Salem Witch Trials in History and
An Undergraduate Course, University of Virginia
Spring Semester 2001
Pre-Trial Examination: March 24, 1692
Rebecca Nurse, a sick and elderly woman of seventy-years old,
stood for examination before the court on charges of practicing
witchcraft on March 24, 1692. Judge John Hathorne, assisted by
Judge Jonathan Corwin, conducted the examination in the meeting
house of Salem Village before a crowd of people from Salem Village.
The examination of "Goody Nurse" developed into a spectacle worthy
of the attendance of so many onlookers, as a number of afflicted
women launched into "grevious fitts" and openly denounced Rebecca
Nurse as the cause of their torment. In the end, after one of the
great confrontations between an accused and the infamous Judge
Hathorne, the Judges found cause to bind Rebecca Nurse over for
trial after which she was executed on Gallows Hill on July 19,
The examination of Rebecca Nurse was recorded by the Reverend
Samuel Parris, whose own young daughter Betty was one of the
accusers together Betty's cousin, twelve-year old Abigail Williams.
He writes that the examination opened with Hathorne turning his
attention not to Nurse, but rather to Abigail Williams. Williams
reported to the magistrates that the apparition of Nurse had just
that morning, as well as on previous occasions, afflicted her.
Shortly after this statement, Ann Putnam, Jr. launched into a
"grievous fit" and before Rebecca Nurse even began to testify, the
tone of the examination had been set.
Hathorne first turned his attention to Nurse, and pointedly asked
her to account for the accusations of Williams and Putnam. Nurse,
defiant and incredulous to the end, responded, "I can say before my
Eternal Father I am innocent and God will clear my innocency."
Following the first of many denials on Nurse's part, Hathorne
turned his attention to the assembly to hear additional evidence
against Nurse. After receiving two more accounts implicating Nurse
in witchcraft, this time from adult men in the community, Hathorne
put the question more directly. "Are you an innocent person
relating to this witchcraft?"
Before Rebecca Nurse could respond, Ann Putnam, Sr. interrupted and
cried out to Nurse, "Did you not bring the Black Man with you," and
the examination descended into a barrage of accusations as Mary
Walcott and Elizabeth Hubbard join in by crying out that Nurse
afflicted them right there in the meeting house.
In an interesting aside in the examination record, Parris wrote
that one of these accusations came from, "Mary Walcott (who often
heretofore said she had seen her, but never could say or did say
that she either bit or pinchted her, or hurt her)". Here, Parris,
who actively encouraged the accusations in Salem Village, suggests
that Walcott was now able to confirm that Nurse was the cause of
her previous torment. Then the girls, with their eyes on Nurse's
agitated movements, imitated her postures by contorting their own
bodies. Thus they made it appear that Nurse implicated herself, as
the afflicted cried out in pain with every movement of the
examinant's head and arms, gaining the attion of the judges and the
onlookers. Yet even in the face of this seemingly damning evidence,
Nurse steadfastly proclaimed her innocence: "The Lord knows I have
not hurt them. I am an innocent person."
The banter between Hathorne, and possibly at times Corwin, and
Nurse continued as the judges attempted to badger a confession
using different rhetorical devices. The judges asked why Nurse
stood stoically in the face of such afflictions suffered by the
girls, to which Nurse replied, "You do not know my heart," and that
she was, "... as clear as the child unborn." The effort to force a
confession is clear, as is the constant and unwavering refusal of
Rebecca Nurse to "bely" herself by bearing false witness against
herself, though at this early stage in the trials she could not
know that confession was the way to buy time and avoid the
Hathorne, likely frustrated at Nurse's refusal to cooperate and
confess her dealings with the Devil, attempted a new approach.
"They accuse you of hurting them," he stated, "and if you think it
is not unwillingly but by designe, you must look upon them as
murderers." The significance of this line runs deep. First,
Hathorne by this statement deftly forced Nurse to explain the
afflictions witnessed in that very room as, if not her fault, then
the fault of the very girls so "grievously afflicted". Second, by
stating that the afflicted girls would be "murderers" if merely
pretending their affliction "by designe", it certainly became
abundantly clear to Rebecca Nurse that it would be her own death to
which these afflicted women would soon be responsible if they were
lying, as executions had yet to be ordered or begun in Salem. It
was Hathorne's final, desperate attempt to force a confession from
Nurse by ensuring she understood that her own life was in the
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As the examination drew to a close, the best Hathorne could wrest
from the steadfast Nurse was that though she did think the
afflicted were "bewitcht", she stated that "I cannot help it, the
Devil may appear in my shape." This small admission, made only
after Hathorne had asserted that at least her apparition was
culpable, still did not gain Hathorne full confession he wanted.
Therefore, after an examination that was truly a circus hardly
befitting a true and legal hearing, Judges Hathorne and Corwin
bound Rebecca Nurse over for the trial which would result in her
execution on charges of practicing witchcraft.