Nurse, Rebecca

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Nurse, Rebecca

The Examination of Rebecca Nurse (1692)

Reprinted in Major Problems in American Colonial History in 1993

Edited by Karen O. Kupperman

Rebecca Nurse was an ailing seventy-one-year-old great-grandmother and faithful Salem village church member when she was arrested as a witch in March 1692 (see Chapter 4). Although little is known about her early life, records show that she was born Rebecca Towne in Yarmouth, England, and baptized on February 21, 1621. During her childhood her family moved to Massachusetts and settled in the village of Topsfield. She married Francis Nurse, a farmer, and they rented a large house on 300 acres of land near Salem Village; they had fours sons and four daughters. (The restored Nurse homestead still stands; it has been designated as an historical site.) In 1678 the Nurses obtained the title to the house and land, and over the next fourteen years they became highly respected members of the community. Then in February 1692 Abigail Williams, Elizabeth Parris, Ann Putnam, Jr. (see biography and primary source entries), and other young girls claimed they were being attacked by the specters (spirits) of several women, whom they accused of practicing witchcraft. In March 1692 Putnam interrupted a church service and targeted Rebecca Nurse as one of the principal witches (see Chapter 3). Ann Putnam, Sr. also began accusing Nurse of witchcraft (see primary source entry). The Nurses immediately stopped attending church. On March 23, 1692, Rebecca Nurse was arrested and sent to the Salem jail even though she had been ill and was confined to her bed.

Things to remember while reading the Examination of Rebecca Nurse:

  • Historians have concluded that long-standing boundary disputes between the Putnam family and other Salem villagers (see Chapter 4) played a major role in Nurse's arrest. Although her husband had not been an active member of the anti-Putnam group, he had had conflicts over land with Nathaniel Putnam, a relative of Thomas Putnam, who was the father of Ann Putnam, Jr., and himself a main force in the witch-hunts.
  • Abigail Williams was a niece of Samuel Parris (see biography entry), an ally of the Putnams, she and lived in the Parris household, which was the center of witchcraft allegations.
  • Nurse's own family, the Townes, had been bitter enemies of the Putnams; her sisters, Sarah Cloyce and Elizabeth Procter, were soon arrested as witches.

From The Examination of Rebecca Nurse

In the following excerpt from the preliminary hearing held on March 24, 1692, the day after her arrest, Nurse is questioned by chief magistrate John Hathorne (spelled "Harthorn" here). People giving evidence against her are Abigail Williams, Ann Putnam, Jr., Ann Putnam, Sr., Edward Putnam (brother of Thomas Putnam), Thomas Putnam, and Salem villagers Henry Kenney, Mary Walcott, and Elizabeth Hubbard. The questions and answers were recorded by a court clerk (reporter), who inserted commentary about the proceedings.

Mr. Harthorn: "What do you say (speaking to oneafflicted ), have you seen this woman hurt?"

[Ann Putnam] "Yes, she beat me this morning."

afflicted: to be suffering

[Harthorn] "Abigail [Williams], have you been hurt by this woman?"

[Abigail] "Yes."

Ann Putnam, in agrevious fit, cried out that she hurt her.

[Harthorn] "Goody Nurse, here are two—Ann Putnam the child and Abigail Williams—complains of your hurting them. What do you say to it?"

[Nurse] "I can say before my Eternal Father, I am innocent, and God will clear my innocency."

[Harthorn] "Here is never a one in theassembly but desires it. But if guilty you be pray Goddiscover you."

[Court clerk] Then Hen[ry] Kenney rose to speak.

[Harthorn] "Goodman Kenney, what do you say?"

[Court clerk] Then he entered hiscomplaint and farther said that since this Nurse came into the house he was twice seized with an amazed condition.

[Harthorn] "Here are not only these, but here is [Ann Putnam, Sr.] the wife of Mr. Tho[mas] Putnam whoaccuseth you bycreditable information, and that both of tempting her toiniquity and of greatly hurting her."

[Nurse] "I am innocent and clear, and have not been able to get out of doors these 8 or 9 days."

[Harthorn] "Mr. Putnam, give in what you have to say."

[Court clerk] Then Mr. Edward Putnam gave in hisrelate .

[Harthorn] "Is this true, Goody Nurse?"

[Nurse] "I never afflicted a child, never in my life."

[Harthorn] "You see these accuse you. Is it true?"

[Nurse] "No."

[Harthorn] "Are you an innocent person, relating to this witchcraft?"

[Court clerk] Here Tho[mas] Putnam's wife cried out: Did you not bring the Black man with you? Did you not bid me tempt God and die? Howoft have you eat and drunk your owndamnation ? What do you say to them?"

[Nurse] "Oh Lord, help me,["] and spread out her hands, and the afflicted were grievouslyvexed .

greivous: causing severe pain or grief

assembly: group of people gathering together for worship or legislation

discover: save

complaint: charges

accuseth: accuse; to blame

creditable: worthy of belief

iniquity: wickedness

relate: story

oft: often

damnation: state of being condemned

vexed: distressed

[Harthorn] "Do you see what asolemn condition these are in? When your hands are loose, the persons are afflicted."

[Court clerk] Then Mary Walcott (who oftenheretofore said she had seen her, but never could say, or did say, that she either pinched or bit her, or hurt her) and also Elis[abeth] Hubbard, under the like circumstances, both openly accused her of hurting them.

[Harthorn] "Here are these 2 grown persons now accuse you. What say you? Do not you see these two afflicted persons, and hear them accuse you?"

[Nurse] "The Lord knows. I have not hurt them. I am an innocent person."

solemn: serious

heretofore: until the present time

What happened next . . .

During the hearing many of Nurse's neighbors spoke in her behalf, vehemently proclaiming that she was a good citizen and the least likely person to engage in witchcraft. Nevertheless, she was brought to trial on the basis of spectral evidence—the girls' claim that she had afflicted them through her spirit—and the testimony of mulitple witnesses. Initially Nurse was found "not guilty," but Massachusetts Governor William Phipps bowed to pressure and ordered a second trial (see Chapter 4). Historians speculate that Nurse's deafness, a condition she developed in later years, prevented her from adequately responding to questions. As a result, in spite of her continued protestations of innocence, the jury finally concluded that she was lying and found her guilty. After being excommunicated from the church, Nurse was hanged on July 19, 1692, along with four other convicted witches.

Did you know . . .

Many of the bodies of the accused and executed witches were buried in shallow, unmarked graves. However, there is historical evidence that the body of Rebecca Nurse was secretly removed from its grave and given a proper burial. This grave still lacked any marking, for fear that someone might desecrate (violate or vandalize) the site.

For Further Study

Kupperman, Karen O. Major Problems in American Colonial History. New York: Heath, 1993.

Ogram's 17th Century New England with special emphasis on The Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692. [Online] (Accessed July 7, 2000).

Rice, Earle, Jr. The Salem Witch Trials. San Diego, California: Lucent Books, 1997.

Starkey, Marion L. The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry into the Salem Witch Trials. New York: Doubleday, 1989.