Both Sides of the Bench

With the new season of “Who Do You Think You Are?” starting, my TV is set on record, and it’s been capturing some of the repeats as well, several of which I had not seen the first time around. Yesterday, I watched Sarah Jessica Parker’s story, in which she discovered that one of her ancestors was involved in the Salem Witch Trials. According to the write-up, “For Sarah Jessica the question was whether her ancestors were the accusers or the accused… court records… showed that Esther Elwell, Sarah Jessica’s tenth great grandmother, was condemned as a witch because a 17-year-old girl had claimed to have seen her among ‘three spectres’ pressing down on a woman who died… Esther luckily escaped trial when prosecution for witchcraft was abolished” (

Sarah Jessica was clearly relieved that her ancestress was an accused, rather than an accuser. I couldn’t help but wonder if this knowledge raised any thoughts or feelings for Sarah Jessica about her portrayal of Sarah Sanderson in “Hocus Pocus” (my favorite Halloween film).

One of the most interesting things to me about my genealogical pursuits has been the discovery that I have had ancestry on both sides of pretty much every conflict that occurred in the places and times that my ancestors lived – and the Salem witch hysteria is no exception.

I did some quick googling to see if I could discover if there was any specific inspiration for the tale of the three Sanderson sisters and was not able to find anything, but I do know of a true tale of three sisters that is quite harrowing and not a bit amusing.

The name of Rebecca Nurse is probably the most well known in connection with the Salem Witch Trials, but I believe that fewer people are aware that Rebecca was one of three sisters accused. Rebecca’s full name was Rebecca Towne Nurse, and she was the oldest child of William and Joanna Blessing Towne. The Towne family were immigrants from England. William and Joanna were married on March 25, 1620 in St. Nicholas Parish, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk County, England, and their six oldest children – Rebecca, John, Susanna, Edmund, Jacob, and Mary – were born there before they immigrated to America aboard the ship Rose of Yarmouth in 1637. Two more little Townes were born in the New World. I am a descendant of Edmund Towne, who was about seven years younger than Rebecca.

William Towne, a Gardener (one who grew and sold flowers – he probably belonged to a Guild in England) and basketmaker, was cited in England by the Archbishop of Norwich County for failing to appear for communion and was noted as a “Separatist.” It is likely that they left their homeland for religious reasons (somewhat ironic in light of what they would encounter in Salem). At the time of immigration, Edmund was apprenticed to Henry Skerry, a cordwainer (shoemaker who makes fine soft leather shoes and other luxury footwear items), and is listed as such on the ship’s manifest.

Records tell us that on October 11, 1640, William was granted “a little neck of Land right over against his house on the other side of the river.” In that same year, he sued John Cook in what seems to have been a boundary dispute and obtained a verdict and costs. In 1651, William purchased lands in nearby Topsfield in an area known as North Fields. This farm contained forty acres “part of which is plow land, another part is meaddow, another part is upland unplowed, all lying together.” A house was built in 1651, at the intersection of South Main Street and Salem Street, and all the Towne children were brought up there. In 1652, William sold his lands in Salem Village and purchased additional Topsfield property, some of which was south of the river and bordered on lands in Salem owned by the Putnam family. Ongoing boundary disputes involving this land are believed by many historians to be the root of the witchcraft claim that would many years later be made against the three Towne sisters by a member of the Putnam family.

Edmund Towne died in 1678 and thus did not live to see the horrors his family and community endured in 1692, but his daughter (and my ancestress) Abigail Towne was there to see her three aging aunts accused. Rebecca Towne Nurse was 71 when accused of witchcraft by Edward and John Putnam on March 19, 1692. Although she had a reputation for exemplary piety and many members of the community expressed shock and disbelief – and 39 wrote petitions on her behalf – the Putnams were powerful, and young Ann Putnam and several of her “afflicted” teenage friends broke into fits, claiming that Rebecca was tormenting them. Sarah Towne Cloyce, the youngest of the Towne children, spoke publicly in her sister’s defense and soon was also accused.  Sarah was born in Salem and was 53 when accused by Jonathan Walcott and Nathaniel Ingersoll of having afflicted teenager Abigail Williams; she was imprisoned on April 3rd. Mary Towne Estey, who was the youngest of the sisters who had emigrated from England, was 58 when she was accused of having her “specter” climb into bed with teenager Mercy Lewis (a servant of Thomas Putnam) to lay hands on her breasts; Mary was imprisoned on April 22nd. When examined by the magistrates, Mary proclaimed, “Sir, I never complied [with Satan] but prayed against him all my days. I have no compliance with Satan, in this… I am clear of this sin.”  These examinations by the magistrates were, of course, based on intangible evidence such as so-called “witchmarks” and the reactions of the hysterical teenage accusers. Mary was released on May 18th, but due to the outcries and protests of her accusers, she was arrested and imprisoned a second time. On May 31st, Thomas Putnam signed a deposition including details of the “torment” of his wife by the specters of Rebecca Nurse and Martha Corey. Rebecca was indicted on June 3rd and tried on June 20th; the jury first returned a “not guilty” verdict, but were told to reconsider, and then proclaimed her guilty.

Among the members of the jury summoned to sit on these trials was Andrew Elliott, also my ancestor. Like the Townes, Andrew was an immigrant. He was born in East Coker, Somerset, England in 1627 and is first known of in America as having been received as a member of the church in Beverly, Massachusetts (just across the harbor from Salem) in 1670. He did very well in America, both in property and social position, and despite having attained a comfortable situation, he continued to work as a cordwainer (like Edmund Towne).  He also performed the duties of important town offices, one of which was that of transcribing the town records into a new book, and in 1690 he was chosen town clerk.

Rebecca NurseWhen Rebecca was condemned to death by hanging, she is quoted as responding “Oh Lord, help me! It is false. I am clear. For my life now lies in your hands ….” She was hanged on July 19th. Mary EastyOn September 9th, Mary was tried and also condemned; she was hanged on September 22nd. On October 8th, after a total of 20 people had been executed, Thomas Brattle wrote an apparently convincing letter to Governor Phips, who then ordered that reliance on spectral and intangible evidence would no longer be allowed. Sarah, who had been imprisoned since her arrest in April, was not released until the following January. She later pressed charges for her unlawful arrest and that of her sisters and was granted three gold sovereigns for each of them.

Andrew Elliott, along with 12 other members of the jury, in 1697 made a public recantation. Andrew is said to have greatly reproached himself for the part he had played in the trials. While others refused to repent of their actions, these 12 each apologized not only publicly, but also personally to the surviving family members of all of the victims. The written declaration to which they signed their names gave considerable detail regarding the influences they felt had impelled their actions, and stated, “we do hereby declare that we justly fear that we were sadly deluded and mistaken, for which we are much disquieted and distressed in our minds, and do therefore humbly beg forgiveness, first, of God, for Christ’s sake, for this our error, and pray that God will not impute the guilt of it to ourselves nor to others; and we also pray that we may be considered candidly and aright by the living sufferer, as being then under the power of a strong and general delusion, utterly unacquainted with and not experienced in matters of that nature.” Andrew died in 1703 at age 76.

In 1706, when Ann Putman Jr. publicly confessed in church her contrition for her part in the accusations (saying that Satan had put her up to it), she specifically mentioned the three Towne sisters: “And particularly, as I was a chief instrument of accusing of Goodwife Nurse and her two sisters, I desire to lie in the dust, and to be humbled for it, in that I was a cause, with others, of so sad a calamity to them and their families….


For me, it seems that the ultimate question may not be which side of the bench we sit on at the time an event occurs (although of course that matters, and matters greatly), but rather, how do we respond when something causes us to question whether we may have been on the wrong side?


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