. Her husband was a "tray maker" by trade, who likely made many other wooden household items. Due to the rarity of such household goods, artisans of that medium were considered esteemed. Nurse and her family lived on a vast homestead which was part of a 300-acre (1.2 km2) grant given to Townsend Bishop in 1636. Francis originally rented it and then gradually paid it off throughout his lifetime. Together, the couple bore eight children: four daughters and four sons. Their names were Rebecca Nurse (born 1642), Sarah Nurse (born 1644), John Nurse (born 1645), Samuel Nurse (born 1649), Mary Nurse (1653 - 28 June 1749), Elizabeth Nurse (born 1656), Francis Nurse (born 1660/1661), and Benjamin Nurse (born in 1665/1666). Nurse frequently attended church and her family was well respected in Salem Village; Francis was often asked to be an unofficial judge to help settle matters around the village. In 1672, Francis served as Salem's Constable. It was later written that Rebecca had "acquired a reputation for exemplary piety that was virtually unchallenged in the community," making her one of the first "unlikely" persons to be accused of witchcraft.

Accusation and trial

The family had been involved in a number of acrimonious land disputes with the Putnam family. On March 23, 1692, 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 Nurse, often described as an invalid, said, "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 me in my old age."

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. 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.

Her trial began on June 30, 1692. 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 girls were hesitant to accuse Nurse.

In the end, the jury ruled Nurse not guilty. Due to public outcry and renewed fits and spasms by the girls, the magistrate 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, sentencing Nurse to death on July 19.

Death and aftermath

Many people labeled Nurse "the woman of self dignity", 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. The inscription on the monument reads:

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)

In 1892 a second additional monument was erected nearby recognizing the 40 neighbors, led by Israel and Elizabeth (Hathorne) Porter, who took the risk of publicly supporting Nurse by signing a petition to the court in 1692.

The Rebecca Nurse Homestead in 2006

Her accuser, Ann Putnam, Jr., publicly apologized to the Nurse family for accusing innocent people. In 1711, the government compensated her family for Nurse's wrongful death. The Nurse family homestead fell into the hands of Putnam family descendent, Phineas Putnam in 1784. The Putnam family maintained control of the property until 1908. Today, it is a tourist attraction that includes the original house and cemetery, on 27 of the original 300 acres (1.2 km2).

In popular culture

Rebecca Nurse is a central character in Arthur Miller's play The Crucible as well as many other dramatic treatments of the Salem Witch Trials. The PBS film Three Sovereigns For Sarah features Vanessa Redgrave as one of Rebecca Nurse's sisters, Sarah Cloyce, who, although accused, escaped execution. (Another of Nurse's sisters, Mary Eastey, was, however, also executed.) The film depicts Nurse and her family members as main characters.

Rebecca Nurse was also the subject of Lectures on Witchcraft by Charles W. Upham.

External links

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