Rebecca Nurse is Canceled: Salem, 1692

ANNETTE TELLS TALES: Stories from the Past That Resonate with Now, Retold

She is 71 years old, a kind, generous, and religious woman, and she is sick. She has always known that life is short, and that one must always prepare for death, especially in old age. Perhaps, as she lies in bed, her thoughts drift back to the rocky beaches of the seaside town of Great Yarmouth on England’s eastern coast, a home she has not seen since she was a young woman, and has never expected to see again. Her home now is a village in rural Massachusetts. She married well, and raised a loving family. Like anyone else, her life has had its ups and downs, punctuated by occasional tragedy, or quarrels with neighbors. But few are more loved and respected by family, friends, and the close-knit little community in which she lives than Rebecca Nurse.

The date is March 23, 1692.  

Rebecca Nurse is about to be canceled.

A terrifying pandemic. A society in upheaval, under attack from disease and outsiders, its institutions in freefall. Economic change that leads to prosperity for some, but leaves others out in the cold. The growing resentment of those who are left behind. People with the least power suddenly find that they can question the powerful, hold them accountable, and even bring them down. As people struggle to understand what’s happening to them in strange times, they seize on simple explanations and conspiracy theories, grounded in their religion, and act in the firm belief that God is on their side.

Sound familiar?

This is Salem Village in 1692.

For 25 years, I have joked that everything I need to know about a society in crisis, I learned from studying the Salem Witch Trials. But really, I’m not joking. Again and again, I have turned to Salem to make sense of what’s happening around me.

How can we possibly think that this odd event in the dim and distant past, these people whose worldview was so different from our own, has any relevance to modern life?

If we do, we’re not alone. Most famously, of course, Arthur Miller wrote in the 1950s about McCarthyism through a fictionalized version of the Salem witch trials, which he based on a vaguely remembered college class. The result was The Crucible, a terrific play that served its purpose in critiquing the gross injustices of the Red Scare, and which continues to inspire and trouble its audiences.

To my mind, though, the messy reality of 1692 is even more revealing than fiction. Since the 1950s, a cottage industry of historians has examined the events of 1692 from every conceivable angle, and the stories they have yielded are intriguing, fascinating, heartbreaking, and, above all, fully human. In 17th century Salem Village, people believed that everything was either wrong or right, that those around them  were either good or evil, a black and white view of the world that their minister, Samuel Parris, reinforced every chance he got.

This is the moment at which you might be repeating to yourself the famous observation, Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. My favorite response to that cliché is a better one: History never repeats itself, but it sometimes rhymes.

The devil is in the details, if you will forgive the expression. And historians have been all over the details, revealing an ever more complex and nuanced understanding of the events in New England in 1692.

Historians have found that those who were accused of witchcraft lived mostly in the areas closest to Salem Town, a seaport that was booming in 1692, while those who were accusers lived too far away to benefit from the Town’s expansion. They have explored why 1692 was weird: Witchcraft accusations in New England were in steep decline until this episode. Few of those accused in the years before Salem were found guilty, much less executed.

And Salem is different because several of the victims in 1692, like George Burroughs, the former minister of Salem Village, did not fit the typical profile of witch as outsider. Much the same was true of Rebecca Nurse.

In March, 1692, Rebecca Nurse was arrested and jailed, accused of witchcraft. Think about that. A sick old woman was torn from her bed and her family, and shoved into a bare, cold, dark cell during winter in New England.

Rebecca Nurse’s accuser? Her 12 year old neighbor, Ann Putnam, Jr. , whom she had known all the girl's life. In Salem, in 1692, girls and young women, normally the most ignored segment of the community, found themselves in a position of unimagined power as accusers of witches. What’s even more frightening is the likelihood that they were not conscious of what they were doing, that they truly believed they were on the side of right.

This was a society in crisis, in which the pace of change had accelerated with frightening speed. In 1692, New England was recovering from deadly attacks of its border settlements in an ongoing war with Indians. A smallpox epidemic had sickened many two years earlier. Government was in chaos after the coup in Boston that followed Britain’s Glorious Revolution of 1688 (in which the King was forced to abdicate).  Massachusetts was running on fumes and habit, without functioning government: its founding documents had been revoked, and its new governor was still on his way across the Atlantic from London.

It was in this moment that the elderly Rebecca Nurse, ill and afraid, hard of hearing and bewildered, stood before a court of her neighbors. She examined her own conscience again and again for explanations, following her faith by looking inward, interrogating her own soul for fault, trying to grasp what was happening to her. We see her thoughts in the tragic fragments of evidence that have survived, the records of her court appearances, and they tear at the heart, knowing what we know now:

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.

Less than five months later, Rebecca Nurse was dead, hanged before an audience of her family, friends, and neighbors, disgraced, and broken. She went to the gallows, it was said, with great dignity, or perhaps, she was just overwhelmed by the belief that everyone, even her God, had turned on her, and that she had no hope for paradise everlasting.

Fourteen years later, Rebecca Nurse's accuser, Ann Putnam, Jr., rose in church, under the gaze of her congregation and her pastor, Joseph Greene. Greene was a much-loved man who had worked hard to reconcile his community to each other since his arrival soon after he was ordained a minister in his early twenties.

Ann had had a hard life since 1692: When she was 19, both her parents had died, leaving her to raise her nine siblings. She had never married, in a society based on family life, in which unmarried women were awkward exceptions, and never would.  On this day in 1706, Rev. Greene read Ann Putnam, Jr.’s confession. She begged for forgiveness for her part in the horrors of 1692. She was the only accuser ever to do so. The family of Rebecca Nurse accepted her apology.

Still only in her mid-thirties, young by the standards of a healthy colony in which people could expect to live to know their grandchildren, Ann Putnam, Jr. died in 1716.

It’s not a happy ending, is it? American history, as it has long been taught in schools, has emphasized upward, inspiring stories of progress. But sometimes, the best we can do in real life is hold on, and hope for a speedy end to the most frightening episodes, with as few casualties as possible. Rebecca Nurse would surely have been familiar with the Biblical verse “Hope anchors the soul.” That such hope was so cruelly snatched from her, that she was cut adrift, is what makes her story so poignant, and so unsettling, even as we ourselves grapple with strange times.

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