The Rebecca Nurse Homestead: Historic House of a Falsely Accused Salem Witch
The Rebecca Nurse Homestead is one of the best places to learn about the Salem Witch Trials, but what might surprise you is that it’s not located in Salem, Massachusetts. Today, the Rebecca Nurse Homestead is located in the town of Danvers. At the time of the trials, Danvers was known as Salem Village and was the epicenter of the beginnings of the witch hysteria. In addition, the Rebecca Nurse Homestead is the only home of a person convicted in the Salem Witch Trials that’s open to the public. If that’s not enough of a reason to visit, let me tell you a bit of Rebecca’s story which is sure to make you want to.
Despite the fact she was 71 years old and that she was a well-respected and extremely pious member of the community, Rebecca Nurse was convicted and executed for witchcraft in 1692. After a warrant was issued for her arrest on March 24, a petition signed by 39 members of the public (which is a lot of people in a small village) was presented to the court in support of Rebecca. Nevertheless, her trial began in June. The accusations levelled against Rebecca were based on so-called “spectral evidence” which involved a witch sending her spirit to torment and torture others. Many prominent people in Salem town (modern Salem) and Salem Village (modern Danvers) testified in her defense. However, when the young girls, who were paraded in front of the court in every trial, entered the courtroom and saw Rebecca, they broke out into fits and claimed that she had afflicted them right then and there. Not convinced by the evidence, the jury found Rebecca to be innocent. However, those who were supposedly plagued by Rebecca’s spirit continued to be afflicted, and the judges and jury were called back to review her case. After additional deliberations, which were surprisingly legal at the time, the jury found her guilty of witchcraft on June 30, and she was sentenced to death. On July 19, Rebecca, along with four other women, were hung until dead at Proctor’s Ledge.
My friend, her two children, and I visited the Rebecca Nurse Homestead on the anniversary of her death. The homestead consists of the original house, several outbuildings, and 25 acres (of the original 300 acre farm) of land. You’ll begin your guided tour in a reproduction of the Salem Village Meeting House where many of the initial hearings of the Salem Witch Trials were held. The recreation was originally constructed in 1984 for the film “Three Sovereigns for Sarah”, which I highly recommend if you are interested in the Salem Witch Trials.
Being a historian and educator, I’m not easily impressed by tour guides, but the female staff member of the Rebecca Nurse Homestead was both extremely knowledgeable and exceptionally passionate about Rebecca’s past and the history of the witch hysteria. In the meeting house reproduction, she began the tour by giving us a very detailed history of the witch trials and a look into the minds of the accused, the accusers, and the people of that community. Although her explanation may have been too comprehensive and lengthy for some, my friend and I were engulfed by the story. Following the recounting of the trial and execution, we were led into the Nurse home. The tour included four of the oldest rooms of the house. Our guide explained the history of the home, the everyday jobs and lives of the various family members who lived there during colonial and revolutionary times, and the uses of many of the historical reproductions that have been placed in the house to make it come alive for visitors. My friend’s children, later, stated that the tour of the Nurse home was their favorite part of the tour because they enjoyed seeing where and how people lived in the past.
The grounds of the Rebecca Nurse Homestead also contain a gift shop, located in an old barn, and the family graveyard. There, you’ll find a number of graves, the Victorian Era monument placed where Rebecca is supposedly buried (see below), and another monument dedicated to George Jacobs. During the Salem Witch Trials, Jacobs was executed for witchcraft in 1692, but his bones were only discovered, in a drawer of the Danvers Historical Society, in the 1970’s, tested and believed to be authentically his. Based upon those results, he was reinterred on the Nurse Homestead (since he once lived nearby) during the 300th anniversary of the trials in 1992. The Nurse Graveyard remains the only truly known burial site of someone convicted during the Salem Witch Trials.
In fact, no one actually knows what happened to the bodies of the accused witches. According to the law and to Christian beliefs of the time, the convicted could not be given a proper burial because they were executed for witchcraft. Most likely, family members secretly took the bodies away to be buried at undisclosed locations. For example, it is believed that Rebecca’s husband and son whisked her body away from Proctor’s Ledge and buried it in the family graveyard. Today, a memorial, that was built in 1885, stands at the place where she was supposedly buried.
All of this brings to mind the question: Why was Rebecca convicted of witchcraft after having been deemed innocent? Well, you’ll have to visit the homestead, hear her entire story, ask questions, and find out for yourself.
The Rebecca Nurse Homestead is located at 149 Pine St. in Danvers, MA. Click on the name for driving directions.
If you plan on visiting, be sure to check their website for their hours since they depend on the season and the day.