‘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.

 

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.