The Site of the Salem Witch Trial Hangings Finally Has a Memorial

In a town that has long profited from witchcraft-seekers and Halloween revelers alike, a new memorial strikes a different tone

The memorial (shown here in early June) will be dedicated on the 325th anniversary of the hangings. (Christine Woodside)
smithsonian.com

Eight years ago, when they bought their house overlooking a wooded ledge in Salem, Massachusetts, Erin O’Connor and her husband, Darren Benedict, had no idea why that parcel stood empty. The scrubby lot lay tucked between houses on Pope Street, within sight of a large Walgreen’s—nothing much to look at. So when people began to stop by and take pictures of the empty site last winter, they wondered why.

If they’d been there in 1692, they would have known. That’s when the rocky ledge on the parcel next door turned into a site of mass execution—and when the bodies of people hanged as witches were dumped into a low spot beneath the ledge known as “the crevice.” In the night, when the hangings were over, locals heard the sounds of grieving families who snuck over to gather up their dead and secretly bury them elsewhere.

But for much of history, the site sat quietly obscured by woods and buildings. A leather tannery and railroad operated nearby, and in recent years, houses surrounded it. And for O’Connor, Benedict and much of Salem, that history has faded despite the town’s outsized reputation.

Now, it will finally be commemorated when Salem mayor Kimberley Driscoll dedicates a memorial below Proctor’s Ledge on July 19. The date coincides with the first of three mass executions there. On the same day in 1692, five women—Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin, Rebecca Nurse, and Sarah Wildes—were hanged from a tree on the ledge, and their bodies fell into a “crevice,” where the memorial now marks their names.

Later victims included wealthy landowner John Proctor, killed in August. He had publicly condemned the witch trials and had punished his female servants for claiming to be possessed by witches’ spirits in the hysteria of the day. Proctor’s Ledge is named for his grandson, who bought the land knowing its history.

The Salem witch trials were “the largest and most lethal witch hunt in American history,” wrote historian Emerson “Tad” Baker, a professor at Salem State University in his 2015 book A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience. In a June symposium about the trials, Baker spoke about the volatile political and social climate in Salem in the 1690s.

At the time, an interim colonial government was in charge and Sir William Phips, the new governor, was considered weak. In response, says Baker, people felt a spiritual decline. “Puritans thought God was telling them something,” he says. Add to this the extreme weather of the “Little Ice Age”—hot dry summers and lethally cold winters—famine, economic failures and frontier wars with the French and Native Americans, and it became a scenario ripe for disaster.

Finger-pointing and mass hysteria ensued. During a series of trials, young women accused “witches” of making them contort, writhe and shriek. The accusations were “neighbor on neighbor,” says University of Connecticut geographer Ken Foote. It was an anxious time.

In the 325 years since 19 of the falsely accused were hanged as witches in Salem, the coastal town has never forgotten what happened. (Most of the trial activity took place in Salem. Some of the young accusers lived in Salem Village, later renamed Danvers.) Somehow, the site of the hangings had until now faded from memory, replaced by an obsession with the “witches” themselves that borders on kitsch.

Witch tourism gave Salem the moniker “Witch City,” a major economic driver that local officials have long said they value. (Even the police department’s logo includes a witch.) Every Halloween, as many as 250,000 visit for the event called Haunted Happenings. Revelers dress as zombies and witches. Families take “ghost tours,” and wander around a psychic fair, costume balls, and film festivals—all run by a public-private partnership called Destination Salem.

The kinder, gentler form of witch interest dates to the television situation comedy “Bewitched,” which filmed several episodes in town in the 1970s. A statue of the actress Elizabeth Montgomery (who played the witch Samantha Stevens) stands downtown. Other popular sites include the Witch House, the home of trials judge Jonathan Corwin, and the Old Burying Point Cemetery, where tourists visit the grave of the other judge, John Hathorne (ancestor of author Nathaniel Hawthorne).

Adding to its rich history, Salem has become a center for thousands of practitioners of the Wiccan faith, which has no relation to the satanic imaginations of 1692. It’s hard to know where the dark history fades and the spiritual or lighthearted steps in.

Though tourists often ask where the hangings took place, they were directed to the wrong place for years. Taxi drivers and, famously, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s limousine driver, would take them to the top of the place named Gallows Hill because for years townspeople thought that was the hanging site. Only last year did a group of historians, including Baker, verify that the hangings took place below Gallows Hill, on Proctor’s Ledge, underscoring the earlier conclusion of historian Sidney Perley, who identified the ledge in the early 1900s.

Location of the memorial, pre-construction
Location of the memorial, pre-construction in December 2016 (Martha Lyon)

The new memorial, the first of its kind to be built at the execution site, was funded by a community grant and donations from some of the descendants of Salem’s “witches.” (Many descendants belong to a group called the Associated Daughters of Early American Witches.) It incorporates a granite wall and memorial stones with the 19 killed innocents’ names set in a semicircle around a single oak tree, a dominant tree in the colonial landscape (the hangings above were probably from an oak).  In 1992, the Salem Award Foundation erected the Salem Witch Trials Memorial adjacent to the Old Burying Ground, a cemetery in town where one of the judges and some other notables are interred. Visitors leave notes and flowers on commemorative benches, “and I think some of them must think it is just a park,” Baker, the historian, says.

Mayor Driscoll said in a release that the new memorial site “presents an opportunity for us to come together as a community, recognize the injustice and tragedy perpetrated against those innocents in 1692, and recommit ourselves to the values of inclusivity and justice.”

Baker believes that the memorial could turn Americans toward greater understanding of what a witch hunt truly means in today’s world full of fear of terrorism. “Americans today gaze back at the people of 1692 as a foolish, superstitious, and intolerant lot,” Baker wrote in A Storm of Witchcraft. “Yet that is to dismiss the figure in the mirror.”

But not everyone feels unbridled relief at this new awareness. Neighbors of Proctor’s Ledge didn’t know they lived near the exact site of the hangings until last winter, when the city held public hearings to discuss the memorial site. They understood that the site (owned by the city since 1936) “would never be built on because the city owns it,” says O’Connor. “We were a little bummed because they cut down all our trees.” And the Halloween reveling “can be a little crazy,” she says. “My neighbor last year was working at home and people started having a loud séance in her back yard.”

Centuries ago, the site of the hangings had been out of the way, if not quiet. The once marshy area lay on the outskirts of town and could be seen from a distance, says Marilynne Roach, a Watertown, Massachusetts, researcher and author of the book Six Women of Salem. In 1692, she says, the ledge overlooked the North River, which at the time made an L-shaped bend heading from the town of Peabody and toward the Atlantic Ocean. By the 19th century, the neighborhood surrounded tanneries (known as “blubber hill”) and other industry. Today, one can drive from there to the Salem town center in about five minutes.

The choice of that particular spot for the hangings likely served a strategic purpose 325 years ago that sounds pretty ghoulish today: It was public enough so people could watch the executions, Roach says, “but you don’t want it in someone’s backyard. It is a bit out of the way and it is public land. I get the impression that everybody in town who could get away from work would come out and watch these.” Roach credits documented accounts of nearby residents who once stood near the ledge as providing the historic proof that this was the place.

Now, the site will once again attract the public—not gawkers this time, but visitors commemorating the witch trials’ innocent victims.

Robin Eddy, whose backyard abuts the hanging site, said a neighbor told her as she moved in 21 years ago, "You know, you're living on the site where they threw the witches' bodies after they hung them." She added, "And I'm like, 'Ha ha ha.'"

Eddy said that unlike some of her neighbors, "I think it's pretty cool. I think it's amazing. To me, the memorial is…like a hallowed ground. It represents kind of where the human race was at a certain point in history. It makes me think about that and how we never want to go that way again. We need to practice tolerance."

The mayor will stand respectfully as she dedicates the memorial below Proctor’s Ledge on the 325th anniversary of five of the hangings. And in a few months, Halloween will come again to Salem. “That’s fun,” Roach says, “but mixing up strolling zombies with the memorial in the middle of town and the burial ground, it confuses the public and it leads to crowds that can damage the real thing. And [it’s] a pain in the neck for people who live in Salem. I kind of avoid Salem in October for the most part."

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