Site of Salem Witch Trial Hangings Verified
January 11, 2016 Salem, Mass.— After centuries of conflicting beliefs and more recent internet speculation, a team of scholars has verified the site where 19 innocent people were hanged during the 1692 witch trials as Proctor’s Ledge, an area bounded by Proctor and Pope Streets in Salem, Massachusetts.
“We are happy to be able to bring years of debate to an end,” said Salem State University Professor Emerson Baker. “Our analysis draws upon multiple lines of research to confirm the location of the executions.” The city of Salem acquired the strip of land near the base of Gallows Hill 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.
The Gallows Hill Project team now identifies the site as a rocky ledge much closer to Boston Street, at the base of the hill, basing its conclusions on the early 20th century research of historian Sidney Perley, an eye-witness reference to an execution from the trial papers, maps from different periods, and newer technology not available previously. “Ground-penetrating radar and high-tech aerial photography shed new light on the topography of the site as it is today and as it was in 1692,” asserted Professor Benjamin Ray of the University of Virginia. “As a result,” added Ray, “we can now say with confidence that Proctor’s Ledge is the site of the hangings.”
“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 in a largely residential neighborhood,” said Salem Mayor Kimberley Driscoll. ”Salem is constantly looking to the lessons of its past. Whether it was through the formation of our No Place for Hate Committee and our landmark non-discrimination ordinance, or through the good work of the Salem Award Foundation, the lessons we learn from our history directly inform the values and actions we take as a community today. Salem, long known for a dark time in our past when people turned on each, is now a community where people turn toward each other. 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.”
Members of the Gallows Hill Project Team include Emerson “Tad” Baker, Professor of History, Salem State University; Shelby Hypes, Chair, Salem Award Foundation; Elizabeth Peterson, Director, the city of Salem’s Corwin House (The Witch House); Tom Phillips, producer and director of Salem Witch Trials: Examine the Evidence; 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. For further information contact: Emerson Baker, 978-542-7126, firstname.lastname@example.org
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Frequently Asked Questions about the Gallows Hill Project
What is the goal of the Gallows Hill Project?
The Gallows Hill Project’s goal is to identify the execution site of the victims of the Salem witch trials of 1692, and to see that the site is marked and properly maintained.
How and when did the Gallows Hill Project begin?
In 2010 Elizabeth Peterson, Director of Salem’s Corwin House, aka the Witch House, and filmmaker Tom Phillips brought together a team of experts to re-examine the research Salem historian Sidney Perley carried out in the 1910s and 1920s. Many members of the team had previously worked together with Phillips on two documentaries on the witch trials, including his award-winning Salem Witch Trials: Examine the Evidence. Perley's research identified Proctor’s Ledge on Gallows Hill in Salem as the execution site and, based on Perley’s research. In 1936 the city of Salem acquired part of Proctor’s Ledge, but never developed it as a park.
What do historical documents say about the executions?
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 of 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 17th 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).
How can we now pin down the site?
Marilynne Roach discovered a few key lines of eyewitness testimony in a Salem witch trials court record -- there are nearly 1, 000 individual records. The record in question is the examination of Rebecca Eames and Mary Lacey http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/texts/tei/swp?div_id=n44#n44.2, dated August 19, 1692, the same day that five executions were carried out at the Gallows Hill site. The record quotes the defendant Rebecca Eames, who had been on her way to the court in the custody of her guards and traveled along the Boston Road, which ran just below the execution site.
A few hours later, she appeared the Salem court for her preliminary examination. The magistrate asked Eames whether she had witnessed the execution that took place earlier that morning as she was passing by. She explained that she was at “the house below the hill” and that 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.
What other lines of evidence are there, aside from the documents?
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.
One tradition places the execution site at or near the top of Gallows Hill. Why does the Gallows Hill Project rule that location out?
There are several reasons why the location at the top of Gallows Hill does not work. First, it would not have been visible from the McCarter house and its neighbors on Boston Street. It also would not have been visible from the Symonds house on North Street, where another person is known to have witnessed some of the executions. Furthermore, we know from the contemporary account of Robert Calef that the eight victims hanged on September 22 were driven by cart to the execution site. It would have been next to impossible to get a cart full of eight victims up a steep and rocky slope that lacked a road. Finally, executions were meant to be public events, so everyone could witness the terrible consequences that awaited those who committed witchcraft and other serious crimes. The top of Gallows Hill would be much more difficult to access than Proctor’s Ledge, which is high ground located just outside the walls of Salem, close by the only road out of town.
Did the project find anything on Gallows Hill?
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.
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.
What about Robert Calef’s description of the treatment of the body of George Burroughs and others, when they were executed on August 19? He suggests bodies were thrown into a hole or crevice in the rocks?
Calef, who apparently was an eyewitness to the August 19 executions, wrote in his account of the Salem witch trials, More Wonders of the Invisible World (1700), that Burroughs’s body “was dragged by a Halter to a Hole, or Grave, between the Rocks, about two feet deep; his Shirt and Breeches being pulled off, and an old pair of Trousers of one Executed put on his lower parts: he was so put in, together with Willard and Carrier, that one of his Hands, and his Chin, and a Foot of one of them, was left uncovered."
Sidney Perley believed this “hole, or grave, between the rocks” was what Perley referred to as “the crevice,” which is located on the face of the ledge on Proctor’s Ledge. The Gallows Hill project team does not think this is a good fit. Notably, it is a large open crevice on the face of the rock, where you would need many yards of dirt to even partially cover bodies. Rather the hole might be one of several small cracks in the top of the ledge identified by Peter Sablock in his geoarchaeological remote sensing – probably less than three feet deep. As for Perley’s crevice, even if there ever were bodies placed in it, there is no evidence that human remains are still there.
Also, consider the source. Calef hated the Mathers and the Puritans. He was not above lying about Cotton Mather’s actions regarding Margaret Rule, wrongfully suggesting he molested her, in laying on of healing hands on the young afflicted woman. It is possible that Calef made the statement up about throwing bodies in the rocks, or exaggerated.
Ok, but let’s assume Calef was telling the truth, couldn’t there still be human remains there?
August 19, 1692 was part of incredibly hot week. Salem witchcraft judge and Boston resident Samuel Sewall made note of this in his diary. On August 16 Sewall wrote that Captain Ruggles was buried in Boston. He “died last night but could not be kept.” The implication is that it was too hot for the usual morning period before burial, and the bodies needed to get below ground as soon as possible. So, it is quite possible that the five executed on August 19 would have been buried in a shallow grave or thrown in a crevice and covered by dirt as soon as possible as an expedient, to prevent rapid putrefaction. But there is no evidence that this was a lasting solution.
Instead, we have traditions in at least three of the victim’s families (Nurse, Jacobs and Proctor) and one family who lived in the Gallows Hill neighborhood (Buffum) that the families came under cover of darkness and removed the bodies of loved ones for secret burial at home.
But what if not all the bodies were not taken by families? Couldn’t there still be bodies in the crevice?
Writing in 1921, Sidney Perley explored this and other possibilities in his article, "Where the Salem 'Witches' Were Hanged. He researched the property and found out that the Stevens family owned the crevice and surrounding land in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In cleaning up the lot, apparently in the 1860s, “Mr. Stevens stated that he and his father pulled down into their garden all the soil that was in the crevice, leaving it as it is to-day.” Perley makes is no mention of human remains being found. After more than 150 years (1692 to 1860) in a shallow rocky crevice it is most likely any bones that did remain would have dissolved. If they did not, the Stevens made no mention of them. And, it seems quite clear that if they had survived until then, they were removed when the Stevens cleaned out the crevice.
Then how about the possible small and shallow cracks on the top of Proctor’s Ledge suggested by Peter Sablock’s geoarchaeological remote sensing?
The sensing also showed that the soil in these cracks was highly disturbed (presumably from natural processes such as roots, worms, and rodents) with no evidence of intact human remains. Again, any bones lying in soil above shallow ledge (soil that collects water and retains moisture), would very likely have dissolved.
What about the gallows?
The numerous surviving documents from the witch trials, including accounts from the sheriff of Essex County, contain no mention of a gallows. Indeed, the only time Gallows Hill was used for executions was in 1692. Therefore, the team believes that the executions were carried out from a large tree, a common tradition at the time. The remote sensing research supports this conclusion as no trace of structures were discovered, though admittedly a temporary wooden gallows would leave little evidence behind for archaeologists to discover.
What is next?
After the project team met with Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll and other city officials to brief them on their findings, the city moved quickly to plan for the future of the site. Because it is located in a residential neighborhood, the first step was to contact the residents in the neighborhood. The city is now preparing to request a Community Preservation Act grant to help fund a project on the location that will clean the heavily wooded parcel up, install a tasteful plaque or marker, and include elements to ensure neighbors’ property and traffic are not negatively impacted by any visitors. Those wishing to pay their respects to the victims of the witchcraft hysteria are still encouraged to visit the official Salem Witch Trial Memorial located next to the Charter Street Burial Ground in downtown Salem.
How do I stay informed about the project?
We have been overwhelmed by the supportive response we have received to this work from people across the country, including many descendants of the victims. We will do our best to post news on this site, and also on the Facebook page we have established. In, addition, The Salem News is the best source of news for Salem.
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For Further Information on Gallows Hill & The Gallows Hill Project
Scholarly Books and Articles
Sidney Perley, “Where the Witches were Hanged,” Historical Collections of the Essex Institute Vol. 55 No. 1 (1921): 1-18. Perley’s article is reproduced without illustrations at Hawthorne in Salem, and with illustrations at the Internet Archive.
Marilynne K. Roach, Gallows and Graves: the Search to Locate the Death and Burial Sites of the People Executed for Witchcraft in 1692 (Watertown: Sassafras Grove Press, 1997). This informative pamphlet is still in print and available throughout Salem.
Marilynne K. Roach, Six Women of Salem: The Untold Story of The Accused and Their Accusers in the Salem Witch Trials (New York: Da Capo Press, 2013). This book includes details on all the Salem executions.
Benjamin C. Ray, Satan and Salem: The Witch-Hunt Crisis of 1692 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press. See in particular pp. 192-6, for a summary of research by Perley and Roach, as well as Ray’s GIS work on the Gallows Hill site.
Emerson W. Baker, A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015). Chapter 9, “Witch City?” talks about the legacy of the witch trials, as well as efforts in the 19th and 20th centuries to build a memorial.
Media Coverage and Reflections on the Gallows Hill Project
Emerson W. Baker, “A Memorial for Gallows Hill,” Oxford University Press Blog on January 13, 2016 A description of the Gallows Hill Project and some perspective about earlier efforts to mark Gallows Hill.
Donna Seger, “This Time with Dignity,” Streets of Salem, January 12, 2016. A thoughtful discussion of Gallows Hill and Salem’s legacy from Seger’s excellent blog on Salem’s history.
Media Coverage of the Gallows Hill Project
Arianna McNeill, “Ground Zero: Proctor’s Ledge Confirmed as Witch Execution Site,” The Salem News, January 12, 2016, page 1.
Arianna MacNeill, "Site of Amesbury woman's 1692 witch execution confirmed," Neburyport Daily News, January 12, 2016.
Laura Crimaldi, “Researchers Confirm Site of Salem Hangings,” Boston Globe, January 13, 2016, page 1.
Pam Cross, "Site of Salem Hangings during witchcraft hysteria confirmed," WCVB-TV, Boston, January 13, 2016.
Chantee Lans, "Actual Site of Salem Witch Hangings Discovered," WBZ-TV, Boston, January 13, 2016.
Ted Siefer, "Monument planned for suspected site of Salem witch hangings," Reuters, January 13, 2016
Ed Adamczyk, "Site of Salem, Mass., witchcraft hangings determined," United Press International, January 13, 2016
Rupa Shenoy, "Did Salem intentionally forget where the 'witches' were killed?" WGBH, Boston Public Radio, January 14, 2016
Sarah Kaplan, "The Place where Salem's 'witches' were executed is now next to a Walgreens" Washington Post, January 14, 2016
Emerson Baker discusses the Gallows Hill Project on Fox News Channel’s Happening Now, January 14, 2016
Kate Seamons, "Place where Salem "witches" were hanged identified," USA Today, January 14, 2016
Andrew Buncombe, "Salem witchcraft hangings site discovered by historical researchers," The Independent, January 14, 2016
Ed Mazza, "Salem Witch Trials Execution Site Found, and It's Behind a Walgreens," Huffington Post, January 15, 2015
Mark Pratt and Rodrigue Ngowi, "Researchers confirm site of hangings for Salem Witch Trials," Associated Press, January 15, 2016
Arianna MacNeill, "Salem Witch Trials descendants share thoughts on Proctor's Ledge," The Salem News, January 15, 2016
Caroline Newman, "X Marks the Spot," UVA Today, January 19, 2016.
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