Early American Witches: Rebecca Nurse
By Cathy Hartt, RN, CNM, MS
Her name was Rebecca Nurse.  She lived in Salem Village in the year 1692 - that
was the year of the witch hunts in that community.  Witch hunts born from many
elements - fear, jealousy, change, insecurity, old turf issues over land, and a belief
in Halloween-type witches.

Like most Puritan women of that time, little is known of Rebecca's true role in the
community prior to the witch trials.  In a fictional play about the Salem witch hunts
called the Crucible (written to compare these witch hunts to the McCarthy Era),
Rebecca is clearly portrayed as the community midwife.  Like many older women
from that era, she is known to be a healer and did employ herbs to do this work.  

In addition to her role as a healer is the fact that the testimony against Rebecca in
the trials included testimony that she had murdered babies.  The actual testimony
reads as follows:

" . . . and she also tould me that she and her sister Cloyse and Ed: Bhishop wife of
Salem had kiled yong Jno putnams Child because the yong Jno putnam had said
that it was no wonder they were witches for their mother was so before them and
because they could not aveng themselves on him they did kill his child: and
immediatly they did appere to me: six children in winding sheets which caled me
aunt: which did most grieviously affright me: and they tould me that they were my
sister Bakers children of Boston and that Gooddy Nurs and Mistris Cary of
Charlstown and an old deaft woman att Boston had murthered them: and charged
me to goe and tell these things to the magestrates or elce they would tare me to
peaces for their blood did crie for vengance also there Appeared to me my own
sister Bayley and three of her children in winding sheets and tould me that Gooddy
Nurs had murthered them (reverse)" Ann Putnam Sr against Rebekah Nurs, Essex
County Archives, Salem - witchcraft - Vol. 1 Number 22.   

The English language of that time is a bit hard to decipher.  Still this testimony
clearly points a finger at Rebecca for murdering children from the family of the
community minister's primary supporters; the Putnam family.  Because many of the
Putnam children were stillborn, this impacted their inheritance negatively. While we
do not know for certain that Rebecca was the midwife in attendance at these births,
we do know that the Nurse family had few stillbirths and had recently been able to
obtain increasing amounts of land in the community.

The testimony (above) gives such a different perspective than one gets of Rebecca
while reading scripture that is depicted in the movie "Three Sovereigns for Sarah"
as her favorite.   It is Genesis 24: 59 & 60 and reads as follows:  "And they sent
away Rebekah their sister, and her nurse, and Abraham's servant, and his men.  
And they blessed Rebekah and said to her, Thou art our sister be thou the mother
of thousands of millions and let thy seed possess the gate of those of those which
hate them."   

When I heard this passage, I immediately thought it was a fitting favorite scripture for
a midwife accused of witchcraft, especially one named Rebecca Nurse.  What
midwife does not feel a bit like a mother to all those she delivers into the world?

As I read further about the history of witch hunts, I was reminded that midwives were
often accused of witchcraft during times of such crazes in Europe.  And when
midwives are accused, they are often thought to have sacrificed to the Devil the
very children they had delivered.  Given the Putnam's testimony against Rebecca, it
is very plausible that she was chosen to represent the midwife-witch in the play the
Crucible because the testimony against her surely casts a similar light to testimony
against European midwives.  Perhaps also fitting to a midwife was her response to
the accusations that she was a practicing witch.  She said, "I am as innocent as the
child unborn."  Yet, she was one of many innocent, Christian people who were hung
as punishment for practicing witchcraft.  (end part 1)

(Editor's Note:  This is the first part of a several part series that will appear in
Empower!  Subsequent articles will appear in our next several issues.  Rebecca
Nurse is my great X7 aunt and she is not the only witch who is my ancestor.  This
series will look into the cases of each of these women and, also, at the underlying
issues that feed witch hunt behaviors.)  
Rebecca Nurse: Mother of
Thousands of Millions
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