Was Your Ancestor a Witch?

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.”

8 Responses to “Was Your Ancestor a Witch?”

  • Interesting post, thanks for sharing! I’ve also found some crazy tales about my ancestors that seemed like they were more from a movie than my own bloodline, too. But as far as I know, none of my family members were “witches”. ;)

    • Interestingly enough, one woman who read my article in the paper recognized Rebecca Nurse as her ancestor, and so one woman learned she had a witch ancestor through the article! That was kind of cool.

      So far, I’ve not found too many crazy stories about my ancestors yet. I’m sure they must be there! (I hope there are some, makes like so much more interesting!) So I’m still hunting. One thing I know, from a cousin’s research, is that our immigrant ancestor was imprisoned in a Swiss jail for religious reasons. Which is why he left his homeland. He was an Anabaptist.

  • Heather:

    Thanks for writing about Rebecca Nurse. We were among those who refurbished her grave site in 1692, and buried my ancestor, George Jacobs, by her memorial stone. George Jacobs was hung at the same time as Rebecca, and his body was re-interred at the Nurse Homestead after his own homestead was demolished for a gas station (so much for progress!) Rebecca and her two sisters were of the maiden name Estey, and I have Sarah and Mary in my family tree. Sarah was released from prison, and Mary was also hung. A very sad story….

    • It is indeed a very sad story for all concerned. Some of the information that I read indicated that those who stood to benefit by taking over the Nurse’s land might well have been involved in the whole situation as well as all the other. So sad for that whole family.

      Surely there were several factors involved in this, superstition, fear of voodoo, mass hysteria (perhaps even that mold that the colleges found) and possibly greed and envy. Such a terrible situation. I’d like to do a follow-up one of these days.

      I thank you for writing!

  • Great article! I’m always interested in reading about Rebecca TOWNE NURSE, and I’ve had the same reaction to her story. My husband may be a direct descendent of hers, through a female ancestor who is presumed to be a SOUTHWICK (but yet unproven). I hope I’ll find out today if his family really is connected to Rebecca.

    • Thank you for visiting my website! I found the story of the ‘witches’ interesting, and also terribly sad for them and their families. I have no doubt that the only one who Might, emphasis on might have been a witch in Salem was the Barbados’ girl Tituba who was raised with voodoo stories.

      I hope when you find out if you are/are not related to the witch through the name Southwick that you will let me know! After interviewing the women that I did, I’ve kept an ‘eye out’ so to speak while climbing my own family tree for those names.

      Just some info, the small town, Milan, that I write about in some of my posts about Kline’s and Jones, had family by the name of Southwick living there. I hadn’t even thought about a connection, and now I’m really curious… When I get some time, may delve into that!

  • *someday, not today… well, it would be nice to find out TODAY… ;-)

    • I will be very interested in learning more about your connection to the witches! It makes genealogy a lot more interesting to find some “spicy” possibilities when you are digging through your roots. Also cool to find famous people, too, when and if one does!

      Sherry

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