Rebecca Nurse is accused of witchcraft along with eight other women and men in Arthur Miller's Tony Award-winning play of 1953, The Crucible.
The horrific events are set into motion when a group of young girls are caught dancing in the woods, an act strictly forbidden in their Puritan village of Salem, Massachusetts.
Set in the spring of 1692, Miller's play opens in the bedroom of Betty Parris, ten-year-old daughter of Reverend Parris, the moral authority of Salem. Mary lays on her bed in what appears to be a trance. Parris's niece, seventeen-year-old Abigail Williams, slips into the room.
Although Abigail tells her uncle repeatedly that Betty has not been "witched," Parris refuses to believe it. Parris makes it clear to his niece that such goings-on (dancing, conjuring, nakedness) will ruin him...a man unable to control his own family surely is unfit to lead an entire town.
Quickly assessing the situation, Abigail realizes that the younger girls who were with her "sinning" in the woods are likely to confess; Abigail, afraid of the consequences for both herself and her family, scares Betty, and the others, into compliance. When Betty screams:
You did, you did! You drank a charm to kill John Proctor’s wife! You drank a charm to kill Goody Proctor! (Act 1)
Abigail gives Betty a sharp slap across the face:
Shut it! Now shut it! (Betty dissolves into sobs.) Now look you. All of you. We danced. And Tituba conjured Ruth Putnam’s dead sisters. And that is all. And mark this—let either of you breathe a word, or the edge of a word about the other things, and I will come to you in the black of some terrible night and I will bring a pointy reckoning that will shudder you. And you know I can do it. I can make you wish you had never seen the sun go down! (Act 1)
What evolves from the ruse led by Abigail and supported by her cousin Betty, and Mary Warren (the housemaid for John Procotor's family) and a several other girls soon becomes out-of-hand. The first to be accused are those with almost no social standing or power. Chief among those charged is Tituba, a slave woman from Barbados and the "property" of Reverend Parris.
Although Tituba vigorously denies the charges at first, claiming over and over that whatever she did do, it was at the behest of Abigail, it was not witchcraft and that she is a "good Christian woman." Parris threatens to have her hanged unless she confesses; eventually, to escape death, Tituba complies.
Abigail likes the sense of power she has over the fate of others. It is now easier for her to get the townspeople to believe that others among them are "witches." Despite successfully leveling charges over several more people, it is more difficult to make the charges "stick" to Rebecca Nurse. She was of an advanced age (70) and had lived what had been an indisputably pious life. But because hysteria had gotten so high, even blameless Rebecca falls prey. Goody Putnam, who lost seven children to illness, decides that Rebecca is at fault, and that the devil helped her kill the children. The charges are met with incredulity:
HALE: Believe me, sir, if Rebecca Nurse be tainted, then nothing‘s left to stop the whole green world from burning. Let you rest upon the justice of the court; the court will send her home, I know it… (Act 2)
Although Reverend Hale doesn't believe the charges and is hopeful that the court will surely find her innocent, this is not the case. Rebecca Nurse is tried, convicted, and hanged for the crime of witchcraft.