Exciting history news today, and no, history news is not a contradiction in terms. A century-old theory about the execution site of the victims of the 1692 Witch Trials has been verified through a combination of historical, archaeological, and geological analysis by my Salem State colleague Emerson Baker and his fellow members of The Gallows Hill Project, which includes SSU Geology Professor Emeritus Peter Sablock and Dr. Benjamin Ray, a Professor of Religion at the University of Virginia, as well as local museum professionals, scholars, and writers. Following the assertions of local historian Sidney Perley over a century ago, the team supplemented eyewitness testimonies and material evidence with “ground-penetrating radar and high-tech photography” to verify that the actual Gallows (a sturdy tree or trees) was not located at the apex of the rocky hill in the northwestern corner of Salem known as Gallows or Witch Hill from time immemorial, but considerably below and closer to the main route out-of-town (Boston Street) in a rocky copse of trees called Proctor’s Ledge. It has also been confirmed that there are no human remains on the site, verifying various tales of the recovery of the victims’ bodies by family members under cover of darkness. You can read more about the participants and the process here and here.
The long-assumed execution site, “Witch Square” on the top of Gallows Hill, and the newly-verified site, on Solomon Stevens’ property below, on the 1897 Salem Atlas, State Library of Massachusetts; a “Ye Salem Witches on Gallows Hill” postcard from the 1910s, Salem State University Archives and Special Collections.
Proctor’s Ledge is a terrible place, appearing cursed by its tragic history, both in the seventeenth century and the twentieth, when it was the wellspring of the Great Salem Fire of June 25, 1914. Currently it is a wooded and trashed wasteland behind a Walgreen’s parking lot on busy Boston Street, fortunately purchased and preserved by the City of Salem in the 1930s as “Witch Memorial Land” but essentially left untouched while commercial and residential developments grew up around it.
The verification of the execution site is exciting to me, both professionally and personally. I’ve done a lot of work on the late medieval era and the Black Death, and this is a field in which collaborations between history and science have been profoundly revealing–and interesting. I’m not such an innocent that I believe that history is always about the pursuit of the truth, but if and when it is, science can help us open the “black box”. Personally, this announcement has also renewed my hope that we–the City of Salem–can acknowledge the tragedy of the Trials in a dignified and historical way: not as a lesson about tolerance today but simply and respectfully as a tragedy for the individuals who lost their lives in the past, and not as an event to exploit, but rather as an episode to solemnize. I’ve been rather depressed since Halloween: the images of people trashing the downtown Salem Witch Trials Memorial and adjacent Old Burying Point, combined with the lack of any meaningful response by city officials to whom I appealed to make it stop, have left me soul-searching about why I would want to live in a place that has such little respect for the dead. Frankly, I still don’t have much confidence in the City Council, but Mayor Kimberley Driscoll’s pledge that “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” is hopeful. At the very least, the neighbors and relatively distant location from downtown– combined with the site’s rather chilly atmosphere–should deter the transformation of Proctor’s Ledge into another Witch City prop.
The Salem Witch Trials Memorial, October 2015.