‘Witches’ and Revolutionaries at the Rebecca Nurse Homestead

(In the Danvers Herald May 21, 2019)

Rebecca Nurse House - Dan Gagnon
(The Rebecca Nurse House, Author’s Photo)

Tucked away behind the trees along Pine Street is the Rebecca Nurse Homestead, which was involved in many currents of American history and contains two of the oldest buildings in Danvers. Isolated from the surrounding neighborhoods, this island of colonial life is visited by several thousand visitors each year from all corners of the world.

Although most closely associated with the 1692 witch trials during which Rebecca Nurse was falsely accused of witchcraft and hanged, the 300-acre farm was first settled in 1636. Townsend Bishop, a respected magistrate and wealthy merchant, received the first grant to the farm but did not live there long. In 1645 he was accused of not bringing his child forth to be baptized into the Puritan church.

Bishop was accused of being a Baptist, a new sect that believed that only consenting adults should be baptized, not infants. This new religious group was much-loathed by the Puritans – the only religious group allowed to practice in Massachusetts at that time – and Bishop was run out of town for his heretical beliefs. Today some of Bishop’s fine household goods are at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Subsequent residents of the Homestead were the Endicott Family, whose ancestral mansion abutted the farm and stood where the CVS on Endicott Street is today. These farmers were the family of Massachusetts’ first resident governor, John Endicott, whose house on Endicott Street served as the governor’s office until a law was passed that required the governor to live in Boston. The Endicott House was set to be torn down in the 1980s, and was moved to the Nurse Homestead to save it from demolition.

In 1678, Rebecca Nurse and her husband Francis purchased the farm and moved onto the property with several of their grown children. Their children married soon afterwards, and the Nurse family hosted a double wedding in October, 1678 when two of their daughters married local men on the same day. In the following years, the Nurses deeded parcels of the farm to their children, dividing it between four households. The house of their daughter and son-in-law, Rebecca and Thomas Preston, still stands on Ash Street.

Nurse Homestead farm map
(The outline of the original 300-acre Nurse Farm overlaid on a contemporary map. The Nurse House is the red marker, the Nurse cemetery is the yellow, and the current or former sites of her children’s homes are the blue. For full map of the Sites in the Life of Rebecca Nurse, see: https://spectersofsalemvillage.com/map-life-of-rebecca-nurse/)

Fourteen years after moving to Salem Village (the area that is now Danvers), Rebecca Nurse was accused of witchcraft. Her chief accusers were Mrs. Ann Putnam and her daughter Ann Putnam Jr. who lived just south of Hathorne Hill. Nurse allegedly sent her “specter” – a ghostly form of herself – to attack Ann Jr. and several other people in the Village.

While living at the Homestead, Francis Nurse organized a legal defense of his accused wife and collected signatures from neighbors attesting to Rebecca’s innocence. This evidence was presented to the court at her trial in June, 1692, and it persuaded the jury to find her not guilty – the only person to receive such a verdict during the witch-hunt.

But, immediately after the foreman announced this verdict, the accusers in the courtroom began yelling, rolling around, and screaming that Nurse was once again hurting them with witchcraft. This outcry, along with pressure from the judges, persuaded the jury to redeliberate. They left the courtroom again, and then returned to ask her more questions. Because she was elderly, ill, and hard of hearing Nurse either did not answer their questions, or did not answer them sufficiently which led the jury to find her guilty.

Her family petitioned the governor for a reprieve to delay her execution until they could appeal the case, which he granted. However, someone identified only as a “Salem gentleman” lobbied the governor to revoke his reprieve, and Nurse was hanged on July 19, 1692. It is believed that she was reburied in the family cemetery on the farm after her execution. In 1885, her descendants built a memorial to her in the cemetery – the first memorial to an accused witch anywhere in the United States.

325 Nurse Monument Wreath
(The Rebecca Nurse Monument at the conclusion of the commemoration of the 325th anniversary of her execution, July 19, 2017. The Danvers Alarm List Company lobbied Gov. Baker to declare that day “Rebecca Nurse Day” in Massachusetts, and hosted a memorial event featuring a lecture and a service at the monument to mark the occasion).

Nurse’s descendants lived on the farm for another century, and her great-grandson, also named Francis, lived on the farm during the mid-1700s. He was a sergeant in the militia, and served on the first board of selectmen of Danvers when it became an independent town. He was living at the Homestead on April 19, 1775, when around 9am he heard the bells of the First Church ringing frantically. He grabbed his gun, and ran for the training field on Centre Street. The British had left Boston, and were advancing on Lexington and Concord.

The Danvers Militia frantically traversed 16 miles of dirt roads and paths to cut off the British retreat to Boston. The Danvers men intercepted the British troops at Menotomy (present-day Arlington, Mass.) in a brutal fight involving hand-to-hand combat at the Jason Russell House. Nurse survived, but seven Danvers men did not. Sergeant Francis Nurse lived five more years, before he was laid to rest in the family cemetery.

The Homestead continued to be a private farm up until 1907 when it was put up for sale, and it was feared that the farm would be entirely divided up and the house demolished. Danvers resident Sarah E. Hunt raised money to purchase and preserve the property as a non-profit museum. It was owned by this local group for two decades, until it was sold to a larger museum organization. This organization put the property up for sale in 1981, and it was again feared that the property would be lost. The Danvers Alarm List Company, the group of Danvers Revolutionary War reenactors, purchased the property so that it could remain a non-profit museum.

Nurse House Map Clemens
(Plan of the Nurse Homestead by William J. Clemens, courtesy of the Rebecca Nurse Homestead Museum. NOTE: Hours listed in the drawing are not current museum hours)

Today the Nurse Homestead shares the history of Danvers with thousands of local, out-of-town, and international visitors each year. It is the only home of a victim of the 1692 Witch-Hunt preserved and open to the public.

 


Sources:

Danvers, Town of. Report of the Committee Appointed to Revise the Soldiers’ Record. Danvers, Mass.: Town of Danvers, 1895.

Danvers Alarm List Company. “Timeline | The Rebecca Nurse Homestead.” Accessed May 24, 2019. http://www.rebeccanurse.org/timeline/.

Gagnon, Daniel A. “Sites in the Life of Rebecca Nurse.” 2018. https://spectersofsalemvillage.com/map-life-of-rebecca-nurse/.

Hoover, Lois Payne. Towne Family: William Towne and Joanna Blessing, Salem, Massachusetts, 1635. Baltimore, MD: Otter Bay Books, 2010.

Perley, Sidney. “Endecott Land, Salem Village, in 1700.” In Historical Collections of the Danvers Historical Society, 4:99–120. Danvers, Mass.: Danvers Historical Society, 1916.

Rosenthal, Bernard, ed. Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Salem, Town of. Town Records of Salem, Massachusetts. 3 vols. Salem, Mass.: The Essex Institute, 1868. https://ia801600.us.archive.org/30/items/townrecordsofsal00sale/townrecordsofsal00sale.pdf.

Shurtleff, Nathaniel B., ed. Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England. Boston: Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1854. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/inu.30000041586334.

Suffolk County (Mass.). Suffolk Deeds. 14 vols. Boston: Rockwell and Churchill Press, 1880.

Tapley, Harriet S. Chronicles of Danvers (Old Salem Village), Massachusetts, 1632-1923. Danvers, Mass.: The Danvers Historical Society, 1923.

Upham, Charles W. Salem Witchcraft: With an Account of Salem Village and A History of Opinions on Witchcraft and Kindred Subjects. Mineola, New York: Dover, 2000.

Zollo, Richard P. From Muskets to Missiles: Danvers in Five Wars. Danvers, Mass.: R.P. Zollo, 2001.

 

Ingersoll’s Tavern, Anything But “Ordinary”

(In the Danvers Herald, 1/24/2019)

Ingersoll House 10.18.JPG
(Author’s photo, October 2018).

At the corner of Hobart and Centre St. in Danvers lies a house through whose door passed “witches,” revolutionaries, and ordinary Danversites over the past almost 350 years, and played host to the screams, contortions, and finger-pointing of the 1692 Salem Village Witch-Hunt.

The Ingersoll House, a tan-painted clapboard home at 199 Hobart St., was originally a tavern run by Nathaniel Ingersoll, Deacon of the Salem Village Church and Lieutenant in the militia, beginning in 1677. It was Ingersoll who donated the land for the Training Field (at the corner of Centre St. and Ingersoll St.) where the Salem Village, and later Town of Danvers, militia drilled.

Ingersoll and his family ran an “ordinary” – the 17th century term for a local tavern –  which was the social center of the community. The tavern served food and drink to locals, and rooms on the second floor were rented to travelers who passed along the dirt roads of colonial New England. Located at the center of Salem Village, just down the road from the meetinghouse where church services were held each Sunday, the tavern did a particularly steady business when parishioners came over between the morning and afternoon church services to eat a hot noon meal.

Despite modern-day stereotypes of the Puritans, they did indeed drink alcohol – sometimes too much – and Ingersoll’s was the favored spot for local farmers to unwind and share news with their neighbors.  The tavern featured a sizeable tap-room with a large fireplace, bare sanded floor, and many stools and chairs. There were also hooks on each side of the fireplace to hang firearms that locals brought with them. Cider, served by the quart, was usually the drink of choice, and in colonial times there was only one kind of cider: what we in the 21st century call “hard” cider. Beer, wine, whiskey, and rum were also enjoyed, and hot food was served.

There were strict restrictions on taverns in the 17th century, which were forbidden to serve Indians, apprentices, students at Harvard College (the only college around in those days), or anyone who seemed drunk, and they needed to close by either sunset or 9pm. Certain sinful and unlawful games, such as cards, dice, billiards, and shuffleboard (which particularly riled the Puritans) were prohibited. If one drank to excess, they could be punished with a scarlet letter “D” (for “drunk”) sewn onto their shirts, and could also lose their voting rights.

In addition to socializing, the tavern was where local government committees met, along with the Essex County court, which delivered justice in front of the kegs.

Ingersoll’s played a particularly interesting role in the 1692 Salem Village Witch-Hunt. Those accused of witchcraft were brought there before their initial post-arrest hearings with the magistrates, and kept under lock in an upstairs room. Originally, the hearings themselves – with accusers throwing themselves on the ground in front of the judges, screaming, and claiming to see the “specters” of the accused torturing them – were to be held in the barroom as county court sessions were. Due to the large crowds that wanted to watch the spectacle, the hearings were moved down the road to the meetinghouse, but afterwards the judges and spectators returned to the tavern for lunch and drinks.

During the time of the witchcraft delusion, a particularly fantastic scene took place in the tavern involving a sword fight with one of Satan’s supposed agents. One day in 1692, Ingersoll’s foster son Benjamin Hutchinson was working outside along the main road (present-day Centre St.). One of the witchcraft accusers, Abigail Williams, walked by and claimed to see the specter (a ghostly image that only the accusers could see) of an accused witch – George Burroughs –  standing in the road! Hutchinson turned and threw his pitchfork into the center of the road where the invisible witch was supposed to be as Abigail Williams fell to the ground, screaming. She then told Hutchinson that he succeeded in tearing the ghostly jacket of the alleged witch before he vanished.

The two then went inside to the barroom, where Williams claimed she saw the same specter again. Hutchinson drew his rapier from his belt and attempted to stab the invisible witch in a spectral duel (probably to the shock of those who happened to be at the bar enjoying a pint) as Williams shouted out where the apparition was. Next, Williams told him there was also a ghostly cat in the room, which he proceeded to do battle with and, according to Williams, kill – though she was the only one who claimed to be able to see these invisible enemies. To everyone else it would have appeared as though Hutchinson was merely stabbing at the air.

John Indian, Reverend Samuel Parris’ Indian slave and husband of Tituba, the first accused of witchcraft, worked the bar sometimes for Ingersoll, and he would show off scars on his arm to out-of-towners who passed through, bragging that he got them when he was attacked by witches. The barroom at Ingersoll’s is also where one of the accusers admitted that they were accusing and sending innocent people to their deaths for nothing but “sport.”

The tavern remained in operation through the 1700s and into the 1800s under different owners, and being close to the militia training field it was frequented by the men who later marched from Danvers to confront the British soldiers on the day of the Battle of Lexington and Concord. The establishment later “fell into disrepute,” to the chagrin of the First Church of Danvers across the street, and the Church bought the house to be the home for its minister in 1832. It remained owned by the Church until 1968, and has been a private home ever since. It is a preservation priority among important historical sites in Danvers.


Here is a beautiful rendering of the Ingersoll House by Danvers artist Paul Meinerth:

meinerth - ingersoll


 

Sources:
Alice Morse Earle, Customs and Fashions in Old New England (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1894), 166.

Daniel Wait Howe, The Puritan Republic of Massachusetts Bay in New England (Indianapolis: Bowen-Merrill Company, 1899), 104, https://archive.org/details/puritanrepublico00howe/page/n7.

First Church of Danvers Congregational, Church Record Book Belonging to Salem Village, 13-14, January 17, 1693).

Marilynne K. Roach, The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-By-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege (Lanham, Maryland: Taylor Trade, 2002), 140.

Bernard Rosenthal, ed., Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), docs 85, 500, 862.

Salem Deeds Online, 5528:237.

Harriet S. Tapley, “Old Tavern Days in Danvers,” Historical Collections of the Danvers Historical Society 8 (1920), 2-3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8-9.

Charles W. Upham, Salem Witchcraft: With an Account of Salem Village and A History of Opinions on Witchcraft and Kindred Subjects (Mineola, New York: Dover, 2000),162.

Upcoming Presentation: Legacies of Rebecca Nurse and George Jacobs Sr., post-1692

At the invitation of the Danvers Historical Society, I will be presenting some of my research on the legacies of witch trials victims Rebecca Nurse and George Jacobs Sr., especially focusing on the differences in how they were later memorialized by their descendants and the community.

The presentation will be at Tapley Memorial Hall on Page St. in Danvers on the evening of May 16, 2019. More details to come. Check https://www.danvershistory.org/events/events.html for updates.

First Update: Map of Sites in the Life of Rebecca Nurse

Just published, and located on the menu bar at the top of the page, is the Map of Events in the Life of Rebecca Nurse. Based on primary source research with documents from 1692 along with maps of the Salem and Boston area,this map shows the locations of many important sites relating to the 1692 Witch-Hunt. Although done with a focus on the case of Rebecca Nurse in particular, many of these sites (such as the Salem Town Court House, Salem Village Parsonage, the execution site, etc.) are important to the events of 1692 overall, and are connected to many or most cases of those accused of witchcraft in 1692.