We recently found out that my husband is a descendant of Rebecca Nurse, one of the wrongly accused during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Two weeks ago we visited her homestead in Danvers, MA and the Witch Trials Memorial Site in Salem. It was very unsettling to be there, similar to feelings I have had at other memorial sites for wars or other horrible events in human history. The only positive thing I can say is that I left with a sense of renewed personal responsibility for society, and a hope that all of humanity will learn from these stories and eventually learn to live in peace.
Rebecca Nurse was one of the 20 who were executed in 1692. There were also over 100 who were accused of using witchcraft to cause harm, many of them jailed and some died in prison. Rebecca herself was 71 years old when she was arrested from her bedroom and taken to prison. Two of her sisters, Mary Easty and Sarah Cloyce were jailed for trying to defend her. During her trial 40 members of the community came forward to testify on her behalf (their names are inscribed on a stone at her gravesite). The jury found her innocent but mass hysteria pressured the judge and jury to reconsider and they ended up convicting her. She was hanged with four other women on July 19, 1692. It was against the law for the executed to have a proper burial, but her family secretly removed her body and buried her in an unmarked grave in the family cemetery, down a little dirt road behind the house. Then, in 1885, the Nurse family erected this memorial to Rebecca, near her unmarked grave.
In Salem there is a memorial to the 20 who were executed. There is a stone bench for each one with their name inscribed. In the front of the memorial is a collage of stones imprinted with the quotes of their innocent pleas.
Rebecca Nurse is mentioned in all of the following books about the Salem Witch Trials.
The Salem Witchcraft Trials by Karen Zeinert: This is a children’s book but it gives a very good outline of what happened in Salem in 1692. One interesting thing in the book is a map of the Salem area which shows how the accusers were on the West side and the accused were on the East side, matching some longtime quarrels over taxes and ministers.
The Witches of Early America by Sally Smith Booth. Booth tells the history of witch-hunting in Colonial Times and how the suspicion and superstition came to a head in Salem, but others were killed and persecuted in other places.
A Delusion of Satan: The Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials by Frances Hill. The title is from a quote from Ann Putnam, one of the young girls who had “fits” and started the accusations. In 1706 she made a public statement mentioning Rebecca Nurse and her two sisters and apologizing, calling it a “great delusion of Satan” that caused her actions. Hill explains the events of 1692 from a modern psychological perspective.
Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies by Elaine G. Breslaw. Tituba was the slave of the family of young girls who started the witch-hunting hysteria. Breslaw pieces together historical data to tell us who Tituba really was.
A Fever in Salem: a New Interpretation of the New England Witch Trials by Laurie Winn Carlson. Carlson makes the compelling case that the cause of the “fits” the young accusers experienced was encephalitis or another organic explanation.
Witchcraft at Salem by Chadwick Hansen. Hansen focuses on the responsibility of the towns-people for the events of 1692 and points out how they created what they were afraid of.
The following four novels are about witch-hunting in England and/or America in the 1600s.
Witch Child by Celia Rees is a novel about a young pagan woman who flees to America during the witch hunts in England in the mid-1600s, only to find persecution here as well, from the same man who killed her grandmother.
The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare is an award-winning children’s novel about the mass hysteria of the colonies in the 17th century. The townspeople become suspicious of this young headstrong girl especially when she makes friends with a supposed witch who lives in the woods.
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe is a novel set in modern times about a college student who finds clues leading her on a search for an ancient physick book which was hidden in the time of the Salem Witch Trials.
Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt is a suspenseful novel about a family who is caught in peril as they are tormented during the 1612 Pendle witch-hunt.
Jesse Lee Harmon is the bookkeeper & library assistant at OWL.