Saturday, October 13, 2012

Sympathy Saturday - Towne Sisters Hung

I took my grandchildren to visit the Salem Witch Museum in Salem, Massachusetts a few years ago to learn a little about this terrible time in history.  Little did I know at that time that it would become more than a history story, but one with personal meaning.

Sometimes you find something in your family history that takes you by surprise. This day I discovered Rebecca Towne Nurse and her sister, Mary Towne Estey, were accused of being witches, found guilty and executed in 1692 during the Salem witch trials. Their sister Sarah was acquitted.  These three sisters were my 8th grand aunts.  Their sister Susan was my 8th great grandmother.

Soon after the first of the women had been accused of witchcraft, Rebecca Nurse discovered that her name had also been mentioned as a suspect. She is reported to have said "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." On March 23 a warrant was issued for her arrest upon the complaint of Edward and John Putnam.

Rebecca Nurse on Trial
 "Rebecca Towne Nurse’s story is among the more poignant of the witchcraft tragedies. This mother of eight was 71 years old when she was hanged on Gallows Hill with four other women, July 19, 1692. She was among Salem's most respected and religious citizens, so much so that the magistrates hesitated in delivering the warrant for her arrest. The Nurse family had been involved in several land disputes that could have caused ill feeling among some of the residents of Salem.

"Nevertheless, most of her contemporaries sympathized with her. The dignity and nobility of her character that she showed throughout the trials undoubtedly helped turn public opinion against the trials. Her story has been written in many historical and fictionalized accounts of the trials, including Arthur Miller's play The Crucible."

On July 3, Rebecca Nurse was excommunicated -- "abandoned to the devil and eternally damned."  On July 19 she was driven in a cart with four other women to Gallows Hill where she was hung. 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.

Mary Towne Esty wrote a letter to petition the court.  Here is a segment of that letter.

"To the honorable judge and bench now sitting in Salem, and the Rev. Minister, this petition showeth that your humble, poor petitioner, being condemned to die, doth humbly beg of you to take it into your judicious and pious consideration that your petitioner, knowing my innocence, and blessed be the Lord for it, and seeing the wiles and subtlety of my accuser, by myself cannot but judge charitably of others who are going the same way as myself, if the Lord step not mightily in.  I was confined a whole month on the same account that I am now condemned, and then cleared, as your honors know, and in two days' time I was cried out upon again and have been confined and am now condemned to die.  The Lord above know my innocence then, and likewise does now, as at the great day will be known by men and angels.

"I petition to your honors not for my own life, for I know I must die, and the appointed time is set, but if it be possible, that no more innocent blood be shed, which doubtedly  cannot be avoided in the way and course you go in. I question not but your honors do to the utmost of your powers in the discovery and detection of witchcraft and witches and would not be guilty of innocent blood for the world, but by my own innocence, I know you are in the wrong way.  The Lord in his infinite mercy direct you in this great work, that innocent blood be not shed."   Mary Esty

Statue of Rebecca and Mary
Mary (Towne) Esty, wife of Isaac Esty  "was executed for witchcraft on Sept. 22, 1692, her petition to the court being the outstanding note of high fortitude and understanding charity which has come down to us from Salem's black days. "

A warrant for the arrest of their sister, Sarah Towne Cloyce, was issued. "You are therefore in their Majesty's names hereby required to apprehend and bring before us Sarah Cloyce the wife of peter Cloyce of Salem Village and Elizabeth Proctor the wife of John Procter of Salem frames; on Monday Morning Next being the Eleventh day of this Instant April about Eleven of the Clock, at the pub like Meeting house in the Towne, in order to their Examination Relating to the premises above said and here of you are. not to fail Dated Salem April 8'th 1692."

Sarah was acquitted, perhaps because a friend was on the jury. She left Salem and for the next ten years worked to prove her sister's innocence. 

PBS produced a show called "Three Sovereigns For Sarah".  It is available on a DVD that I do have plans on purchasing.  The cover
photograph is of Vanessa Redgrave (center), as Sarah Cloyce; Phyllis Thaxter (right), as Rebecca Nurse; and Kim Hunter (left), as Mary Estey. Source: Video Cassette cover. Video recording. Night Owl Productions. Producer, writer Victor Pisano. Director, Philip Leacock. Publication info: Alexandria, Va. : PBS Video, (1990)


  1. I hope that you visit the Rebecca Nurse Homestead sometime (in Danvers, a former part of Salem, Mass) there is on the property the house that was built for the filming of "Three Sovereigns for Sarah", as well as the Nurse home, and the graveyard.

  2. Kathryn, what a tragic story. It appears that the sisters were wrongly accused by the Putnam family because of some land disputes? If so, what a horrible way to "help" their cause and hurt innocent people and those who loved them. May their deaths remind us how dangerous accusations and mass hysteria can be if we do not seek out the truth and dare to speak out for justice. Thanks for giving a very personal perspective to this story of your grand aunts.


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