Researchers pinpoint site of Salem witch hangings
SALEM — The wooded spot overlooking Walgreens on Boston Street is unremarkable. The rocky ledge of knotted trees is surrounded by houses, and the path to the top is unpaved.
But the days of anonymity for the site known as Proctor’s Ledge are over. Researchers announced this week they have confirmed the plot is where 19 people accused of witchcraft were hanged in a wave of hysteria that swept this seaside city in 1692.
Salem plans to mark the ignominious spot, Mayor Kimberley Driscoll said. The memorial is expected to be modest, the mayor said, given the lack of easy access or parking at the site.
Still, Driscoll said: “This is part of our history, and this is an opportunity for us to be honest about what took place.”
The quest to confirm the precise spot of the hangings started in 2010, though it was not the first time historians examined the question, said Emerson “Tad” Baker, a Salem State University professor who helped pinpoint the location.
While there are about 1,000 records detailing the Salem witch trials, Baker said information about the executions is scant. Historians have found no evidence that gallows were constructed and surmise the accused witches were hung from tree branches, he said.
All 19 people who were executed by hanging during the witch trials are believed to have died at Proctor’s Ledge; five others accused of witchcraft died in jail, and one was crushed to death.
They focused their inquiry initially on Gallows Hill, where many believed the accused witches met their death at the peak. But the researchers concluded that the hangings happened closer to the base of the hill, on the spot known as Proctor’s Ledge.
They reached this conclusion by using eyewitness accounts from the time of the hangings, aerial photography of Gallows Hill, and images of the area generated with advanced mapping technology, the researchers said.
First, they determined where the eyewitnesses were when they saw the executions.
The researchers relied on the work of Sidney Perley, a lawyer and historian who wrote about Salem history, said author Marilynne Roach, a member of the research team.
“He must have read every deed and will in the courthouse,” she said. “He’s a very good source.”
In an article published in 1921, Perley cited a letter written in 1791 by “Dr. Holyoke.” The letter described a story told by John Symonds, who was born the year the hangings occurred.
“He 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,” the letter read.
Another description came from Rebecca Eames, a Boxford resident hauled into Salem for questioning Aug. 19, 1692, the same day five executions took place.
Eames’s guards escorted her along Boston Road, below Proctor’s Ledge, the researchers said. As they approached the courthouse, the guards came upon the hangings and left Eames at a nearby house while they watched the executions.
Eames later told the magistrate she was at “the house below the hill” and saw some “folks” at the execution. Roach determined the house Eames cited was probably the McCarter residence or one of its neighbors on Boston Street.
Once researchers established the vantage points for the eyewitness accounts, they turned to the mapping technology and aerial photography.
They learned the eyewitnesses could not have seen the top of Gallows Hill from where they observed the executions, but they could see Proctor’s Ledge, located in between what is now Proctor and Pope streets.
Their inquiry also concluded no victims are buried at Proctor’s Ledge, the researchers said.
“I just get this tremendous sense of history here and also kind of the burden of that history in Salem,” Baker said.
At the time of the hangings, Proctor’s Ledge was public land where residents could let sheep graze, Baker said. It is named for Thorndike Proctor, who purchased land there during the 18th century. He is a descendant of a witch trial victim, John Proctor.
Given that executions then were meant “to serve as an example of what happens to people who break the law,” the highly visible site was logical, Baker said.
The inquiry also found Salem had considered erecting a tribute to witch trial victims on Gallows Hill going back more than a century.
Plans for a memorial there were devised in 1892 and Salem purchased a strip of land at Proctor’s Ledge in 1936 to construct a park, Baker said. Neither proposal went anywhere.
Baker said the desire by some to forget the witch trials was probably to blame.
“What a wonderful thing it is for us to finally have the city recognize this spot,” he said.
There is a memorial in downtown Salem to 20 victims.
Tom Brophy, 72, lives in front of Proctor’s Ledge. He said he gave directions decades ago to Gallows Hill to a driver chauffeuring John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
“The old timers that used to be here when I was a little kid used to talk about the witchcraft and [that] this was the probable site,” he said.
Kenneth Glover, who runs a tour in Salem, visited the site Tuesday. Now, he said, he can definitively tell visitors where the hangings occurred.
“When people come here from other places . . . they all want to know where it happened,” he said.