by Sherry Stocking Kline
Published in October 2002 in the Wichita Eagle “Active Life” Magazine
When people start to climb their family tree they often hope to find royalty, presidents, or founding fathers, but imagine the surprise of two Wichita women when they found out their ancestor was a Salem witch.
Ardith Ott was in Salt Lake City researching her family tree when she made a surprising discovery.
“I was looking at my Bixby/Byxbe line,” Ott said, “and I found out that this woman who was hung as a Salem witch was one of my ancestors.”
Your Famous Ancestor May Show up in Books, Plays, or Movies…
As Ott soon learned, when your ancestor is famous (or infamous) your family information may be included in history books, show up on the front pages of newspapers, and be documented in trial transcripts. And your ancestor and the events surrounding them may be turned into books, movies, and plays, and your ancestral home be turned into a tourist attraction.
Ott’s ancestor was Rebecca Nurse, accused of witchcraft in March, 1692, tried, found innocent, re-tried, found guilty, excommunicated from her church in Salem, and hanged on July 19, 1692.
At first, Ott said she found it amusing to tell people that her ancestor was a Salem witch.
“I thought it was pretty funny when I discovered it,” Ott said, “until I read more about it; then I felt guilty for laughing. She was a victim.”
“My ancestor was hard of hearing,” Ott said, and would turn her head like a deaf person, so her accusers said that she was communicating with a bird in the rafters.”
Forty Friends Testified to Her Character…
Ott added that Nurse had almost forty friends, neighbors, and family members that testified to her character and innocence, and the Salem Witches Web site at the University of Virginia, said that seventy-year-old Rebecca Nurse was an elderly and respected member of the Salem Village community.
Betty McGehee, member of Associated Daughters of Early American Witches and a 14th great-granddaughter of Rebecca Nurse, said she joined the association to educate others that the people accused were not practicing witchcraft but were victims of the superstitions and hysteria of the times.
McGehee said that three of William Towne’s daughters, Rebecca Nurse and her two sisters, Sarah Cloyce and Mary Easty were also accused of witchcraft. Mary was hung in September of 1692 and Sarah was acquitted after spending months in jail.
What Started it All?
You know how when you tell a story sometimes it grows out of bounds,” Ott said.
“It was just a form of hysteria, and it all started with a couple of mischievous girls who started blaming everybody for something that went wrong,” McGehee said.
Tales of Voodoo and Witchcraft Fueled the Fire…
Fueling the hysteria, McGehee said, was a man who blamed the witches for the birth of a two-headed calf, and a couple of little girls that fell on the floor in church and claimed that Nurse had cast a spell on them. Adding fuel to the fire were the Barbados-raised servant girl Tituba’s tales of voodoo and witchcraft.
Research since then has indicated that some of Nurse’s accusers were individuals involved in land disputes with the family. Individuals who benefited from the Nurse’s death and the family’s problems.
Another possibility, according to “Poisons of the Past: Molds, Epidemics and History” by University of Maryland Historian, Mary Kilbourne Motassian, was that exposure to a dangerous grain mold called ergot may have caused some of the strange symptoms people reported, symptoms that included nausea, temporary blindness and deafness, and hallucinations.
According to Dick Eastman, journalist for Ancestry Daily News at www.ancestry.com, “By the end of May 1692, two hundred accused witches were in jail, and twenty men and women were hanged, crushed to death, or left to die in prison…..” (map of witchcraft accusations can be found here.)
The Graves Were so Shallow…
Ott’s research uncovered the fact that her ancestor was thrown into a grave on Witch Hill with other witches, graves that were so shallow that the dead people’s hands stuck up in the air.
Nurse’s sons recovered her body and buried her in an unmarked grave. Nearly 200 years later her descendants erected a monument to her memory, listed the names of those who came to her defense, and inscribed the monument with a poem written especially for her by John Greenleaf Whittier.
Ott and her family visited her famous ancestor’s home, Salem Village, viewed the diorama, and the monument that her descendants erected to her memory.
Infamous Ancestors More Interesting?
“It’s nice when your ancestor’s were good people,” Ott said, “but when you find something unusual, that makes it more interesting.”