As I write this on a sunny warm Saturday afternoon, there’s a line of cars extending down my entire street which has been continuous since about 10:00 this morning; I’m sure every other entry road into Salem is the same. My windows are open so I can hear and smell the exhaust as well as booming radio music; the situation has been much the same over the past three weekends and it will be the same for the next two. Salem in October! Of course we’re all supposed to grin and bear it because it’s good for local businesses, and we do. Generally I make plans to get away but that hasn’t been the case this year for some reason: a big mistake. Last week I didn’t even provision properly before the weekend: an even bigger mistake! This week, I provisioned properly and went on a lovely twilight tour of the Rebecca Nurse Homestead in Danvers, a town which approaches its Witch Trial history with far more reverence than Salem. So today I am not only better-provisioned but also considerably calmer than a week ago: the cars are annoying but really I just feel sorry for their passengers.
A Tale of Two October “Salems”: Salem Town and Salem Village, part of what is now Danvers.
I’ve been to the Nurse Homestead before, but I wanted to return this year as I’ve been teaching a course on the trials, and Rebecca’s experience has been the most impactful on my somewhat jaded freshmen, who are taking a required “first year seminar” rather than a course (and a subject) of their particular interest. They are cool customers, all majoring in business or criminal justice or nursing or something “practical”, and I’m not sure they know what to think of hyper-historical me, perpetually indulging my curiosity! But I’m making them read all sort of primary sources, and I can tell that Rebecca’s trial moved them: this well-respected grandmother, supported by her Salem Village neighbors and exonerated first by a jury, only to indict herself because she couldn’t hear a second round of questions clearly, one of three Towne sisters to be accused in 1692 and two to die. This year marks the 500th anniversary of her birth, in Yarmouth, England. Rebecca and her husband Francis spent most of their married life in Salem town, citizens of good standing, but moved out to the Village when they were in their fifties along with their married children, creating a family compound, in the center of which was and is the c. 1678 house now under the stewardship of the Danvers Alarm List Company. Not far from the house is a family graveyard, where Rebecca is supposedly buried, along with another accused and executed “witch”, George Jacobs. In its midst is the very first memorial to a victim of 1692, erected by her descendants in 1885.
I was among descendants on the tour, making a regular pilgrimage to this sacred site, happy to be on familiar and familial territory on such a beautiful October evening. The young guide was great, eager and happy to answer as many questions as we could direct her way. Not a single reference to ghosts! The only discordant element of the entire evening was a woman wearing a frilly witch hat, the only one among us so adorned, of course. How odd to see someone snapping a photo of a memorial to someone who was falsely accused of witchcraft, a martyr, in that hat, a party hat, from the other Salem.
No flash allowed inside, and as you can see it was quite dark, but this is believed to be the very “great” room in which Rebecca Nurse was arrested in the spring of 1692.
October 16th, 2021 at 5:13 pm
Could you publish your reading list for this class for those of us who love to study whether or not a classroom is handy?
October 16th, 2021 at 5:34 pm
October 16th, 2021 at 6:01 pm
Rebecca Nurse was my 8 times great aunt. I visited the Homestead with my family in 2018. My 20-something grandchildren were interested and engaged! Of course, her story is so moving, but, as you mentioned, the guide was well-informed, relaxed, and sure of her presentation and material. The Danvers List Company, who owns the site, seems to be doing a very good job. It was a joy to see your blog today! I watched them refurbish several of the gravestones on Facebook Live last year, also.
October 16th, 2021 at 5:37 pm
I agree with you, Judy–the site is very well-maintained. You would have loved this tour–lots of your family!
October 16th, 2021 at 7:29 pm
Thank you! Love your blog. I read every post.
October 16th, 2021 at 8:44 pm
Thanks for the lovely October twilight jaunt to the Rebecca Nurse house in Salem Village. Lovely pics as usual. I recall touring the area with Richard Trask from the Danvers Archival Center decades ago. Agreed: that “Danvers, is a town which approaches its Witch Trial history with far more reverence than Salem.”
Good luck to you and your SSU freshmen in their “first year seminar.” What a great opportunity for them to learn about the real Salem Witchcraft saga.
October 17th, 2021 at 7:32 am
Donna, thank you for sharing this. The photos are beautiful. My daughter and I visited the Homestead two Octobers ago, and it was a most peaceful experience. There was no “tour,” just a quiet, personal walk-through, and then on down the road to the cemetery. On the way there, we were struck by the grave and reverent faces of those returning from the cemetery. We, as well as they, were silent in our trek. Once there, we walked among the stones and read the memorial, noting the many apotropaic gestures of pennies lodged in the memorial’s crevices. John Greenleaf Whittier is one of my favorite American poets, and it pleased me that his verse was chosen to be carved on her memorial. After our visit to the cemetery, we quietly remarked on our way back that our faces, too, had that same grave and reverent expression we had seen earlier on the faces of others.
October 17th, 2021 at 9:48 am
Wow, Nancy, you’ve captured how I felt too. I get so rattled by Halloween in Salem, and it was so nice to go to a place where one of the Salem victims was remembered in a respectful and peaceful way. I’m going to go back every year, I think!
October 17th, 2021 at 10:09 am
Thanks, Donna. I’m adding this to my list of places to visit on the North Shore. I’ve visited the Memorial in Danvers which lists all the accused, including three of my foremothers, all of whom I believe were accused, charged and found guilty, but none were hung. Ann Foster died in prison, Mary Perkins Osgood managed to escape, and Mary Clements Osgood was released after recanting. The Danvers commemoration of those sad and shameful events seems much more appropriate than what goes on in Salem.
October 17th, 2021 at 7:49 pm
I agree that Salem seems to make a mockery of a tragic historical period of events. What a shame about Rebecca Nurse.
October 21st, 2021 at 9:59 pm
I like it very much that they are keeping up the site and that it’s well cared for, but it makes me nervous to see a company involved in these things. While it’s all good right now, I wonder how it will work in the future.
March 9th, 2022 at 12:00 pm
This is incredible history. I’ve long since been fascinated and wanting to visit Salem myself. I certainly wouldn’t want to add to the cars coming your way but I love history and historical events. I’m not a believer in ghosts or witches but to hear more stories on these poor souls who were wrongly accused is humbling. The ignorance of people back then is not much different from today. We just have better science.
March 9th, 2022 at 4:15 pm
You should come! Just not in October. Believe me.
March 9th, 2022 at 11:01 pm
Thank You for this wonderful article. I volunteered at the Nurse Homestead last season and loved every moment.
March 10th, 2022 at 2:54 pm
That’s great. Real Refuge for me when Salem is at its craziest!