By Melissa Jenkins
During the Salem witch trials in the late 17th century, 19 women were hung in front of their community, friends and even their children. I am related to two of these victims.
Two years ago, I was having Thanksgiving dinner with my relatives on my father’s side when my older cousin let me in on a secret.
“We’re related to witches,” said Kirsten Abel.
At first I laughed, thinking she was joking. Then she delved deeper into the truth.
Our cousin, Mark Lathem, had gone to Boston to complete a book on our family history. He discovered that my great grandmother’s father’s ancestors were related to alleged “witches” hung in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692.
The two sisters, Rebecca Nurse and Mary Estey, were put on trial and hung during the witchcraft hysteria in Salem.
Their sister, Sarah Towne raised three daughters before their deaths in 1668 and 1682, respectively.
One daughter, Mary Towne, married Isaac Estey; although the date of their marriage is unknown, their first son Isaac, was born in 1656.
Another daughter, Rebecca Towne, married Francis Nurse in Salem, Massachusetts. She moved with her husband to Salem village and became a respected citizen while raising a family with eight children.
It was the actions of their younger sister Sarah, who stood up for the controversial reverend of their local church, that would begin the series of accusations against the Towne family.
The Goulds, another family in the community, had accused the Reverend Gilbert of intoxication. Sarah’s husband, a local blacksmith and lawyer, joined in a defamation suit against the Goulds.
The Putnams, family friends of the Goulds, began a rivalry with the Townes that would spread like wildfire.
The ill and bedridden 71-yaer-old grandmother, Rebecca was not prepared to face the consequences of that rivalry on March 23, 1692, when a warrant was issued based on a complaint from the Putnam family.
Ann Putnam Jr. claimed she had seen Rebecca praying to the devil. Rebecca would eventually stand accused of killing 14 people with other alleged “witches.”
“Well, as to this thing I am innocent. But surely, what sin hath God found out in me unrepented of that he should lay such an affliction upon me in my old age?” Rebecca was reported to have said.
Rebecca said that she was sick in her elder age and unable to get out of bed. The next day, Rebecca was examined by Magistrate John Hathorne and excommunicated from the church. Thirty-nine villagers signed a petition on Rebecca’s behalf requesting that she be released and the charges be dropped. It failed and Rebecca was found guilty.
She was hung from a tree at Gallows Hill on July 19, 1692.
The community was shocked, citizens were reputed to have said that if Rebecca was convicted, “none of us are safe.” Some of her children retrieved their mother’s body from its shallow grave and buried it beside her husband in the family graveyard, hoping to give her a proper resting place.
Rebecca’s sister Mary was also convicted and hung during Salem’s witch trials. Mary was arrested, examined and released early in April of 1692. Later that month Mary was arrested gain on new charges of witchcraft, examined and committed to prison to await trial. She was found guilty of witchcraft.
Sentenced to death on Sept. 22, 1692 Mary was hung at Gallows Hill with seven other victims.
Witnesses say Mary was affectionate to her husband and children that day, drawing tears from the eyes of all present. None of the victims were given a Christian burial because it was not permitted for “witches,” the location of her and other graves remains unclear.
What is clear is that the Townes, Nurses and Esteys set out to remove from the stigma of witchcraft from their family members. Sarah, who survived the witch hunt, helped regain respect for the victims. Family members protested the accusations brought against their hung relatives, raising public awareness about the hysteria and the lies that led to the hangings.
By the end, family members and the victims received an official apology from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the reversal of Rebecca’s excommunication. A memorial in Danvers (formerly Salem village) located across from where the hysteria began, bears the name of 25 victims and some words from the 19 women who were executed.
The story seems a little unreal for me to tell (although I saw photographs taken by my cousin that show where the hangings took place) being that they are direct descendants of my great grandmother’s relatives. Not a great deal else is known about these women’s stories, but having realized this about my family history, it is with great curiosity that I approach tis year’s Halloween festivities with the true knowledge of my heritage.