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Rebecca Nurse (Towne)

Also Known As: "Rebecca Nourse"
Birthplace: Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, England
Death: Died in Town of Salem, Essex County, Province of Massachusetts
Cause of death: Hanged
Place of Burial: Danvers, Essex County, Massachusetts, United States
Immediate Family:

Daughter of William Towne and Joanna Towne
Wife of Francis Nurse, Sr.
Mother of John Nurse, Sr.; Rebecca Preston; Sarah Bowden (born Nurse); Samuel Nurse; Nathaniel Michael Nurse and 5 others
Sister of John Towne; Susanna Towne; Edmund Towne; Jacob Towne; Mary Estey (Towne) and 2 others

Occupation: convicted as witch, hanged in Salem Village
Managed by: Amy Campbell Moran
Last Updated:

About Rebecca Nurse

Rebecca Towne Nurse (1621 - 1692), daughter of William Towne and Joanna Blessing, was born in 1621 at Great Yarmouth, England, the second of eight children. She married Francis Nurse about 1645, with whom she had eight children. Rebecca Towne Nurse's conviction of witchcraft in the Salem Witch Trials, and subsequent 19 July 1692 execution of this extremely pious, frail 71-year-old woman, is credited as creating the impetus for a shift in public opinion about the validity of the witch trials.

Marriage and Children

  1. Francis Nurse (c.1618 - 1695)
    1. John Nurse (c.1645 - 1719)
    2. Rebecca Nurse (1647 - 1695)
    3. Samuel Nurse (1649 - 1715)
    4. Nathaniel Nurse (1651 - 1717)
    5. Mary Nurse (1659 - 1749)
    6. Francis Nurse (1661 - 1715)
    7. Elizabeth Nurse (1665 - 1734)
    8. Benjamin Nurse (1666 - 1748)
    9. Martha Nurse (died 1721)
    10. Sarah Nurse (died 1754)

Early Life

Although not known for certain, it is possible that the family emigrated aboard "Rose of Yarmouth" in April 1637. They settled in Salem Village in 1640. Around 1645, Rebecca married Francis Nurse, who had also been born in England. Her husband was a "tray maker" by trade, who likely made many other wooden household items. Due to the rarity of such household goods, artisans of that medium were esteemed. In 1672, Francis served as Salem's Constable. Together the couple had eight children, four daughters and four sons. Nurse frequently attended church and her family was well respected in Salem Village. It was later written that she had "acquired a reputation for exemplary piety that was virtually unchallenged in the community," making her one of the first "unlikely" witches to be accused.

Accusation and Trial

Nurse and her family lived on a vast homestead which was part of a 300-acre grant given to Townsend Bishop in 1636. The family had been involved in a number of acrimonious land disputes with the Putnam family. On 23 March 1692 a warrant was issued for her arrest based upon accusations made by Edward and John Putnam. Upon hearing of the accusations the frail 71 year old, "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."

There was a public outcry over the accusations made against her, as she was considered to be of very pious character. Thirty-nine of the most prominent members of the community signed a petition on Nurse's behalf. At age 71, she was one of the oldest accused. Her ordeal is often credited as the impetus for a shift in public opinion about the validity of the witch trials.

Her trial began on 30 June 1692. Witnesses testified to her respectibility on her behalf, including her family members. However the young Ann Putnam and her siblings would break into fits and claim Nurse was tormenting them. In response to their outbursts Nurse stated, "I have got nobody to look to but God." Many of the other afflicted girls were hesitant to accuse Nurse.

In the end, the jury ruled Nurse not guilty. Due to public outcry and renewed fits and spasms by the girls, the magistrate asked that the verdict be reconsidered. At issue was the statement of another prisoner "[she] was one of us" to which Nurse did not reply, probably because of her loss of hearing. The jury took this as a sign of guilt and changed their verdict, sentencing Nurse to death on 19 July 1692.

Death and Aftermath

On 3 July 1692, Rebecca Nurse was excommunicated - "abandoned to the devil and eternally damned." Then on 19 July she was driven in a cart with four other women to Gallows Hill where she was hanged. Tradition says that at midnight Francis Nurse, his sons and sons-in-law found Rebecca's body in the common grave where it had been flung and carried it home for a proper burial in an unmarked grave.

On 2 March 1703 a "Petition to the Governor and General Court" requesting the reversal of Attainder "on thoses Executed and those Condemned in 1692" was made by "several of the Inhabitants of Andover, Salem Village, and Topsfield."

In 1710 Samuel Nurse made this statement: "We were at the whole charge of providing for her during her imprisonment in Salem and Boston for the space of almost four months. We spent much time and made many journeys to Boston, Salem and other places in order to have vindicated her innocence. Although we produced plentiful testimony that my honored mother had led a blameless life from her youth up, yet she was condemned and executed."

In March 1721at the request of her children, the notice of her excommunication was erased from church records.

Her accuser, Ann Putnam, Jr., publicly apologized to the Nurse family for accusing innocent people. In 1711, the government compensated her family for Nurse's wrongful death. In a bitter stroke of irony, the Nurse family homestead fell into the hands of Putnam family descendent, Phineas Putnam in 1784. The Putnam family maintained control of the property until 1908. Today, it is a tourist attraction that includes the original house and cemetery, on 27 of the original 300 acres.

In July 1885, her descendants erected a tall granite memorial over her grave in what is now called the Rebecca Nurse Homestead Cemetery in Danvers (formerly Salem Village), Massachusetts. The inscription is a verse from the poem "Christian Martyr," by John Greenleaf Whittier, "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."

In 1892 a second monument was erected nearby recognizing the forty neighbors who took the risk of publicly supporting Nurse by signing a petition to the court in 1692.

Rebecca Nurse is a central character in Arthur Miller's play The Crucible as well as many other dramatic treatments of the Salem Witch Trials. The PBS film "Three Sovereigns For Sarah" features Vanessa Redgrave as Sarah Cloyce and depicts her sister Nurse and her family members as main characters. Nurse is also the subject of Lectures on Witchcraft, by Charles W. Upham.


  • Wiki profile: Rebecca Nurse
  • Rebecca Nurse
  • Boyer, Paul and Stephen Nissenbaum. Salem Possessed, The Social Origins of Witchcraft. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1974. Pages 199-200.
  • [ the Nurse farmhouse, Danvers, MA, now a museum]
view all 85

Rebecca Nurse's Timeline

February 16, 1621
Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, England

Unfortunately, birth records are not available for Rebecca Towne, only baptismal records. Her actual birth may have been one or two months before her February 21 baptism. According to descendant Margaret Odrowaz-Sypniewska, she was the eldest of six children born in England (two other siblings were recorded as being born after reaching North America):

February 21, 1621
Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, England

Unfortunately, birth records are not available for Rebecca Towne, only baptismal records. Her actual birth may have been one or two months before this date.

(Note on the date: the baptism took place on 21 February 1620/21. In the English calendar, February 21 was the 12th month of the year, and thus was recorded by their calendar as 1620. Because this was recognized as problematic when dealing with just about every other country, all of which used January 1 as New Years Day, these were customarily "double dated," i.e., 1620/21. To prevent confusion in our computerized date system, which inflexibly maintains a change of year at January 1, the second year is used, e.g., for this case, 1621.)

April 18, 1637
Age 16
Great Yarmouth, Norfolk County, England, (Present UK)

According to Rebecca Towne's Familypedia page (submitted by "Main Tour"):

Rebecca Towne's family departed England on the ship "Rose of Yarmouth" in April 1637, and says that the exact date of the ship's departure is uncertain.
According to "Genealogical and Family History of the State of Vermont"

Fellow passenger John Cutler, emigrating from Sprowston in Norfolk, embarked on the Rose of Yarmouth on April 18, 1637. By June 10, he had a lot assigned to him in Hingham, Massachusetts Bay Colony.
A transcription of a small parchment volume containing the passenger list for the John & Dorothy of Ispwich and The Rose of Yarmouth, 1637, was posted by Laura Freeman:

The apparently partial list shows embarkations on April 8, 11, 12, and 13. The name Towne shows up on the list in one instance, with respect to the apprenticeship of an Edmund Towne to Henry Skerry:

Aprill 11th 1637
Skerry Henry Great Yarmouth, Co. of Norff. Cordwaynar 31 New England to Inhabitt.
Skerry Elizabeth wife 25 New England to Inhabitt.
Skerry Henry child New England to Inhabitt.
Towne Edmoun apprentice 18 New England to Inhabitt.

According to the Towne Family Association, this is not the same Edmund associated with William Towne's family. From a forum entry on 3 September 2007:

In 2006 it was determined Edmund Towne, son of William, was not apprenticed to Henry Skerry. There is no apprenticeship found in England by a professional researcher hired by Towne Family Association. The age of the Edmund Towne who boarded the ship with Skerry was much older than William's son Edmund. The original book has been viewed to determine if the age reported in the History of Salem and other publications is correct. The age entered in the boarding book is the age published. Because there was only one Edmund Towne in Salem/Topsfield, it has been determined the Edmund who left England with Skerry must have died on the trip over.

I believe Henry Skerry was a cordwainer. Check the History of Salem, MA by Sidney Perley.

Lois Payne Hoover
Genealogist - Towne Family Association, Inc.
Again this was the only Towne on the surviving portions of the registry; William Towne's family does not appear elsewhere in this list. The closest variation of the Towne family name seems to be Dowe (Dowe Henry Ormsby 29, and wife Joan 30, plus four children), but the match is not really all that close (William Towne would have been 39, and his wife Joan 43). It should be noted that married names for females are used in the source document (further, there are no "Blessings" in the surviving portions of the list).

The transcription shows that at least 9 pages are torn in the original:

A small parchment volume (also in the Rolls Office) labelled on the cover "T G 27.299 A. D, 1637---13 Car. I" is occupied with a record of persons"desirous to pass beyond seas." Its upper right hand corner has been destroyed, by which much of the record is gone. What is not destroyed of the title of the volume is "A Register of the ... of such persons a ... and upwards and have ... to passe into formigne partes ... March 1637 to the 29th day of Septe... by verts of a commission granted to Mr Thomas Mayhew gentleman."

" These people went to New England with William Andrews of Ipswich, Mr of the John and Dorothay of Ipswich, and with William Andrewes his Sons Mr of the Rose of Yarmouth."
From "More Gleanings for New England History" published by the Massachusetts Historical Society:

Michill Metcalfe of Norwich, a dornock weaver aged 45, later wrote that the ship sailed from Yarmouth on April 15, and disembarked his family (wife Sarah and 9 children) at Boston (footnote, page 96).
To confuse the matter further, according to R.J.O'Hara's New England Immigrant Ancestors:

Hotten lists the ships as having passengers examined at Ipswich, instead of Yarmouth (April 8-15, same dates as the Massachusetts Historical Society).


Hotten, John Camden. 1874. The Original Lists of Persons of Quality; Emigrants; Religious Exiles; Political Rebels; Serving Men Sold for a Term of Years; Apprentices; Children Stolen; Maidens Pressed; and Others who went from Great Britain to the American Plantations 1600–1700. London. [Reprinted Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1974.]
Likely, the ships departed from their respective home ports (purely speculation, as this hasn't been documented).

June 20, 1637
Age 16
Boston, Massachusetts Bay Colony, (Present USA)

Different dates are given for the arrival of the Rose of Yarmouth in Boston, ranging from June 8 to 20 (again, fellow passenger John Cutler is recorded as having a lot assigned him in Hingham, a town next to Weymouth south of Boston, on June 10). More than one port of arrival may have been used as well (Governor Winthrop's journal, according to the book "More Gleanings for New England History", notes arrival in Boston on June 20). The route of travel for the Rose and its sister ship "John and Dorothy of Ipswich" within Massachusetts Bay is unknown.

According to information from the Towne Family Memorial information pamphlet:

William Towne, Rebecca's father, became a freeman on 18 April (second month, OS) 1637, saying that he appeared before the General Court (this would have been on a Tuesday; General Courts did convene on Tuesdays once a month) and took "the requisite oath to become a freeman, or voter." This would be difficult, though, if he were aboard ship and still in English waters. Court of Assistants meetings that took place around the arrival of the ship include June 6 and September 19 (OS).

(Ben M. Angel notes: Possibly this was the date of his oath of allegiance before leaving England? If so, this would mean that the Towne family would have been among the last to board, and certainly act as proof that the ship left on April 18 rather than April 15. But this is speculation given lack of reliable documentation.)

October 11, 1640
Age 19
Town of Salem, Essex County, Massachusetts Bay Colony, (Present USA)

The Town of Salem, on 11 8mo 1640, "graunted to William Townde a little neck of land right over against his howse on the other side of the riuer to be sett out by the towne." This part of town was called "North Fields," and the home served the family until William and Joan moved to what will then be the newly-incorporated town of Topsfield 11 years later.

According to S.J. Walker:

Believe the home in Salem to have been on the south side of Waters River, about 1/8 mile east of Water Street. (Pope's Pioneers of Mass; Currents of Malice - McMillen, NEHGS, Vol. 21, p. 15)

August 24, 1644
Age 23
Town of Salem, Essex County, Massachusetts Bay Colony, (Present USA)

The couple married at the First Church of the Town of Salem on Sunday, August 24. Francis Nurse, a former indentured servant who after some struggles became a tray maker (a rather well-paying trade in colonial Massachusetts) had a place of his own already for the past six years on present Skerry Street ("not far from where the bridge now crosses to Beverley"), and so likely the couple moved straight into the home; they will continue to live there the next 34 years.

From the Familypedia page on Rebecca Towne:

Her husband was a "tray maker" by trade, who likely made many other wooden household items. Due to the rarity of such household goods, artisans of that medium were considered esteemed.

In the following year, their first child, John, would be born.

Age 23
Town of Salem, Essex County, Massachusetts Bay Colony

The exact date of birth of eldest child John Nurse to father Francis and mother Rebecca Nurse is unrecorded, as is the date of baptism.

Age 25
Town of Salem, Essex County, Massachusetts Bay Colony, (Present USA)

The exact date of birth of eldest daughter Rebecca Nurse (future Rebecca Preston) to father Francis and mother Rebecca Nurse is unrecorded, as is the date of baptism. The infant has an older brother, a toddler named John (age 2).

February 1648
Age 26
Town of Salem, Essex County, Massachusetts Bay Colony, (Present USA)

Along with Thomas Odingsells, Francis Nurse is ordered to pay a fine or sit in stocks for defaming Daniel Rea, according to "Currents of Malice" by McMillen:

Age 26
Town of Salem, Essex County, Massachusetts Bay Colony, (Present USA)

The exact date of birth of Sarah Nurse (future Sarah Bowden) to father Francis and mother Rebecca Nurse is unrecorded, as is the date of baptism. The infant has two older brothers (a young boy named John - age 6, and a toddler named Samuel - age 2) and an older sister (a young girl named Rebecca, age 4).