Nurse, Rebecca

Nurse, Rebecca (1621–1692) Accused witch executed in the Salem Witches hysteria in Massachusetts in 1692–93.

Rebecca Nurse and her husband Francis were two of the most prominent and well-respected citizens of Salem. They had established a prosperous farm compound that was almost self sufficient, supporting a large extended family of several generations. Their prosperity was envied, and they angered some of the residents by their involvement in a land dispute.

However, the Nurses were regular churchgoers, and Rebecca was known for her meek demeanor and good deeds; she was saintlike. Of all the people who might be candidates for witchcraft, she was probably the least likely. By the time of the hysteria, she was old and infirm as well, suffering from stomach problems and weakness that kept her confined for days to her home.

Historians have speculated that had she been the first to be accused, few would have believed the charges, and the hysteria might have died an early death with no, or perhaps few, casualties. But the hysteria of the girls by then were believed by too many residents. When the girls cried out against Nurse, their charges were taken seriously by many. Envy of the Nurses’ prosperity and status, and simmering resentments over the land dispute, may have played a role in the fate of Rebecca. It is possible that the accusing girls picked up on gossip against re
becca and her family. She also was vocal in her criticism of the examinations and upheld the innocence of the first women accused. Soon the girls were muttering against Rebecca as a witch.

Some of the Nurses’ friends paid a visit to the Nurse farm to warn Rebecca. There they found her in ill health, sick for about a week with a stomach ailment. Nurse voluntarily raised the issue of the hysteria and how badly she felt for reverend Samuel Parris and his family. She said she believed the girls were indeed afflicted by an “evil hand,” but that the accused were innocent. When told that she was being cried out against as a witch herself, Nurse was astonished. She replied, “If it be so, the will of the Lord be done . . . I am as innocent as the child unborn; but surely, what sin hath God found out in me unrepented of, that he should lay such an affliction upon me in my old age?”

On march 23, 1692, a warrant was issued for Nurse’s arrest. She was questioned the following day before a public audience that included the girls. When told that several of the girls claimed she had harmed them by beating and afflicting them with pain, Nurse said God would declare her innocence. It appeared that she might be set free. Then Ann Putnam Sr., worked into an emotional frenzy, declared that Nurse had appeared to her with the “black man,” the Devil, and tempted her. Putnam’s charge incited the crowd. When Nurse then beseeched God to help her, the girls fell into terrible fits, claiming that Nurse and her familiars were harming them.

There was more damning testimony. A neighbor Sarah Houlton claimed that Nurse had cursed her husband to death because his pigs got loose on the Nurse farm. Another neighbor, Henry kenney, said Nurse bewitched him so that he could not breathe properly whenever he was near her.

Hathorne had Nurse examined for Witch’s Marks. Several were found. Nurse protested that any older person such as herself would have growths on their body.

Judge John Hathorne questioned Nurse at length. She either repeated her innocence or said she could make no reply. The latter answer seemed most troubling to the magistrates and the crowd. The girls mimicked every body movement that Nurse made and fell into repeated fits. Nurse acknowledged that she thought the girls were bewitched. Even more damning to herself was her answer that she thought the Devil could indeed appear in her shape. Ann Putnam went into such violent fits that she had to be carried from the meeting house. Nurse was sent to jail to await further examination, which took place on April 11.

Sentiments about Nurse were mixed. Even Hathorne was doubtful that such a pious woman could be in league with the Devil. Thirty-nine of her friends signed a petition in her favour—including even Jonathan Putnam, who had been one of her original accusers.

Nurse was tried in the Court of Oyer & Terminer on June 30 with four others. Ann Putnam Jr. testified that Nurse had killed six children, and Houlton retold the story of her husband’s cursed death.

Despite the testimony against her, Nurse was the only one found not guilty by the jury. The accusers fell into fits in protest. Not all of the judges were happy with the verdict, and William Stoughton said he would seek a new indictment against her. Accused witch Abigail Hobbs was brought out from jail to testify against Nurse. Rebecca recognized her as “one of us.” She probably meant as a fellow prisoner and accused, but the court took her words to mean a fellow witch. Asked to explain herself, Nurse remained silent. The jury changed the verdict to guilty.

Nurse’s friends appealed to Governor William Phips, who granted Nurse a reprieve. It did no good. Nurse’s church in Salem excommunicated her on July 3. Nurse was executed by hanging on July 19. Her death Demonstrated that no one was safe from the accusations of witchcraft.

FURTHER READING:

  • Demos, John Putnam. Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Hansen, Chadwick. Witchcraft at Salem. New York: New American Library, 1969.
  • Upham, Charles. History of Witchcraft and Salem Village. Boston: Wiggin and Lunt, 1867.

SOURCE:

The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca – written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – Copyright © 1989, 1999, 2008 by Visionary Living, Inc.

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