In Her Honor

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:

Rebecca Nurse
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.


20 thoughts on “In Her Honor

  1. My ancestor, Susannah North Martin, was also hung on July 19th during the Witch Hysteria in Salem. John Leaf Greenleaf Whittier penned these words in “The Witch’s Daughter” about her:

    Let Goody Martin rest in peace, I never knew her harm a fly,
    And witch or not – God knows – not I?
    I know who swore her life away;
    And as God lives, I’d not condemn
    An Indian dog on word of them

    She was exonerated on Halloween in 2001:


    1. July 19, 1692: Rebecca Nurse, Susannah Martin, Elizabeth Howe, Sarah Good and Sarah Wildes were hanged at Gallows Hill. How fascinating both our ancestors were hanged together. It was a despicable thing that happened to them.


  2. VG, what a terrific story of a terrible time in our country. Your last paragraph about her age and legacy of children and grandchildren show the lunacy of what was done to innocent, intelligent women. Along with how we treated African-Americans slaves and citizens up through the 1960s, along with how we stole the land of Native Americans, along with the McCarthy communist witch hunt, these are all periods where what we call Americans were far from at their best. This is why we must continue to guard against “demonization and exclusion” of people who are painted differently from a perceived mainstream belief. Thanks, BTG


    1. Thanks! It’s interesting that the children who did the accusing had some very real symptoms. I do not think anyone knows for certain what caused their their malady; however, we know it wasn’t witchcraft.


          1. It is funny, even today, doctors do not ask enough questions about our environment, which can be as important as family history. Fungus, mold can wreak havoc.


  3. Wonderful tribute to those strong, good, smart ladies who were persecuted and hung for being… good strong smart ladies. So sad. So wrong. And may we never forget. Thanks for a great post.


  4. Different times. They believed that the devil had infiltrated the village. Blind faith, religion and superstition controlled their actions. They used a different yardstick. I’m proud of Susannah for laughing at the folly.


  5. What a sad story, VG. And although we no longer hang the accused, how hard it is to dispel an ugly rumor once it has spread throughout our community. I have to admit that when I hear a story about someone that I dismiss as untrue, there is a little part of me that says the lie must be based on a little bit of truth.


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