Witch Lore in Old Salem Village: Ruthie Stearns’ Family Connections

Introduction: In this article, Melissa Davenport Berry writes more about the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, focusing this time on the family connections of Ruthie Stearns. Melissa is a genealogist who has a blog, AnceStory Archives, and a Facebook group, New England Family Genealogy and History.

My last story covered Richard B. Trask’s excavation project of the Rev. Samuel Parris parsonage house in Danvers, Massachusetts, which is considered the nest hive for the Salem witch hysteria of 1692 (see Digging Up Witch Lore in Old Salem Village: The Rev. Samuel Parris Home).

When Ruthie Stearns and I worked together on her Mayflower line for a previous GenealogyBank blog article (see The First Families of America: No Blue Bloods on the Mayflower Part 2), we decided to investigate her witch ties. Ruthie provided records and letters on her father Rev. Howard Oliver Stearns, former pastor of Rev. Parris’ old church, now called the First Congregational Church of Danvers.

Photo: Rev. Howard Oliver Stearns at home in Danvers, Massachusetts, in 1966 with wife Barbara Dorcas Holmes (Mayflower descendant), Ruthie, and her sisters
Photo: Rev. Howard Oliver Stearns at home in Danvers, Massachusetts, in 1966 with wife Barbara Dorcas Holmes (Mayflower descendant), Ruthie, and her sisters. Credit: Ruthie Stearns.

Rev. Stearns helped transcribe the sermon notebook of Rev. Parris with James F. Cooper Jr. and Kenneth P. Minkema. The sermons are published on the Colonial Society of Massachusetts website. Cooper is currently digitizing thousands of church records and is a partner in the Rev. Ebenezer Parkman Project. I will be featuring a story on his work with Rev. Stearns and the Parris sermons later.

Photo: three generations of Salem Witch Trials descendants, Christmas 1906 in Massachusetts at the Stearns home: (front row) William Dennett Stearns, Marion Eastman Swett, Helen Rachel Stearns; (middle row) Nettie Florence Gould Stearns, Susan Adeline Stearns, Fannie Ora Stearns Swett, John Francis Swett, Ethel Stearns Swett, Mary Augusta Stearns; (back row) Florence Helen Swett, Harriet Ann Stearns, Ellen Dorcas Stearns, Howard Oliver Stearns, Albert Henry Stearns
Photo: three generations of Salem Witch Trials descendants, Christmas 1906 in Massachusetts at the Stearns home: (front row) William Dennett Stearns, Marion Eastman Swett, Helen Rachel Stearns; (middle row) Nettie Florence Gould Stearns, Susan Adeline Stearns, Fannie Ora Stearns Swett, John Francis Swett, Ethel Stearns Swett, Mary Augusta Stearns; (back row) Florence Helen Swett, Harriet Ann Stearns, Ellen Dorcas Stearns, Howard Oliver Stearns, Albert Henry Stearns. Credit: Ruthie Stearns.

Rev. Stearns was active on Danvers’ Historical Commission and displayed a deep commitment to the preservation of the local history, which must have been inspired by his spiritual blood ties connected to the history of Old Salem Village. Ruthie has found in the family tree ties to both victims and their accusers during the Salem Witch Trials.

Rev. Stearns believed the people of Salem Village were “enmeshed in one of the greatest calamities of human history.” Ruthie says, “I had no idea how I connected to Rebecca Nurse until I started my genealogy search and found it was through my Towne line. I descend through a Towne brother (Edmund) through his son Joseph down into my Gould line (g grandmother Nettie Florence Gould); and through Edmund’s daughter Abigail Towne Perley down into my Chase line and to my gr. grandfather Willie Dennett Stearns (Nettie’s husband).”

Ruthie discovered over 30 ancestors connected to the Salem Witch Trials. I found some tidbits on a few of her ancestor connections in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, and Ruthie furnished her family photos and genealogy charts.

An article about the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, Boston Herald newspaper article 19 June 1955
Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 19 June 1955, page 2

In 1955 the “Witch’s Chair,” owned by the Nurse family, was on exhibit as part of the second “Boston Herald Historic Homes” tour. According to the Boston Herald, the 71-year-old Rebecca Nurse was seated in the chair when the constables came to her arrest her. She was later found guilty of witchcraft and executed by hanging on 19 July 1692. The chair is in the collection of the Rebecca Nurse Homestead located on Pine Street in Danvers, Massachusetts.

Photo: the Rebecca Nurse Homestead, Danvers, Massachusetts
Photo: the Rebecca Nurse Homestead, Danvers, Massachusetts. Credit: Willjay; Wikimedia Commons.

When Salem (Danvers) held its tercentenary celebration in 1930, ex-President Calvin Coolidge was invited to attend and take part in a reenactment of the trial of Rebecca Nurse.

An article about the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, Boston Herald newspaper article 23 June 1930
Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 23 June 1930, page 9

I also found this photo of the Rebecca Nurse witch trial reenactors in front of the Nurse house in the Times-Picayune paper.

An article about the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, Times-Picayune newspaper article 20 July 1930
Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 20 July 1930, page 71

This Boston American article noted that anyone could be a target for witchcraft accusations, and Ruthie’s relation John Alden, a sea captain and merchant, escaped the hanging rope.

An article about the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, Boston American newspaper article 20 March 1959
Boston American (Boston, Massachusetts), 20 March 1959, page 36

Another of Ruthie’s connections, John Bradstreet, was mentioned in the Lowell Daily Citizen and News.

An article about the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, Lowell Daily Citizen and News newspaper article 19 November 1872
Lowell Daily Citizen and News (Lowell, Massachusetts), 19 November 1872, page 2

Try a search in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives on your own ancestors connected to the Salem Witch Trials.

Further Reading and Videos:

  • Note: According to the notes provided by Rev. Stearns, the sermon entries written by Rev. Samuel Parris (1689-1720) were presented by his son Noyes Parris to Rev. Ebenezer Parkman at the home of Rev. Mr. Swift on 14 May 1729. I have confirmed this through Dr. Anthony Vaver of the Westborough Center for History and Culture, who is working on the Rev. Ebenezer Parkman Project. This MS was given to Jona Moore Parkman’s son-in-law, then to his daughter-in-law Janna Parkman Barstow, granddaughter of the said Rev. Ebenezer Parkman, then to Rev. Thomas Robbins by Mrs. Barstow of New York, August 1838.
  • Video: The Mysterious Slave Who Sparked Salem’s Witch Hunt 2018 History Channel
  • Stearns, Howard Oliver. “Bizarre Practice in Village Home.”
  • Trask, B. Richard. The Witchcraft Delusion: A Brief Guide.
  • Trask, Richard B. “The Devil Hath Been Raised: A Documentary History of the Salem Village Witchcraft Outbreak of March 1692; Together with a Collection of Newly Located and Gathered Witchcraft Documents.”
  • Trask, Richard B. “Digging up the Devil.” Yankee Magazine, 1972.
  • Baker, Emerson W. A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience.
  • Boyer, Paul & Stephen Nissenbaum. Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft.
  • Goss, K. David. Daily Life During the Salem Witch Trials.
  • Hansen, Chadwick. Witchcraft at Salem.
  • Norton, Mary Beth. In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692.
  • Roach, Marilynne K. The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Community under Siege.
  • Rosenthal, Bernard, et. al. Records of the Salem Witch Hunt.
  • Schiff, Stacy. The Witches: Salem, 1692.
  • Starkey, Marion L. The Devil in Massachusetts.
  • Upham, Charles W. Salem Witchcraft.
  • Salem Witch Trial Records, University of Virginia
  • Berry, Melissa D. “REVIEW: Family Relations Focus of New Book on Salem Witch Trials.”
  • Gagnon, Dan. Specters of Salem Village
  • Video: Salem Witch Trial Full Documentary, The Geographic Channel
  • Video: Bewitchment in Salem: The Real Story with Richard Trask and Emerson Baker
  • Video: Marilynne Roach, Six Women of Salem
  • Video: Days of Judgement: Salem Witch Trials 
  • Video: Dark History Witches, History Channel
  • Video: Salem Witch Trials – Haunted History Documentary
  • Video: Salem Witch Hunt (Great documentary with Richard B. Trask, Marilyn Roach, and Katherine Howe, author of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane.)

Ruthie Stearns Genealogy Charts:

Genealogy chartGenealogy chartGenealogy chartGenealogy chart

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