Anomaly or Something Else?

Sometimes family records reveal more than the expected birth, death, and marriage information.

Sometimes you come across something that makes you go hmmmm.

While updating my husband’s Nurse family history I came across one of those odd things.

Francis Nurse, son of accused and executed “witch” Rebecca (Towne) Nurse, died February 5, 1715/6 in Reading, Middlesex, Massachusetts. He was fairly young, only 55 years old. The horrific experience of the arrests, trials, and executions–including that of his mother–in 1692 may well have contributed to a shortened life.

But, then, how do we explain the deaths in Reading of three out of nine of his adult children within a nine-month period?

. Joshua Nurse, age 22, died June 8, 1717.
. Jonathan Nurse, age 26, died November 26, 1717.
. Josiah Nurse, age 24, died April 4, 1718.

One possible explanation is a severe illness.

In his annual proclamation made in November 1717, Governor Samuel Shute “urged the people of Massachusetts to thank God for ‘continuing a great Measure of Health and remarkably keeping off Contagious Diseases when threatening to break in upon us’ …”

It is unclear what the governor was thinking as, by the time his proclamation had been published and was in circulation (November 25, 1717), “it was ‘a very sickly time in Boston'” and word of the illness had reached Martha’s Vineyard and New London, Connecticut.

It was later observed that the level of sickness in Boston paled in comparison to the outbreak of smallpox in 1721. However, the number of fatalities due to the illness in 1717 “was about 100 over the previous twelve months.”

Rev. Mather reported that there had been “many more than twenty” deaths within a two-month period among his congregation alone.

Had brothers Joshua, Jonathan, and Josiah succumbed to the illness that plagued Boston?

Curiously, though, the number of deaths in 1717 in Reading — based on the vital records for that village — were not many and mostly among older people. There is no other example of such events in another Reading family.

Also, the brothers Nurse were in their prime, a time when they should have been strong and healthy. Jonathan and Josiah had only been married about four years and two years respectively and left behind two young wives.

The records are silent on causes of death. There are no reports of Indian massacres — which would have taken all their lives at the same time — or that the brothers had been part of a Reading militia and had somehow lost their lives that way.

Unfortunately, we may never know whether this is an anomaly or something else.

. . . .


1 Ernest Caulfield, “The Pursuit of a Pestilence” in The American Antiquarian.

2 Find A Grave Memorials for the Nurse family buried in the Burying Point Cemetery in Salem, Essex, Massachusetts.

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