We now know the precise location where 19 innocent victims were hanged for witchcraft in Salem in 1692. I am honored to be a member of the Gallows Hill Project team who has worked with the City of Salem to confirm the location on a lower section of Gallows Hill known as Proctor’s Ledge. And I am pleased too that the city has already begun planning to properly memorialize the site.
The executions on Gallows Hill were the climax of one of the most famous events in American history, but the hangings themselves are poorly documented. The precise location and events surrounding the executions have been, until this point, generally lost to history. Tradition has simply placed it broadly on Gallows Hill, which covers many acres of land. In the seventeenth century, Gallows Hill was common land located just outside the boundary of the City of Salem, then defined by a protective palisade (a fortified wall). Most people have traditionally placed the execution site at the top of Gallows Hill.
In the early twentieth century, the eminent Salem historian Sidney Perley studied the issue and settled on the Proctor’s Ledge location, an area bounded today by Proctor and Pope Streets, near the foot of Gallows Hill. The City of Salem even acquired a small parcel there in 1936 “to be held forever as a public park” and called it “Witch Memorial Land.” As it was never marked, most people erroneously assumed the executions took place on the hill’s summit. Over time, the spot became forgotten again.
In 2010, Elizabeth Peterson, Director of Salem’s Corwin House, also known as the Witch House, brought together a team of experts to re-examine Perley’s research. In addition to myself, that team included Benjamin Ray, Professor of Religion, University of Virginia; Marilynne Roach, Salem witch trials historian and author; and Peter Sablock, Emeritus Professor of Geology, Salem State University. The team’s analysis brought together multiple lines of evidence to confirm Proctor’s Ledge as the execution site.
Marilynne Roach had years ago called attention to the testimony of accused witch Rebecca Eames. She testified that on her way into Salem for questioning on the morning of 19 August 1692, she and her guards had traveled along the Boston Road which ran just below the execution site. Five people were being executed at the time, and from her location at “the house below the hill” she saw some “folks” at the execution. Roach determined that the “house below the hill” was most likely the McCarter House, or one of its neighbors on Boston Street. The McCarter house was still standing in 1890 at 19 Boston Street.
Professor Benjamin Ray conducted research that pinpointed the McCarter house’s location and worked with geographic information system specialist Chris Gist of the University of Virginia’s Scholars Lab to determine whether, in fact, it was possible for a person standing at the site of the house on the Boston Street to see the top of Proctor’s Ledge, given the rising topography of the northeastern slope of the hill. Gist produced a view-shed analysis, which determined that the top of Proctor’s Ledge was clearly visible from the Boston Street house, as well as from neighboring homes. However, the traditional site on the top of Gallows Hill was not visible from the houses.
Meanwhile, Professor Peter Sablock carried out geo-archaeological remote sensing on the site with a team of his Salem State geology students. Ground-penetrating radar and electronic soil resistivity do not disturb the soil, but can tell us about the ground underneath. His tests indicate that there is very little soil on Proctor’s Ledge. There are only a few small cracks in the ledge, and here the soil is less than three feet deep—certainly not deep enough to bury people.
Although it is admittedly negative evidence, this finding is in keeping with oral traditions that the families of the victims came under cover of darkness to recover loved ones and rebury them in family cemeteries. There is no indication that there are any human remains on the Proctor Ledge site.
The witch trials have cast a long shadow over Salem’s history. For generations, many residents wanted to forget the trials, and refused to acknowledge their community’s role in one of the great injustices in American history. The fact that the execution site has been “lost” more than once speaks to a collective amnesia and desire to forget. Yet, others, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, have tried to have the site properly marked. In 1835, in “Alice Doane’s Appeal,” Salem’s famous son laments the lack of memorial for “those who died so wrongfully, and, without a coffin or a prayer.”
In 1892, on the bicentennial of the trials, an effort was made to build a memorial on Gallows Hill, but it failed. The memorial was to take the form of a lookout tower—a popular monument of the day, as they were constructed on the high ground of Civil War battlefields to honor the dead and provide a peaceful and reflective place to view the battlefield. Indeed, the large lookout memorial at Gettysburg’s Little Round Top was dedicated in 1893. This is just one of many interesting comparisons between Gettysburg and Salem—two communities whose identities and economies are linked to a great American tragedy.
We are seeking a much more modest memorial for Gallows Hill than the Civil War veterans proposed in 1892. The City of Salem, led Mayor Kim Driscoll, plans to clean the heavily wooded Proctor’s ledge parcel up, maintain it, and install a tasteful plaque or marker. I believe that marking and maintaining this site is a long overdue step in Salem’s acknowledgement of the role the community played in the loss of innocent lives in 1692. The healing process continues 324 years after the trials.
I concluded my recent book on the Salem witch trials, A Storm of Witchcraft, by lamenting the fact that despite efforts going back to the nineteenth century, there still was no memorial on Gallows Hill. I am delighted that the last line of my book will soon be out of date.
Image Credit: Proctor’s Ledge on Gallows Hill, Salem. Photo courtesy of Emerson W. Baker.