Local berry farmer Tim Nourse traces heritage to Salem witch trials

  • Tim Nourse in one of Nourse Farms’ greenhouses with rows of raspberry plants in Whately. Staff FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • There are no images, photographs or paintings of Rebecca Nurse, but this drawing by artist F. A. Carter illustrates a scene in John Musick’s book “The Witch of Salem; or Credulity Run Mad,” in which Nurse is brought in chains to the meetinghouse where the Rev. Nicholas Noyes pronounces her excommunication before the congregation. The text reads, “The sheriff brought the witch up the broad aisle, her chains clanking as she stepped.” COURTESY THE SALEM WITCH TRIALS DOCUMENTARY ARCHIVE AND TRANSCRIPTION PROJECT VIA CANDICE DAWES

Staff Writer
Published: 10/18/2019 10:23:01 PM

WHATELY — Museums, guided tours and seasonal festivities bring at least 500,000 tourists to Salem each October as the city capitalizes on its unbreakable link to a history of public paranoia about neighbors doing the devil’s bidding.

But what might get lost in the barrage of T-shirt sales and tiny pets in Halloween costumes is that all the commercialization of fictional witches piggybacks off a very real atrocity. Twenty people accused of witchcraft were put to death during the 1692 Salem witch hysteria. The families of the victims typically did their best to lay low in the decades that followed and now, in the 327 years that have passed, the descendants of those killed are scattered around the world.

One of those descendants is Tim Nourse, of Nourse Farms in Whately. His 12th-great-grandmother was Rebecca Nurse, the oldest female victim of the witch hysteria. She was hanged July 19, 1692, at age 71. Nourse explained some of Nurse’s family members added an “o” to their surname and fled town after the hysteria.

Nourse said he does not know much about Nurse, only that she had several children, one of whom moved to Framingham and ultimately to Shrewsbury. Nourse was raised on a dairy farm in Westborough before joining the Marine Corps. That dairy farmland was granted to his family by the king of England in the 1600s, when Westborough was part of Shrewsbury.

He said his father conducted family research upon retirement, but Nourse, who turns 81 in December, keeps busy running the berry-growing operation he purchased and moved to Whately in 1968. It now encompasses 400 acres in Whately, Northfield, Hatfield and Montague.

Nourse deferred specific questions to the Rebecca Nurse Homestead, the victim’s former home that is now a private nonprofit house museum. The section of Salem in which Nurse lived in now part of Danvers. Resident caretaker Candice Dawes, who also manages the tours at the property at 149 Pine St., said Nurse was born in England and was one of the first people accused during the hysteria. Dawes said Nurse was a wife, mother and grandmother and “by all accounts … she seemed to have been a typical Puritan matriarch.”

Dawes said Nurse was one of the first upstanding church members accused of witchcraft. This sets her apart from the other victims, as most of the others were societal outcasts and non-church members.

The accusations against Nurse, Dawes said, came from 12-year-old Ann Putnam Jr., who told her family she saw an image of an older woman (who no one else could see) sitting in her grandmother’s chair. Nurse was identified based on the young Putnam’s description and arrested in March on what Dawes said was called spectral evidence, or witness testimony that the accused person’s spirit or spectral shape appeared to them in a dream at the time the accused person’s physical body was at a different location. Dawes said people in the 1600s believed witches sent their specters to try to recruit others to also work for Satan. She also said many people said Nurse’s specter tried to convince them to sign the devil’s book and the young Putnam’s mother blamed several stillbirths on Nurse.

According to Dawes, Nurse was initially acquitted, but a resurgence in outrage in the village caused the courts to reconsider, which in those days was perfectly legal. Cases like this were a major factor in the Founding Fathers’ decision to include in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States a clause protecting citizens against being “twice put in jeopardy of life or limb” for the same offense.

Dawes said the trials came to an end when plausible explanations for people’s visions and accusations started to become accepted. She said by October 1692, the governor suggested spectral evidence shouldn’t be trusted and the attorney general insisted only physical evidence be used.

More than 200 people were accused during the hysteria. Nineteen people were hanged and one, Giles Corey, was crushed to death by having heavy rocks placed on boards on his chest. Dawes said one of Nurse’s sisters, Mary Towne Estey, was also executed, and another, Sarah Cloyce, was released after being accused.

Other Americans with ancestors involved in the trials include former Presidents George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush, Red Cross founder Clara Barton, actresses Lucille Ball and Sarah Jessica Parker (who plays a Salem witch in the 1993 Disney film “Hocus Pocus”), and “Fahrenheit 451” author Ray Bradbury.

Dawes said it was “pretty common” for surviving relatives to move and alter their names — like Tim Nourse’s ancestors — though many stayed put. She said there are easily tens of thousands of Nurse’s descendants, and that number could be as high as 100,000. Nurse had eight children and 64 grandchildren by the early 1700s. Dawes said she has met seventh-generation through 14th-generation descendants of Nurse since she started at the homestead 20 years ago.

Many people are just now learning about their relations to victims of the hysteria, Dawes said, and there are connections spread across most of the United States and Canada. Dawes said she even met an Australian descendant of Cloyce.

The Rebecca Nurse Homestead, which according to its website is the only open-to-the-public home of a person executed during the Salem trials, is owned and operated by the Danvers Alarm List Company. The phone number is 978-774-8799. More information can be found at rebeccanurse.org.

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or
413-772-0261, ext. 262.




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