Examination of Rebecca Nurse of Salem Village
Written by Matt Madden
Salem Witch Trials in History and Literature
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, 1692.

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 gallows..

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 balance.

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.

Salem Home | Biography | Notable People