A “hideous screech and noise” poured from the open windows of the meetinghouse. Inside, the young accusers who said they had been bewitched by their neighbors twisted their bodies and cried in pain. Frail and weak, Rebecca Nurse, the most unlikely to be in league with the devil, stood to be questioned. From the moment on that cold January day when the specter of a coffin appeared during a childish game, convulsed with fear, finger pointing and suspicion, and the normal hierarchy of Puritan life was turned upside down.
In an age when children were seen and not heard, the “afflicted girls” behaved outrageously “by getting into holes, and creeping under chairs and stools,” their bodies contorted into “odd postures and antic gestures.” Seventeen-year-old Mary Wolcott, in the presence of a visiting minister, ran into the room crying “Whish! Whish! Whish!” and pulled burning logs from the great fireplace, tossing them about the room. During an anti-witch sermon, Abigail Williams taunted the minister and shouted, “Now stand up and name your text!” In reply to the minister’s answer, Abigail mocked, “It is a long one.” As the trials began, Sarah Good, Tit uba and Sarah Osborne the first to be accused of witchcraft” continued to languish in jail. Each day a new batch of accused joined them. The accusations spiraled out of control and upward including merchants such as the wealthy Philip English; Goodwife Proctor, the wife of John Proctor, a successful farmer, entrepreneur and tavern keeper; Martha Cory, the wife of a prosperous farmer and landowner; George Burroughs, a former Salem Village pastor who had not stepped foot inside the village for nine years; and the wife of Massachusetts governor William P hips. Even 4-year-old Dorcas Good soon found herself in chains. Terror must have filled the air in Salem Village as neighbors glanced at each other and wondered who would be nex or waited for that fateful knock at their door.
The knock came to Rebecca Nurse’s house in March of 1692. In a packed meetinghouse, Rebecca stood before the magistrate, John Hawthorne. She was the first of the accused to cast a shadow of doubt over what was becoming a witch hunt of historic proportions. Rebecca, a 71-year-old church member, was described as a “venerable lady, whose conversation and bearing were so truly saint-like… the mother of a large family, embracing sons, daughters, grandchildren, and one or more great-grand children. She was a woman of piety, and simplicity of heart.” If Rebecca could be accused of witchcraft, no one was safe.
The jury initially acquitted Rebecca, but the judge asked the jury to reconsider. Found guilty this time, on July 19, 1692, Rebecca Nurse was hanged on what was later called Gallows Hill. Four other convicted witches took their last breath alongside Rebecca. As would be the case over the months to come, the bodies of the five women were then cut down and dumped into rock crevices at the side of the hill. In the late summer and early fall, the silhouette of bodies swinging from ropes on Gallows Hill became a familiar sight. Salem Village would never be the same..