Every Hallowe’en I offer homage to a remarkable woman. In that tradition, I am reposting, in her honor, my heartfelt tribute.
There had been rumors, rustlings of something very bad afoot. Those with whom she had spent a lifetime, and shared in the most intimate of household experiences, from childbirth to preparing a departed loved one for burial, shoulder to shoulder, together through it all; those who once sought her out for help, comfort, and wisdom, averted their eyes when passing her on the street.
She knew it was bad, and as always before in times of extreme challenge, family drew close and embraced each other, fortifying themselves against the coming storm. Embraced, fortified, loved, and supported; thoroughly repented and prayed up, there was nothing more she could do but trust God would be with her in this time of need, and sustain her soul in spite of the dread fear clawing at her insides day and night.
Arrests in the village had begun, and on March 19, the accusations fell. Four days later, on March 23, a warrant was issued, and she was arrested the following day, accused of attacks on adults and two young girls. They took her from home and family, held her in jail, there being subjected to examinations, both oral and physical. On June 2, with a doctor and several women present, her whole body was examined, searching for evidence to confirm accusations leveled against her. The doctor and witnesses reported finding a “preternatural excrescence of flesh” which later in the day, by 4:00 o’clock, had changed, and appeared to be only dry skin.
On June 3, she was indicted. Thirty-nine neighbors, at great personal risk, signed a petition and presented it on her behalf, and during the ensuing trial, neighbors and relatives testified for her. In spite of the dire accusations, she represented herself in court, proclaiming repeatedly, innocence and unshakeable belief there would be intervention, pleading truth to come forth, so she would be delivered from such heinous defamation and the intended destruction of her very life.
Witnesses continued testifying for and against her on June 29 and 30; finally, the jury found her not guilty. There was such a hue and cry by the accusers and spectators when the verdict was announced, the court asked for the verdict to be reconsidered, and upon that request, she was found guilty and condemned to hang.
On July 12, her death warrant was signed; on July 19, she was hanged on the accusations of two children for being a witch.
And John Greenleaf Whittier wrote the epitaph for my ancestor’s gravestone:
Yarmouth, England 1621
Salem, Mass. 1692
O Christian Martyr who for truth could die
When all around thee owned the hideous lie!
The world redeemed from Superstition’s sway
Is breathing freer for thy sake today
Many words, plays, movies, and books have been written about Rebecca Nurse. In her honor, I would like to add, she was seventy-one years old, a devoted wife, mother of eight children, grandmother of eighteen children; dignified, respected, not unlike any one of us. She was my family, and not a witch.