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Celebrating The 400th Birthday Of Salem Witch Trials Victim Rebecca Nurse

Rebecca Nurse was one of five women hanged as witches in 1692 years ago at Proctor's Ledge during the Salem witch trials. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
Rebecca Nurse was one of five women hanged as witches in 1692 years ago at Proctor's Ledge during the Salem witch trials. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

In Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” the playwright notes that “gentleness exudes from” a sick, elderly woman named Rebecca Nurse.

At age 71, Nurse became the oldest woman killed at the Salem witch trials of 1692 and 1693. About 200 people were tried for witchcraft in Puritan New England and 19 of them, mostly women, were hanged for the crime.

Now, many people claim Nurse and the other victims as ancestors.

Nurse’s home in Danvers, Massachusetts, is now a museum. When the Rebecca Nurse Homestead invited people to send cards for her 400th birthday, they were stunned at how many came in, mostly from her descendants.

The Rebecca Nurse Homestead is the only home of someone executed during the witch trials that’s open to the public. Kathryn Rutkowski, curator and president of the Rebecca Nurse Homestead, says two types of people come to visit: People fascinated with the witch trials and descendants of Nurse from across the country and beyond.

When she started working at the homestead at age 14, Rutkowski was surprised to see so many descendants as someone who isn’t related to anyone from the colonial era. And now, people can easily learn about their ancestry.

The list of descendants of Nurse includes former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, “Scrubs” actor Zach Braff and “I Love Lucy” star Lucille Ball.

“The majority of the people that come in day to day are ancestors,” she says, “and even sometimes [they] find out that the same people visiting are from the same line and they’re cousins.”

Historians say witch trials were an attempt to keep women in line. But in Salem, the young women who claimed others had cast a spell on them fell very ill and had seizures. Some now speculate it might have been a virus.

Visitors often ask what really happened during the time of the trial, but Rutkowski struggles to respond with one answer. Historians describe the time as “the perfect storm” as conflict with Native Americans coincided with a harsh winter, she says.

At the time, Puritans believed that whatever happened — good or bad — signaled a punishment or reward from God, she says.

“I think as modern people, we really want to villainize them and make them into these bad people,” she says. “But they were people reacting to a very real threat in their village.”

The strict religious group believed their life goal was to go to heaven after death, she says, and that the threat of witches could prevent them from making it there — a terrifying thought.

People now understand that modern-day witches and Wiccans uphold a nature-based practice that isn’t “dark or evil,” but the witch trial victims were accused of “signing their soul to the devil and wreaking havoc in their religious community,” she says.

Based on court documents and surviving records, Nurse didn’t call the girls liars or deny the accusation of witchcraft. Instead, she looked inward and questioned what she did to deserve such an accusation, Rutkowski says.

“[Nurse] even offers to pray for the afflicted girls to hope that maybe whatever is afflicting them will pass,” Rutkowski says. “She was just very gracious about the whole thing and very accepting of what was about to happen, knowing that she would be executed very likely.”

From An ‘Ordinary Life’ To A ‘Hero’

Beth Lambright’s journey to discovering her ancestral connection to Nurse started with her father’s peculiar first name. Her father, Wildes, didn’t know the origins of his unique name until Lambright sought an explanation.

“Sarah Wildes was hung with Rebecca Nurse on the same day,” the Corvallis, Oregon, resident says. “And that’s where it came from.”

Lambright is directly related to Nurse’s brother, Jacob, which makes Nurse Lambright’s eighth great aunt. And Lambright is also related to five other people who were executed in the trials.

When she found out she was related to victims of the trials, she says she discovered that she’s also related to someone who was on the jury.

“When I saw a death date 1692 in Salem, the first thing I had in my throat was fear,” she says.

On top of reading “The Crucible” herself, Lambright watched her daughter portray the role of Susanna Sheldon, one of the accusers, in a high school production.

“That was a gripping moment for me,” she says, “sitting in the audience, watching my child acting out accusing her ancestors.”

Known for her high moral character, Nurse raised eight children on her husband’s farm, Lambright says.

Bedridden and deaf at age 71, Nurse went in front of a court to face the accusation of witchcraft. A group of 39 neighbors signed a form supporting her innocence but the court ignored it.

“Her life was actually not anything we would have written a book about until she was 71,” Lambright says.

Miller portrays Nurse as saintly and morally superior to everyone else in the play. She walked with her head held high to the gallows to meet her demise on July 19, 1692.

Lambright considers Nurse one of her heroes. When she visited the Rebecca Nurse Homestead a few years ago with her family, Lambright stood in the great room looking at an average spinning wheel and fireplace.

“Yet this ordinary life became an extraordinary moment of really heroism,” she says. “Standing in the truth, [Nurse] paid for that with her life.”

While finding other relatives through the homestead is fun, Lambright says what matters most is that her kids learn from how their ancestors took a stand.

Lambright uses Nurse’s story as a teachable moment: Regardless of what your community or church may say about you, examine what’s in your heart and maintain your truth, she says. It’s an important lesson in today’s political climate.

“We’re seeing loud voices. They might look like the majority for a while, but it doesn’t mean that they’re always speaking truth,” she says. “We have to be really careful that we understand who we are and what our truth is.”

 Julia Corcoran produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtAllison Hagan adapted it for the web. 

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.