For the Rebecca Nurse Homestead in Danvers, this year has been full of firsts.
The home of the oldest woman accused of witchcraft and executed during the 17th century Salem Witch Trials typically hosts an annual ceremony in memory of Nurse’s death in July 1692.
This year, to celebrate her 400th birthday, the homestead in February invited people to mail in a birthday postcard for Nurse from their hometown. The historic site on Pine Street has only been partially open to visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Staff also hoped to appeal to Nurse’s thousands of descendants across the country, said Kathryn Rutkowski, president of the Danvers Alarm List Company, which runs the historic site.
“Wouldn’t it be great for them to send us a postcard from where they’re from, and tell us like how she’s connected to them — if they’re a descendant or if her story has touched them in some way?” Rutkowski said in an interview.
Nurse’s actual date of birth is unknown, but it fell in the same week as her baptism on Feb. 21, 1621, Rutkowski said.
As of this week, they have received 75 postcards and birthday cards, one from almost every state and even three different places in Canada. Though many come from direct descendants, Rutkowski said others wrote they learned of Nurse’s story through “The Crucible,” Arthur Miller’s drama about the Salem Witch Trials.
Nurse gained a reputation for piety and benevolence in her community, Salem Village, as Danvers was known at the time. As a dedicated church member, her arrest for accusations of witchcraft was met with public outcry. Although she was initially found innocent, the verdict was later reversed, and Nurse was executed, according to the homestead.
Rutkowski is fascinated by how connected people feel to the 71-year-old grandmother who died centuries ago. She suspects Nurse is admired for maintaining her innocence until the very end and not accusing anybody else of witchcraft.
“I just feel like people are inspired by her bravery and the fact that she stood up the entire time during her trials,” Rutkowski said. “She was always just so strong in her conviction.”
Some cards have even drawn parallels between Nurse’s story and modern-day experiences. One message read: “I’m not a descendant or related, but her story always touched me. This is a reminder of lots of people’s intolerance and not feeling accepted.”
“It’s more powerful than we thought,” Rutkowski added. “We just expected people to send ‘Happy Birthday,’ but to see people bringing in talk about modern intolerance and bringing it up with the witch trials ... is kind of neat.”
Christine Mui can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.