July 15, 2012

Rebecca Nurse Homestead and Cemetery

At the time of the infamous witch trials, Salem was much larger than it is today and was divided into two parts: Salem Town and Salem Village.

Salem Town (which today is the modern city of Salem) was a wealthy coastal trading port. Salem Village (which today is the town of Danvers), on the other hand, was an inland village focused on agriculture. According to Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum's book Salem Possessed, the citizens of Salem Village were divided over their relationship with the larger and wealthier Salem Town. Some villagers, including Reverend Parris and the Putnam family, wanted the village to become independent. Others appreciated the business opportunities that came their way from Salem Town and wanted to remain part of it. Boyer and Nissenbaum claim these political tensions gave rise to the witchcraft accusations. I think there were probably a lot of reasons, but I'm sure they added fuel to the fire.

Most of the initial accusers and the people they accused lived in Salem Village, although the accusations eventually spread throughout the colony. Danvers has downplayed the important role it played in the Salem witch trials but there are still a few interesting historic sites you can visit. When I was in Danvers with Lori visiting the hospital cemetery we decided to see some.

The first was this monument erected in 1992 on the 300th anniversary of the trials. It is quite large and dramatic, but is located on a relatively quiet suburban street. Unlike the city of Salem, which generates a lot of tourism from witchcraft, Danvers is really low-key about it.

After the monument we stopped by the Rebecca Nurse homestead, a multi-acre historic site. Rebecca Nurse was a prominent and pious member of the Salem Village community, so it was shocking to her neighbors when she was accused of witchcraft. (Her sisters Mary Eastey and Sarah Cloyce were accused as well.) Many of her neighbors signed a petition supporting her, and the judges initially found her innocent. However, some of the afflicted girls (including Ann Putnam, whose family had a history of property disputes with the Nurses) continued to cry out that Rebecca's phantom was tormenting them. The judges changed their verdict to guilty, and Rebecca was hanged on July 19, 1692. She was 71 years old.

Like all those executed in the trials her body was buried in an unmarked grave on Gallows Hill in Salem Town, but her family took it and re-buried it on her homestead. The family cemetery still exists, and is a short walk from the main house. Rebecca's grave is now marked by a large monument that her descendants erected in 1885.

The bones of George Jacobs, another victim of the Salem trials, are also interred in the Nurse cemetery. George was executed in August of 1692 at the age of 70 after being accused of witchcraft by, among others, his granddaughter Margaret. Margaret herself had been accused earlier, and knew that by confessing and accusing others she could escape execution. Margaret did survive, but wrote she had accused her grandfather only "to save my life and to have my liberty." She visited her grandfather in jail before he died to get his forgiveness.

After he was hanged George's body was taken from Gallows Hill and buried on his family's farm. His bones had to be moved when the property was sold to developers, and were finally laid to rest in the Nurse cemetery in 1992. His monument, although only 20 years old, is a replica of a traditional 17th century grave stone.


ProvidenceMine said...

I find it absolutely astounding that this young woman would actually accuse her grandfather of witchcraft in order to save her own skin, and then afterwards go to the jail to beg for his forgiveness. Talk about the audacity of betrayal!

Peter Muise said...

Thanks for the comment! It was definitely a survival strategy for people accused of witchcraft. The surest way to escape execution was to confess to being a witch and accuse others. People who plead innocent were usually found guilty anyway and executed. Very grim. I guess George Jacobs was too principled (or too stubborn) to confess. I also believe the authorities confiscated the property of people who confessed, so Jacobs may have been trying to save his family's farm.