The exact location at which the tragic events of the Salem Witch Trials unfolded over four centuries ago has been pinpointed — and not for the first time, according to the findings of researchers on the Gallows Hill Project. The much-mythologized witch trials of 1692 have been the subject of targeted research several times throughout history, with townspeople determined to find and properly record the location which bears the scar of Salem’s sordid past.
The gallows from which 18 women, found guilty of witchcraft during trials, hung — the nineteenth victim being a man who was stoned to death — were situated in what is now an overgrown, lackluster, and litter-strewn lot next to a Walgreens drug store, the location shown here in an image tweeted by WBZ Boston News.
— WBZ Boston News (@cbsboston) January 14, 2016
The revived research effort used historical material as well as modern technologies to finish what was started by local historian Sidney Perley some 100 years ago. Perley, who studied illustrations of the witch trials, legal documentation, and eyewitness accounts of the executions and town maps closely, drew the conclusion that Proctor’s Hill was the probable location at which 19 innocents met their untimely demise. Over the last five years, researchers built upon Perley’s discoveries through analysis of archaeological data, aerial photography, and historical maps of the location, announcing their landmark findings last week.
One of those researchers is Emerson Baker, a history professor at Salem State University and holder of a particularly keen interest in determining the location of Gallows Hill, where “witches” were executed following trial. Baker believes that the town’s “collective amnesia” has previously erased or obfuscated findings about the important historical event. Speaking to Associated Press about his team’s research, he explained his prerogative.
“One of my ancestors… was arrested and died in prison while awaiting trial for witchcraft in 1692… so it means something to me, being a part of that group,” said Baker. “There are literally millions of people alive today who are descendants of people involved in the Salem Witch Trials… I feel that this is America’s story.”
The Salem Witch Trials are indeed an important part of the colonial Massachusetts town’s heritage — however harrowing their legacy — and they are comprehensively documented for the education of both locals and tourists at the town’s Witch Museum. The trials and the executions that they eventually led to are the subject of local lore, historical chronicles, and themed festivities during Halloween season. Perhaps their most famous biopic is the classical 1953 play The Crucible, in which the escalation of the townspeople’s extreme Puritan conservatism to hysterical mob-mentality — and the startlingly tragic consequences — is catalyzed by the “amoral” actions of the ill-fated characters.
For this reason, Baker and many others whose heritage has its colonial roots in the witch trials of Salem wish to mark the location permanently, finally providing an adequate memorial to the victims. Quoted during an interview with WGBH News, the town patriot said that the location’s current, primary function falls far short of providing this.
“You can see that it’s been used as a place where homeless people will camp,” Baker said of the witch trials location’s current state. “It’s kind of forlorn.”
Appeals to town Mayor Kim Driscoll have been acknowledged but not yet actioned, who posted a statement on January 14 via Facebook about the newly discovered location of the witch trials.
“Now that the location of this historic injustice has been clearly proven, the city will work to respectfully and tastefully memorialize the site in a manner that is sensitive to its location today,” Driscoll explained.
Social, cultural and political concerns are taken into account when proposing new memorials for atrocities such as the witch trials, and the issue of location is a common point of contention. In this case, the location’s abutment to both residential and commercial property hinders — and may prevent — a memorial’s construction therein.
Elsewhere, and for far more ominous reasons, memorials are deliberately and rightfully prohibited. The location of the bunker in which Adolf Hitler and his wife took their lives, hours before their discovery by Soviet conquerors, is but the inconspicuous car park adjoining an apartment building. In this case, the location is unmarked to prevent tributes to the instigator of war and genocide, which are occasionally paid by neo-nationalists.
Some tragedies scar both the land and the collective consciousness of those involved. Whether the location is marked or not, one thing is certain: the witch trials of 1692 will never again be forgotten.
[Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images]