The bewitching history of Framingham: The escape to Salem End

Sara Senesac / THE GATEPOST

In 1692, Sarah Towne Cloyce stormed out of the sermon in which her sister, Rebecca Towne Nurse, was accused of conspiring with the devil – inevitably putting herself at the mercy of Salem’s witchcraft hysteria.

Described as “a model of good Christian behavior” by historian Chadwick Hansen, Nurse made for an unlikely suspect – she was 70 years old, frail, hard of hearing, and, by most contemporary accounts, well-liked by her community. 

Nurse was hung. 

No one knows where the elderly woman was buried, according to “Salem’s Witches are Missing,” an article in the Huffington Post.

Local folklore alleges Nurse’s son buried her on their family farm, retrieving her body from a mass, unmarked grave, the article said – the truth, though, has been lost to the ages. 

Life in Puritan New England was a foreign world fraught with death and danger. Suffering from famine, bloody battles, and a culture of repression, the population of Salem was gripped by a collective hysteria. Many innocent people were killed due to the false belief in witchcraft and magic – a grim, sober reality easy to forget in the festive environment of modern Salem. 

But plotting Cloyce’s escape from a similar fate – or Clayes, or Cloyes, or Bridges, depending on the records you read – you can still trace cautious footsteps across a violent, unforgiving world, from Salem to Framingham.

Where history ends and folklore begins, though, has always been difficult to determine – Puritan worldviews, and the ways history were told, were vastly different.

Scholars know most of the popular theories about the Witch Trials are inaccurate at best, FSU history professor Maria Bollettino, who teaches a course on the Salem Witch Trials, said in an interview. Though Bollettino specified she is not an expert in Salem studies, she said she was familiar with some of the scholarship concerning the topic in an interview.

For example, she said the popular claim the madness was all because of a hallucinogenic trip on ergot – a fungus that grows on rotted barley – has been largely discredited.

“We look for scientific explanations, excuses” in the current age, she said. She criticized those approaches, calling them “very presentist explanations” that don’t take into account the different beliefs and worldviews held by the Puritans.

“People really did believe in magic,” she said.

Bollettino set the stage as a scene of “spiritual warfare,” in which the forces of good and evil were pitted against each other. Further, belief in mysterious omens was common – Bollettino said signs in nature such as a “rainbow” or a “stillbirth” could have been interpreted at the time as signs from God.

“It seems like such a foreign explanation for the world around us,” she added.

Bollettino said she was compelled by the theory that the witch hysteria was the manifestation of PTSD, after violent conflicts with the natives had occurred shortly before – though, it is impossible to determine a singular cause for the events.

Digging through court records from the trials, archived by the University of Virginia, the logic of the accusations made against Nurse are strikingly foreign. At the time, “spectral evidence” – ghostly omens and apparitions purported victims of witchcraft claimed to witness – was admissible in court.

“Rebekah Nurse, who now stands charged for witchcraft, came to our house and fell a-railing at him because our pigs got into her field,” Sarah Holten, a villager, said in her deposition against Nurse. “Within a short time after this, my poor Husband … was taken with a strange fit in the entry, being struck blind and stricken down two or three times.” Holten said her husband died weeks later as he keeled over in agony, bewitched by the elderly Nurse.

Abigail Williams – one of the first accusers in the trial – claimed she saw the apparitions of Nurse and Cloyce make a covenant with the devil. Williams said they attempted, while “choking” her and “pulling violently,” to force her to sign “the Devil’s book” – a signature selling her soul to a coven of witches.

So Cloyce was thrown into a crowded prison, accused of a crime she did not commit, while two of her sisters – Nurse, along with Mary Towne Easty, 58 – were brutally executed. The Salem prison became so overwhelmed with accused witches that she was transferred twice, once to Boston and once to Ipswich, according to the Ipswich Historical Society.

The Ipswich prison was said to have been the site of one of America’s first prison-breaks – the escaped prisoner complained he would have died of frostbite if he were left there in the bitter winter of 1662, historical archivist Thomas Franklin Walters wrote.

Cloyce shared her prison sentence with a 4-year-old.

The child’s mother, a beggar and rumored adulterer, was one of the accused, according to Historical Ipswich, a website run by the town’s historian and Historical Commission. According to the page, upon release, the child suffered from traumatic psychological damage that would haunt her for the rest of her life.

Somehow, though, Cloyce escaped from prison. Scholars don’t know how, or when, but with the help of her husband, Cloyce fled from Ipswich.

According to an article published by WBUR, Rob St. Germain, a member of the Ashland Town Forest Committee, said an “underground network” of friends and family would have snuck her on existing pathways formed hundreds of years ago from a patchwork of Native American trails. Some theorize she fled on Old Connecticut Path, though this is disputed, according to the Ashland Historical Society.

The landscape in the late 17th century would be unfamiliar to most people nowadays, covered in choking swaths of forest. Nearly the entirety of Framingham and Ashland was incorporated into Governor Thomas Danforth’s vast plantation.

At the time, neither Framingham nor Ashland were settled.

Danforth was sharply critical of the “savagery” and “barbary” of the witch trials, of which he presided as a judge, which literary representations such as “The Crucible” largely overlook. He gave 800 acres to each of the accused who sought refuge on his plantation, according to the WBUR article – in essence, the Salem Witch Trials were an essential factor in the formation of Framingham.

However, as almost all the land was undeveloped, Cloyce and her family were allegedly forced to spend the bitter New England winter in a dark, narrow cave around what is now Ashland State Park.

Eventually, Cloyce, her husband, and family constructed a home for themselves on today’s Salem End Road. Several family members, descendants, and relatives built homes of their own – including the Israel Towne House on 67 Salem End Rd., across from the Salem End Lot.

Junior Jasmine Lees and senior Stephanie Beaumont, who live in the Israel Towne house, said they continue to feel an unsettling presence to this day. They said they frequently hear mysterious bumps in the night, doors opening suddenly, and lights flickering at random.

Beaumont said former tenants claimed to have seen a ghostly apparition in colonial garb trailing the narrow halls.

Despite its many renovations, the bones of the house peek through. Abandoned staircases lead to nowhere, sealed fireplaces dot the walls, and the creaky wooden floors rest on a noticeable tilt.

While home alone, Lees said she’s been startled by distant footfall on those same creaking floorboards.

When she went to investigate the sounds in the room, no one was there.

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