July 19, 1692: Rebecca Nurse

House of Seven Gables from tpsdave by CC0 Creative Commons via Pixabay

In 1692, nearly two dozen people were put to death in Salem, Massachusetts, for the crime of witchcraft. One of them, Rebecca Nurse, was hanged on July 19.

Like many of the women and men executed that summer, Rebecca Nurse was a devout Christian. Known for her piety, Rebecca was known for being a regular churchgoer. During her trial, some two dozen community members, including relatives of the accusers, wrote, “We whose nams Are heareunto subscribed being desired by goodman Nurse to declare what we knewe concerning his wives conversation for time past: we cane testyfie to all whom it may concerne that we have knowne her for: many years and Acording to our observation her: Life and conversation was Acording to her profession and we never had Any: cause or grounds to suspect her of Any such thing as she is nowe Acused of.

So, why was Rebecca Nurse convicted and hanged, despite her role as a model Christian? It is entirely likely that the accusations against her were rooted in a series of unpleasant land disputes she and her husband, Frances, had with their landlords, the Putnam family. Young Ann Putnam accused Rebecca of tormenting her with fits, and – as was often the case – spectral evidence was considered legitimate by the court.

Interestingly, the jury in Rebecca’s trial originally returned a Not Guilty verdict, but they were asked to reconsider, since Ann and several of the other afflicted girls kept screaming and fainting in the courtroom. She was found guilty, and hanged on July 19.

After her death, she was denied burial in the local churchyard, because she had been convicted of witchcraft. However, family members later disinterred her and reburied her at the family homestead in Danvers. Today, the Rebecca Nurse Homestead is the only place where members of the public can visit the home of one of Salem’s victims.

No, Salem Ancestry Doesn’t Make You Special

A reader says, “I just found out that I’m descended from one of the witches from the Salem witch trials and I feel like this makes me have witchcraft in my blood. I went to a Pagan event not too long ago, and when I told everyone about this they acted like it was no big deal. I feel like I deserve a little more respect since my ancestors were Salem witches.”

I know it’s very exciting to discover that your ancestry contains people who were interesting, or even famous.

And sometimes, when we make a discovery like that, we want to share it with others, and we want them to be as excited about it as we are. So if you’re descended from one of the men and women who were convicted of witchcraft in Salem back in 1692, that definitely makes for fascinating family conversations around the dinner table.

However – and this is a big however – it doesn’t really make you a special snowflake in the Pagan community at all, for a couple of reasons. First of all, the people executed in Salem were most likely not witches at all. Other than accusations which were later recanted and apologized for, there is no evidence that the accused were anything other than victims of hysteria and fear.

In fact, most of of the individuals hanged in Salem (as well as elderly Giles Corey, who was pressed to death) were devout Christians.

(The one exception to this may be the slave Tituba, who is believed to have been from the West Indies, and may have had some knowledge of folk magic, although that is unclear and has never been proven by scholars. However, Tituba vanished, released from jail shortly after the Salem hangings began, and her whereabouts afterwards are unknown despite the best efforts of academics to learn her post-Salem fate.)

A second reason that it was probably treated as “no big deal” by the people you met is because there are hundreds, if not thousands of people alive today who are descended from the victims of the Salem witch hunts over three hundred years ago. Again, this does not make you unusual. While it may be a really big deal to you, to everyone else, it’s just a mildly interesting fact at best.

Finally – and feel free to take this with a grain of salt – your email indicates that you expect people to show you respect automatically based upon your ancestry and what it means to you personally. In the Pagan community – as in others – respect is earned.

It can’t be demanded, because you’ll never get it. It’s earned by your words and deeds, not because you happen to have a certain family tree.

Step back, take a breath, honor your ancestors and do a little more studying and research. With a little bit of experience and learning, you may eventually become someone who earns respect based on your own merits, without invoking the names of the accused men and women of Salem.

Just for funsies, here are some cool articles I’ve written on the topic of Salem, which should keep you busy for a while.

 

 

By Sorcery, Charm, or Enchantment


As many of you know, I recently graduated from Ohio University with my B.A. in History. One of my required courses was a Historical Research and Writing class, and it was awesome. After all, it combined three of my favorite things: history, research, and makin’ words! My professor, Dr. Mark Nevin, was fantastic, and over the course of 14 weeks, we each developed a thesis, pored over acres and acres of primary and secondary sources, and finally presented an academic research paper in which we supported our thesis argument with all of the evidence we could find. Continue reading By Sorcery, Charm, or Enchantment