Heavy Metal Genealogy: James Hetfield and the Salem Witch Trials

San Francisco, an interesting place. It was the home of Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, and then not too many years later the cradle of American Heavy Metal, largely due to Metallica.

My guess is that the metal explosion was the result of a new generation rebelling against the “Make Love Not War” of their parents. They were all about war, and not just war but WAR! A war fought against society, against the military, and of course, against themselves. War, what is it good for? Beautifully vengeful, rageful music.

Previously on Heavy Metal Genealogy, I covered the family of former Metallica member and Megadeth founder Dave Mustaine. Now it’s time for James Hetfield, lead singer of Metallica. James was born on August 3, 1963 in an L.A. suburb called Downey, to Cynthia Nourse and Virgil Hetfield. Cynthia had previously married Raymond Hale when she was 18, had two children named Christopher and David, and then divorced, marrying Virgil in 1961 in Las Vegas. They officially divorced in 1978, though I believe Virgil was out of the picture before then. After Cynthia died of cancer in 1980 when James was 16 years old, he went to live with his half-brother David and not his father.

Just going off looks alone, James Hetfield would seem like he came from classic midwestern Teutonic stock. Even more than Lars Ulrich (minus the midwestern part). And indeed James does. Virgil was born and died in Nebraska, and Virgil’s grandfather, John Gregory Hetfield, was born in Minnesota and also died in Nebraska.

But the Hetfields go back a long, long way in this country. Back before the signing of the Declaration of Independence — James is related to one of the signers by marriage. The further back in time you go and the further east you travel, you reach the first Hetfield/Hatfield immigrants who settled in New Jersey.

And I’ll just give you the bad news right now —these Hetfields/Hatfields had nothing to do with the Hatfields and McCoys. Same for Juliana Hatfield. So James and Juliana, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry.

But, New Jersey, yes New Jersey. If San Francisco was the cradle of hippies and metalheads, New Jersey has been the cradle of everything else. It’s in the water. But back in the 1600s the water was fine. A young Matthias Hetveld/Hatvelde emigrated from the Netherlands and settled in Elizabethtown, NJ, what’s now known as Elizabeth, NJ.

Headstone for James Hetfield’s relative at the First Presbyterian Churchyard in Elizabeth, NJ

[Record scratch]

The above was written after I’d learned the Hetfield line went back to New Jersey, and I thought that was the best line to take for James Hetfield’s family history. Because I’m from New Jersey so paisan. Then I realized I hadn’t pursued his mother’s Nourse line very far. What I learned was that James Hetfield’s 8th great-grandmother, Rebecca Nurse, was found guilty of practicing Satanism just like the greats in Metal once were. Except Rebecca was executed for it. This was the time of the Salem Witch Trials.

Cynthia Nourse, James’ mother, was a first-generation Californian. For roughly 300 years all the other Nourses/Nurses lived in Massachusetts, with James’ 8th great-grandfather Francis Nurse arriving in Salem from Bristol, England sometime before 1645, when it’s recorded that he married Rebecca Towne.

Francis and Rebecca lived a quiet life on their farm, and with the exception of a squabble over trespassing pigs, they were looked upon as a pious and kind family. They had eight children, one of whom, Samuel Nurse, is James Hetfield’s direct ancestor.

Then the frenzy over witches exploded through Salem. in short: Satanic panic, which rose to a fever pitch during the Black Death, was brought like a virus to the Colonies by the Puritans, who had escaped England for religious freedom. It had always been a low-grade fear, but Satan had his claws in Salem alright, because if you’re frightened enough about something, chances are it will come true. In this case, what reputedly began with a group of young women accusing others of being witches quickly escalated to Satan’s pandemic. When an accused went on trial, the plaintiff’s wails and fainting spells were enough evidence to convict. Neighbor turned against neighbor, accusing mostly women of witchcraft. Grudges led to accusations, as did land grabs, which was reportedly what doomed Rebecca Nurse.

Although she was over 70 years old and reportedly an invalid, the Putnam family wanted her land, and so accused her of witchcraft. This worked faster than eminent domain. What form this witchcraft took is unclear, but that didn’t matter. What did matter was that even though the townspeople signed petitions on her behalf and rallied in support of the pious elderly woman, she was sent to the gallows and hanged. As was her sister.

So horrific was her death that Arthur Miller made her a character in his 1953 play “The Crucible,” which told the story of the Salem Witch Trials but was really an allegory about McCarthyism and the Red Panic. In the play Rebecca Nurse is accused of infanticide, which was not the case in real life, though both the real and fictional Rebecca Nurse met the same fate.

Rebecca Nurse’s home is now a museum that’s open from May-November.

I don’t know if James Hetfield knows that his ancestor was hanged for being a witch, but I can’t help but wonder if the rage and fury from the injustice of it all is what comes through when you hear “And Justice For All.”

Illustration by John R. Musick; unknown photographer; photo by Heather Quinlan.

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