American Towne descendants visit Yarmouth birthplace of Salem Witch trials victims

TWO “witches” hanged during the Salem Witch Trials were remembered when descendants made a pilgrimage to their birthplace – Great Yarmouth.

Sisters Mary and Rebecca Towne were accused of black magic and hanged in 1692, in a time where townsfolk feared evil spirits.

Mass hysteria ensued when neighbours in Salem, Massachusetts blamed unexplained events – such as a young boy “mysteriously dying” – on the presence of witches.

Dozens of women and girls were hanged, but a speech made by Mary Towne – baptised at St Nicholas Church, now a Minster, in Yarmouth – helped end the mob mentality.

She had told her judges she was against spectral evidence, and was eventually exonerated – but not until 20 years after she was hanged.

Karen Johnsen, 67, organised the pilgrimage from her home in California to keep the memory of the “witches” alive.

And 37 distant relatives jetted across the Atlantic to St Nicholas Minster at the weekend, where there is a special plaque to the “witches”.

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“I think it’s very important people know about their roots to understand themselves and how they fit into society,” said Mrs Johnsen.

“It gives you a greater appreciation of life.”

The Towne Family Association was founded in 1980, when William Bradford Towne began to research all the information he could discover about the infamous Salem Witch Trials.

He would ring up all the local Townes he could find in the phonebook when he visited a place, and telling them the story, they joined and the group expanded.

Their first trip to Great Yarmouth was in 1990, and this month’s pilgrimage was their third, with many new members having joined since then.

And Mrs Johnsen was overcome with emotion when she looked around St Nicholas Minster, where the parents of the “witches” William and Joanna Towne wed on April 25, 1620.

“It’s like walking on holy ground for me,” said Mrs Johnsen, her voice cracking with emotion.

“It makes the stories of our ancestors come alive.”

She explained: “It’s like we can touch them and experience what they experienced.

“To have the church still here is mind-blowing, and they said the communion service we had had was exactly like they would have had in 1620.”

Elizabeth Hanahan, who lives in Connecticut, is the president of the Towne Family Association and has been working with Norfolk genealogist Charles Farrow to learn more about their East Anglian links.

The American visiting party toured churches in Caister, Somerleyton and Walcott.

And Mrs Hanahan explained there was an “outside chance” that there are Towne descendants still living in Norfolk.

She added that she was “hopeful” of learning more about the family from them.