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Weird Norfolk: Rebecca Nurse - From Great Yarmouth to the Salem Witch Trials

PUBLISHED: 12:30 26 May 2017

The view across the River Yare towards South Quay in Great Yarmouth.
The Lydia Eva boat is moored up close to the town hall.
February 2014.
Picture: James Bass

The view across the River Yare towards South Quay in Great Yarmouth. The Lydia Eva boat is moored up close to the town hall. February 2014. Picture: James Bass

Archant Norfolk Photographic © 2014

Her birth was a Blessing, but her death was a curse: Rebecca Nurse from Great Yarmouth was one of three sisters accused of witchcraft at the infamous Salem Witch Trials and was the second person to be hanged.

The oldest child of William and Joanna Blessing Towne, she sailed to America aboard the Rose of Yarmouth in 1637 alongside her parents, her five siblings and 32 other parishioners.

Two more children were born in the New World and the family settled on a farm in Salem although they were plagued by boundary disputes with other villagers which, some believe, are at the root of the witchcraft accusations.

One such dispute was with their neighbours, the Putnam family. Many years later, it would be a Putnam who condemned Rebecca to death.

Contemporary accounts suggest that Rebecca, who married Englishman Francis Nurse in around 1644 and had eight children, four daughters and four sons.

She regularly attended church and her husband was regularly asked to act as unofficial judge to help settle disputes in the village. It was written that Rebecca had “acquired a reputation for exemplary piety that was virtually unchallenged in the community”.

But on March 23 1692, a warrant was issued for Rebecca’s arrest based on accusations made by Edward and John Putnam – the village was rife with rumours and suspicion after a group of young girls had claimed to be possessed by the devil, accusing several local women of witchcraft.

“I am innocent as the child unborn, but surely what sin hath God found out in me unrepented of, that He should lay such an affliction on me in my old age,” she said.

Hysteria swept through Salem and a special court convened in the village to hear the cases – in the months before Rebecca’s trial in June, her youngest sister Sarah Cloyce had also been accused and arrested and the youngest of the sisters to have left England, Mary, had also been imprisoned.

Young Ann Putnam and her teenage friends claimed Rebecca had “tormented” them, Sarah was accused of “afflicting” teenager Abigail Williams while a servant of Thomas Putnam, Mercy Lewis, claimed “the specter” of Mary had climbed into bed with her.

Rebecca’s trial started on June 30 1692. Banned from having a lawyer, she represented herself and 39 villagers appeared on her behalf as character witnesses: her accusers broke into fits as they spoke about their claims and the so-called “spectral evidence” was deemed to be relevant. Regardless, Rebecca was found not guilty.

There was an immediate outcry – the girls fell into prolonged fits and spasms, the public bayed for blood and the judges asked the jury to reconsider.

The verdict was changed and Nurse was sentenced to death on July 19 1692, but another twist was to come: in light of urgent pleas from Rebecca’s family and abundant evidence of her good character, Sir William Phips, the Governor of Massachusetts granted Nurse a reprieve. Then he withdrew it. She hanged on July 19, followed by her sister who was tried and hanged on September 22 1692.

By October, with 20 people executed and 150 more men, women and children accuses, the hysteria began to die down and the tide of public opinion turned against the trials. Sarah was released and later given nine gold sovereigns in compensation for her imprisonment and her sisters’ deaths.

In 1697, 12 members of the jury made a public apology, admitting they had been “sadly deluded and mistaken” and in 1706, Ann Putman publicly confessed her contrition for her part in the trials. Her excuse? That Satan made her do it.

Rebecca is a central character in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and today her grave is marked with a tall granite memorial on what is now called the Rebecca Nurse Homestead Cemetery.

Her monument reads: “Rebecca Nurse, Yarmouth, England, 1621. Salem, Mass, 1692. O Christian Martyr who for Truth could die When all about thee owned the hideous lie! The world redeemed from Superstition’s sway Is breathing freer for thy sake today.”

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