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The witches of Yarmouth! Family in pilgrimage for trial victims

11:54 10 September 2012

The Towne family from America coming to Great Yarmouth to explore their links with the town.
Two family members from Great Yarmouth were executed as part of the Salem witch trials in 1690s.
Elizabeth Hanahan - president of the Towne Family Association, Joanne Towne, Karen Johnsen and Charles Farrow.

Picture: James Bass

The Towne family from America coming to Great Yarmouth to explore their links with the town. Two family members from Great Yarmouth were executed as part of the Salem witch trials in 1690s. Elizabeth Hanahan - president of the Towne Family Association, Joanne Towne, Karen Johnsen and Charles Farrow. Picture: James Bass

(C) James Bass 2012

Two “witches” hanged during the Salem Witch Trials were remembered when descendants made a pilgrimage to their birthplace – Great Yarmouth.

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Sisters Mary and Rebecca Towne were accused of black magic and hanged in 1692, in a time where town folk feared evil spirits.

Mass hysteria ensued when neighbours in Salem, Massachusetts blamed unexplained events – such as a young boy “mysteriously dying” –on witches.

Dozens were hanged, but a speech made by Mary Towne – baptised at St Nicholas Minster, in Yarmouth – helped end the mob mentality.

She had told judges she was against spectral evidence, and was eventually exonerated – 20 years after she was hanged.

Karen Johnsen, 67, organised the pilgrimage from her home in California to keep the memory of the “witches” alive. And 37 distant relatives jetted across the Atlantic to St Nicholas Minster, where there is a plaque to the “witches”.

“I think it’s very important people know about their roots to understand themselves and how they fit into society,” said Mrs Johnsen. “It gives you a greater appreciation of life.”

The Towne Family Association was founded in 1980, when William Bradford Towne began to read about the Salem Witch Trials.

He would ring up all the local Townes in the phonebook when he visited a place, and the group expanded.

Their first trip to Great Yarmouth was in 1990, and this month’s pilgrimage was their third, with many new members having joined.

And Mrs Johnsen was overcome with emotion when she looked around St Nicholas Minster, where the parents of the “witches” William and Joanna Towne wed on April 25, 1620.

“It’s like walking on holy ground for me,” said Mrs Johnsen, her voice cracking. “It makes the stories of our ancestors come alive.

“It’s like we can touch them and experience what they experienced. To have the church still here is mind-blowing, and they said the communion service we had was exactly like they would have had in 1620.”

Elizabeth Hanahan, who lives in Connecticut, is president of the Towne Family Association and has been working with Norfolk genealogist Charles Farrow to learn more about their East Anglian links.

The party visited churches in Caister, Somerleyton and Walcott, and Mrs Hanahan said there is an “outside chance” that there are Towne descendants still living in Norfolk. She added she is “hopeful” of learning more about the family from them.

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