Robert Moulton was my 7th great grandfather. His father was also Robert Moulton (1607-1665) and his grandfather likewise Robert Moulton (1587-1655). It was Robert's grandfather who had emigrated from Ormsby St. Michael, Norfolk, England in 1629, bringing with him his grown son Robert who was a Church of England minister. This older immigrant ancestor was a master shipbuilder who was said to have been the first well-equipped shipbuilder to arrive in New England, building the first vessels that were built in Salem and in Medford, near Boston. Son Robert attempted unsuccessfully to establish the English church in Salem, but this was not in accord with the prevailing Puritan beliefs in New England. Both men were active in community affairs, politics and business matters. Clearly the family were upstanding and well-respected members of the community.
The Robert of our story was the first of my direct Moulton line born on American soil, in Salem, Massachusetts in 1644. He was the second child and oldest son of Robert and Abigail (Good) Moulton. On 17 July 1672, 28 year-old Robert married Mary Cooke and started a family of his own. By the time of the 1692 witch hysteria, they had a family of eight children.
|Map of Salem Village 1692|
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=836532
First, a bit of background. There were two towns associated with the "Salem" witch trials: Salem Town and a fast-growing farming area at its northern end called Salem Village (now called Danvers). The earliest events of 1692 started in Salem Village, which contained some 500 people at the time. There would have been another 1500 or so living in Salem Town. The Village had established its own church in 1672, the same year that Robert and Abigail were married. None of its earliest ministers were ordained resulting in a good deal of instability. Late in 1689, the church finally obtained an ordained minister named Reverend Samuel Parris. Parris had spent time in Barbados and brought to Salem with him a couple of Carib Indian servants; they would have had knowledge of voodoo practices and told tales of witchcraft to the Parris daughters. Things went well with Reverend Parris at the Salem Church at first, but because of his strict religious orthodoxy, dissent soon arose. The Village found itself in turmoil within a couple of years. It is perhaps not surprising to learn that the earliest witch accusations arose in Parris's own home. Starting in February of 1692 with three young girls who experienced fits, over the next few months some 200 people were accused of witchcraft, many were tried and twenty executed.
|Closeup of southwest corner of map of Salem Village showing location|
of Robert Moulton's home (#138, circled in turquoise)
One such pillar of the community was a 71 year-old wife, mother and grandmother named Rebecca (Towne) Nurse. Always a pious and well-respected woman, she was nevertheless accused of being a witch. The Nurse family had been in a number of acrimonious disputes with the neighbouring Putnam family. On 23 March 1692, she was arrested on the basis of charges made against her by Edward and John Putnam. She protested her innocence and many in the community did come to her support, but several young girls (including Reverend Parris's daughter Betty and a young Ann Putnam) swooned with fits that they said were caused by Nurse tormenting them.
One of those who gave evidence on Nurse's behalf was my 7th great grandfather Robert Moulton. He testified that one of her young accusers named Susannah Sheldon had admitted to lying.
|Testimony of Robert Moulton in the Trial of Rebecca Nurse|
As with all the accused witches, she was not allowed a lawyer and had to defend herself. The examining magistrates Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne seemed sympathetic to her cause. Even the Governor of Massachusetts at one point issued a reprieve. Nonetheless, when the swooning fits of the young girls continued, Rebecca Nurse was ultimately convicted as a witch, excommunicated from the church and sentenced to death by hanging on 19 July 1692.
|Rebecca Nurse in Chains|
By Freeland A. Carter, artist - The Witch of Salem, or Credulity Run Mad, by John R. Musick.
New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1893. p. 275. See , Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3080307
It would be several years before the Putnam family, the church and the government issued apologies and attempted to make reparation for the wrongful death of Rebecca Nurse. Although Robert Moulton's testimony had not changed her tragic fate, at least he had had the courage to stand on the side of one of the innocents.
Sources and Further Reading:
- Salem Witch Trials in History and Literature website located at http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/people/nursecourt.html
- History of the Salem Witch Trials located at http://www.history.com/topics/salem-witch-trials
- "Gran's Family History" blog located at http://gransfamilyhistory.com/moulton-line/
- "The Salem Witch Trials" website located at http://www.angelfire.com/mi4/polcrt/SalemTrials.html