Rebecca Towne was born in Great Yarmouth, England, the eldest child in her family. She came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony around 1643, married Francis Nurse, a tray-maker, and they eventually had eight children.
In 1678, Francis and Rebecca bought a large farm in Salem Village (modern-day Danvers, Massachusetts). While Francis prospered in business, the Nurse family became involved in several land disputes; one family they tangled with was the Putnams.
During the winter of 1692, a number of young girls in Salem began to act strangely; they twitched and convulsed, almost as if they were possessed, acting on cue from some hidden spirits. Twelve-year old Ann Putnam was one of those who behaved this way. Soon the girls were claiming that certain members of the community were to blame for their behavior.
Before long the townspeople began to arrest the people the girls named on charges of witchcraft.To nearly everyone’s surprise, Rebecca Nurse was accused of being a witch. Even though 38 members of the community signed a petition attesting to her moral character, she was arrested on March 24, 1692, at the request of the Putnam family.
A group of women examined her, and announced they had found a mark of the devil upon her. Rebecca Nurse responded “I can say before my Eternal Father, I am innocent, and God will prove my innocency.”
When Rebecca Nurse went to trial, the jury initially announced it had found her “not guilty.” The judges sternly reminded the jurors that Goody Hobbes—a woman who had previously confessed to being a witch—had muttered “She is one of us,” in reference to Rebecca Nurse.
The jurors withdrew to consider what the judges had told them. When the jury returned, the foreman asked Rebecca Nurse what Hobbes could have meant by “She is one of us.” There was no answer from the defendant. The jury then pronounced a sentence of guilty.
When she later learned what had tipped the balance against her, Rebecca said that she had been full of grief at the moment when the jury posed the question to her. She was also hard of hearing and may not have heard the question.
Governor Sir William Phips granted a reprieve to Nurse, but prominent Salem leaders asked him to reconsider. When Phips withdrew his objection, Rebecca Nurse was excommunicated from membership in her church and then publicly hanged.
In 1706, Ann Putnam made a written statement of remorse for her part in the trials, and made special mention of Rebecca Nurse. In 1711, the Massachusetts legislature reversed the conviction against Rebecca Nurse and the next year the Salem congregation reinstated her as a member.