At a site that now overlooks a Walgreens in Salem, Massachusetts, 19 people accused of witchcraft were hanged, probably from the branches of a tree. Almost 325 years after their deaths, the site of their execution has finally been confirmed: Proctor’s Ledge.
Historians have long suspected that Proctor’s Ledge was the site of witch executions, but they hadn’t compiled enough evidence to support the theory. Now, a group of seven scholars who call themselves the Gallows Hill Project have combined eyewitness testimony with aerial photos and mapping technology to prove it, the Salem News reported.
“Salem, long known for a dark time in our past when people turned on each other, is now a community where people turn toward each other,” said Salem Mayor Kimberly Driscoll. “Having this site identified marks an important opportunity for Salem, as a city, to come together and recognize the injustice and tragedy perpetrated against 19 innocent people.”
During a particularly dark period in American history, 19 people were accused of witchcraft and hanged in 1692. In total, 25 people died during the hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials. Five more died in prison while awaiting trial and one man, Giles Corey, was crushed to death with rocks.
In 1692, Proctor’s Ledge was public land where people grazed their sheep. Thorndike Proctor, the descendant of a witch trial victim named John Proctor, purchased the land in the 18th century, the Boston Globe explained. At the time, the spot was described as a “rocky ledge… at the base of the hill” and may have been picked as the execution site because it was highly visible.
And, of course, an execution was supposed “to serve as an example of what happens to people who break the law,” so the highly visible site made sense, noted Professor Emerson Baker of Salem University.
Thanks to research by historian Sidney Perley, researchers have believed Proctor’s Hill was the site of the witch executions since the early 1990s. This latest quest was an attempt to confirm that suspicion with corroborating and technological evidence. The effort began in 2010.
At first, the scholars thought the witch executions took place on a spot called Gallows Hill, but research led them to a different site at the base of that hill — Proctor’s Ledge. Eyewitness accounts, which are among the 1,000 records that detail the Salem With Trails, hinted at this location.
A 1791 letter from a “Dr. Holyoke” described a story by a man named John Symonds; he was born in 1692, the year of the hangings.
The story goes like this.
“(Symonds) has told me that his nurse had often told him, that, while she was attending his mother at the time she lay in with him, she saw, from the chamber windows, those unhappy people hanging on Gallows’ Hill, who were executed for witches by the delusion of the times.”
Another eyewitness supported this story: a woman named Rebecca Eames, who was questioned on August 19, 1692, a day on which five people were executed. On her way to court that morning, she passed by the execution site and was asked a few hours later by the magistrate if she’d seen the five executions. She did, noting that the suspected witches were hanged at “the house below the hill.” Researchers pinpointed the house, which was still standing in 1890.
Researchers then corroborated these accounts with mapping technology and aerial photography and a sobering historical detail. The oral traditions in Salem from the victims’ families suggested that they darted to the execution site after dark to retrieve their loved ones and bury them. Recent tests show that the soil on Proctor’s Ledge is only three feet deep — hardly enough to bury an accused witch.
Now that Proctor’s Ledge has been confirmed as the site of witch executions, Salem plans to commemorate the spot with a memorial and a small ceremony. They’ll also fix up the site, and ensure curious tourists will be able to access it easily.
“This is part of our history,” Driscoll said. “This is an opportunity for us to be honest about what took place.”
[Image via Everett Historical/Shutterstock]