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Rebecca Nurse was a central figure of the Salem Witch Trials. Nearly 330 years later, we still don't know why

Book sheds light on judicial misconduct but finds few answers for accusations against Nurse

A Salem Witch book cover

For the vast majority of Americans, their knowledge of the Salem Witch Trials is limited to that of popular culture, specifically to Arthur Miller's play "The Crucible" or of the movie version of the same name starring Daniel Day Lewis. And 329 years later, we still don't know exactly what caused those dark days of 1692, when neighbor-turned-against-neighbor in Salem Village and Salem Town (present day Danvers and Salem), ending with the executions of 14 women and five men and the deaths of six more in jail. 

Numerous books on the Salem Witch Trials have been written, searching for meaning in the deaths of the innocent; searching for reasons behind the accusations and for the root cause of it all. Theories have ranged from a form of hallucination caused by an infected wheat crop (discredited almost immediately but still talked about) to hysteria and a societal rift in the town. The accusers have been, incorrectly, painted as a circle of close knit young girls, ranging from 9 to 16 years of age (they were mostly single women above the age of 16). The accused, specifically Bridget Bishop and Tituba, have been cast in pop culture as actual witches, remaining maligned victims of false accusations even after exoneration. 

In "A Salem Witch: The Trial, Execution and Exoneration of Rebecca Nurse," author Daniel A. Gagnon, using primary source materials, explores how he believes historians and theorists have gotten the story of Nurse — a central figure in the Salem Witch Trials — wrong over the centuries. He also examines the events coinciding with the trials — a change in governor and a new charter which temporarily reverted the court system from local law to that of England; a war on the frontier with the French and their indigenous allies and a steadfast belief that Satan was out to get the Puritans and their New Jerusalem. 

Gagnon argues that historians have typically put Nurse at the center of the trials because her family had several ongoing land disputes with other prominent families in Salem Village and Salem Town, primarily the Putnams, and that those assumptions are incorrect. He also argues against the theory of the Nurse family's wealth or an east-west faction of support for/against the village's parson put Nurse at the forefront of the trials. 

Nurse, in her 70s at the time of the trials, was a stalwart figure in the church of both Salem Village and Salem Town, and considered a living saint by Puritan standards. But by July 1692, this frail woman would be found guilty of witchcraft, hanged and excommunicated from her church. She was not the first to be accused by the growing group of girls and women who fell into fits, tormented, they said, by unseen spectors who had aligned themselves with the devil. But, she would soon become the central figure in almost every accusation made, in every trial held and death warrant signed — in spectral form, Nurse, according to her accusers, was the devil's top recruiter.

Gagnon, a member of the board of directors of the Rebecca Nurse Homestead Museum, is earnest in his quest to set the record straight about the Nurse family's position within Salem. The Nurse family started out in Salem Town, but eventually purchased land in Salem Village. Her husband, Francis, was a member of several town boards, and at the forefront of a movement to break off the village from the town proper. The village eventually was able to have its own parson, but had trouble keeping one. Eventually, the Rev. Samuel Parris would arrive with his family and cause a rift amongst the villagers when some, in secret, turned the parsonage deed over to him. Francis Nurse was among those opposed. 

The Nurse family owned a large tract of land, records show the family was strapped financially, often paying its mortgage late or only partially with Francis and sons taking on extra jobs for cash. The disputes with neighbors were solved in court, and the one involving the Putnam family was not the part of the family that levied the majority of the witch craft charges. Thomas Putnam, Ann Putnam Sr., Ann Putnam Jr. and their maid, Mercy Lewis, were involved in, altogether, 160 charges of the some 200 filed. 

Gagnon succeeds in debunking theories that Rebecca Nurse was targeted because of land disputes or wealth and even in the case of their being an east-west divide over Rev. Parris. And, to his credit, Gagnon spends only a short part of the book examining the motives of the accusers and the causes. While he notes several of the women could have been suffering from past traumas, mental illness and even considers hysteria to play a role, he also is quick to point out there is plenty of evidence that many were lying, presenting false evidence (one was caught pricking herself with pins during a fit at a trial) and enjoying the attention garnered from being a witness. And, he points out that once Bishop is hung, under the laws at the time, anyone who admitted to bearing false witness against the accused would then be seen, legally, as a murderer and subject to prosecution. 

Instead, Gagnon focuses on the gross misconduct of the magistrates and appointed judges who oversaw every aspect of the hearings and trials, beginning with John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin, who from the start, failed to have the accusers post bond (typical of the time to ensure those levying charges would follow through with the accusations) and allowed persons under the age of 14 to present testimony against the victims. It also was Hathorne who first let spectral evidence be entered as evidence, setting precedence in Nurse's hearing and opened the floodgates for the tidal wave of accusations that followed.

The misconduct of the courts was so great that not only were those involved in making the accusations taking depositions and recording court proceeding, but Nurse was actually acquitted of the four charges of witchcraft levied against her by a 12-man jury. She only was found guilty after the jury was told to return to chambers and reconsider the verdict. Her family, which stood by her side throughout the trial, gathering witnesses and testimony in her favor, even won a stay of execution from the governor. That reprieve was suddenly overturned after several justices of the specially appointed court bent the governor's ear. 

Although Gagnon never unearths the reason that Nurse was accused nor discovers why she figured so prominently in the trials, he successfully proves his case that she is an outlier when it comes to those accused.

The downfall of the book is that Gagnon seems fixated throughout in disproving the theories of others, specifically that the Nurse family was at war with the Putnams. The text becomes burdened by the constant references to those theories, which were successfully written off in prior chapters. And, in his final chapter, the author does little to discredit an ongoing theory that pits the residents of Salem Town (Salem) against Salem Village (Danvers), as he attempts to set the record straight that Danvers, not Salem, was the first to memorialize the witch trial victims. While correct in both this and that most of the events happened in present-day Danvers (the final trials and executions took place in Salem), his criticism of Salem's commercialization of the events comes off hallow and petty. Each municipality, once part of a whole, played its part in the deaths of 25 innocent individuals.

In all, the book is a well-written look at the judicial misconduct that took place in 1692 and the perfect storm of events that facilitated this awful period in our history. But most of all, it is the story of the Nurse family and its undying love for its matriarch, who they not only stood by in the worst hours of her life, but even after death, getting both her conviction and excommunication overturned and creating a legacy that has outlasted them all. 

Jennifer Huberdeau can be reached at jhuberdeau@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6229. On Twitter: @BE_DigitalJen

Features Editor

Jennifer Huberdeau is The Eagle's features editor. Prior to The Eagle, she worked at The North Adams Transcript. She is a 2021 Rabkin Award Winner, 2020 New England First Amendment Institute Fellow and a 2010 BCBS Health Care Fellow.

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