This Time with Dignity

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.

Salem Atlas 1897 State Library of MA

Salem Witches PC SSU

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.

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Proctor's Ledge 006

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.

Calm Descends 367

The Salem Witch Trials Memorial, October 2015.

42 responses to “This Time with Dignity

  • deemallon


  • asongbird

    One can only hope. But I sincerely doubt it will remain without vulgar commercialization and concocted “details” for the tourists, told by people claiming the mantle of “historian” without the credentials, training, or ethics inherent in that professional (what SHOULD be professional) designation.

    • daseger

      Academic historians are good at policing themselves but we can’t rule the world! My particular pet peeve are Wiccan tour guides who want to introduce the world to “their” forebears.

      • Thomas

        Hello, I’m friends with all the local tour guides and I can assure you no one is that stupid. That’s a ridiculous characterization.

      • daseger

        Sorry Thomas–but I’ve heard that “connection” too many times.

      • asongbird

        History is just a commercial brand in Salem.

        i have heard what Donna has, firsthand, and I have also heard absolute nonsense from “regular” tour guides, too. When we first came to town I was actually appalled after taking one or two tours. The worst was from one of the most established of the businesses. I have never really gotten over those first experiences in a town that is really supposed to be proud of its historic nature.

        In the years since I’ve overheard some doozies, at least once when guests really wanted to take a tour-again, a “reputable” one–and we as gracious hosts could not refuse.

        And try asking even the most “reputable” storyteller to give you an attribution for a story or fact. You get a wave of the hand and a very vague, if any, reply. That is partly what I mean by ethics. Historians cite their sources; it is basic to the profession. Sources are important for a multitude of reasons.

        There’s more, but enough said there.

        What Donna is also referring to is the practice of the commercial “witches” claiming the victims of Salem’s “hysteria” as actual practicing witches too…which heaps insult to deadly injury on the poor souls.

        But this is a town where tourism simply, firmly, and forever sits in the driver’s seat. It overrides everything.

      • Thomas

        So as such a proud academic historian, give me a source.

        Who said that the witch trials victims were Wiccan? Otherwise stop spreading nonsense.

      • daseger

        Come on Thomas, the confusion and co-mingling of past and present is pervasive and deliberate: there’s always a vagueness–oh we can never really know, but they MAY have been practicing “folk religion”– even though there is no evidence whatsoever of that. It’s an injustice to the victims and extremely exploitative! And as to the source–it all started with Laurie Cabot of course, who is on the record saying that the victims of 1692 were her “ancestors”.

      • Thomas

        First of all, Laurie Cabot having ancestors in the witch trials has nothing to do with witchcraft. It has to do with genealogy. And it’s simple math, more people have ancestors involved in the witch trials than they even realize.

        Secondly, you’re sinister characterization is completely false. You paint this strange picture, a twisted narrative of the way the tourist industry in Salem works. Obviously it’s a ploy to make Salem seem more interesting to get more views.

        For anyone out there reading this who would like to know the reality: the tourist industry in Salem is full of good people with good intentions that sometimes make mistakes because they are human beings. I know, not as interesting as a vast conspiracy of greedy witches controlling things from behind the scenes, but we all remember the first time that was alleged in Salem.

      • daseger

        Thomas, I don’t think you and I are going to agree on this point so we better call it a draw, but I must make several correctives 1) Cabot was not talking about her personal history–you can hear her longer quote in the documentary Witch City; 2) I certainly don’t think all the people exploiting 1692 are witches–far from it; and 3) I’m sorry you think my picture of Salem’s tourist industry is “twisted”–I think it’s pretty objective, and I have taken great pains to show how it evolved over a long time. Nevertheless, I call it like I see it; I don’t do anything for “views”.

      • Thomas

        And still waiting on that source.

      • daseger

        Thomas, I’ve given you the ultimate source of the connection between supposed witchcraft in the past and the present several times. And unless I’m mistaken, you’re not just a “friend” of tour guides, you are a tour guide yourself–no? I think I’m looking at a picture of you sitting on the Witch Trial Memorial with an advertisement for your business. I’ll look forward to taking a tour in the future–in October, of course.

      • Thomas

        Yes, I am a local tour guide AND witch. I’m friends with all the other tour guides in town so I know for a fact no one says the victims were Wiccan. You have not given me a source for that.

        You are more than welcome to take my tour for free, as all Salem residents are, and i can recommend two other tour companies in town. You are more than welcome to come along any of our tours for free and then critique all you want. Until then you are just taking out of your ass.

        You are also more than welcome to try to start your own competing tour company and see how easy it really is.

      • daseger

        No, no, you’re offering a SERVICE, and are a PROFESSIONAL–of course I will pay! I’m sure it’s not easy, and I already have a job, thanks.

      • Thomas

        Oh no, I insist. Offering free tours to Salem residents and workers is just one of the many ways we show our respect for the city, it’s history, and it’s residents.

      • daseger

        Well we’ll see. But in the meantime, I fear that we are boring people, and it’s really not about you or me, but those who died tragically in 1692 today–and hopefully tomorrow too.

  • Debbie Tegarden

    Dear Dr. Seger, The mention of “ground-penetrating radar” and the dignity of historic sites below brings to mind a local conflict we are watching with shock and dismay, Perhaps you have read that the Institute for Advanced Study has begun work (bulldozing) to build additional faculty housing, on the ground—perhaps the most sacred section of the ground—where Washington’s troops defeated the British at the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777, after their all-night march from Trenton.
    Local residents have offered to purchase the land from IAS at full price plus 25%, but have been rejected. The Civil War Trust (deep pockets!) has become involved, and they’ve even posted large protest videos in Times Square, but nothing will shake the Institute. IAS has a very European orientation, and continues to repeat the mantra that “Einstein matters more than Washington.” If you know of any resources that might help save the battlefield from desecration, I can speak for many local citizens to say we would be very grateful.
    I continue to be grateful, too, for your lovely, poignant, amusing, and breathtaking posts.
    A daughter of Salem and a long-time resident of Princeton,
    Deborah A. Tegarden

    • daseger

      Hello Deborah and thank you so much for your comment and compliments! Daughter of a Princeton alum here so very familiar with beautiful Princeton. I am vaguely familiar with the proposed IAS expansion but am now determined to learn much, much more about it–a historical conflict of epic proportions. I’ll forward you comment to my colleague and try to think of any helpful suggestions.

  • Donna Thorland

    There’s a tremendous opportunity here to create a locus for interpretation. The PEM used to fill that role with a very fine documents exhibit and year-round interpretation, but they no longer offer programming around the trials. We tend to blame visitors for seeking out the tawdry and the sensational, but the most frequent questions I was (and still am) asked are: What’s real? What’s authentic? What really happened? Where did it all happen? Very few people walk out of our witch-themed attractions feeling like their questions have been answered. But that just begs the question: where do you go for a clear-eyed picture of 1692?

    There isn’t a single institution that I know of offering a printed broadside with a concise, scholarly but accessible overview of the event since the PEM stopped printing theirs. I’ve kept a small stack of Melissa Kershaw’s excellent publication on my shelf for years and I photocopy it regularly for anyone who asks. The UVA document archive is a great resource, but it’s not directed at visitors to Salem. If there’s an app that performs this function, I haven’t found it, but maybe that, or a new map and guide, with no commercial ties, is something that can be developed in conjunction with the Mayor’s efforts.

    • daseger

      Thanks Donna, very helpful observations and suggestions.

    • Emerson Baker (@EmersonWBaker)

      I agree – there is a real need and an opportunity for something (both on the ground and on the web) that separates reality from fantasy, and tells the historically accurate story of Salem and the witch trials. In fact, I’ve thought a lot about it of late. Hopefully the Gallows Hill Project can be the first steps toward this. As I say, 324 years later, the healing process continues.

      It seems to me that an important part of that healing process is getting the story right, and presenting it to residents and visitors in a way that is respectful and informative but at the same time interesting and relevant – Like any good history book or museum exhibit, it also needs to entertain as well as inform. The good news is Salem’s true history is an amazing story to work with.

  • Alan Lord

    It would be nice to think that any designation of this site will be low-key and that the apex of Gallows Hill will, over time, become the accepted “common tourist” site of the executions once again.

    • daseger

      I hope Proctor’s Ledge remains very quiet and reverent too, Alan–but I don’t think we should perpetuate Gallows Hill as the site when it was not the site.

  • Roger

    The report says “the only time Gallows Hill was used for executions was in 1692”. In England the same places were used for executions over and over again over many years. Did the colonies vary execution sites frequently or was Salem’s usual execution site not used for some reason? Was Gallows Hill deliberately chosen for the witchcraft executions only or was it abandoned as a site for executions because of its association with an act of injustice?

    • daseger

      I think 1692 was a very special case: I do believe that Gallows Hill/Proctor’s Ledge was chosen exclusively for the victims of the Witch Trials as it was then just over the town line, and then abandoned as an execution site. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Salem’s primary execution site was on Winter Island.

  • Laura

    This is why I love this blog. So interesting… and moreso to see what develops in relation to the actual site, over the next couple years. We’ll all be following it with you!

  • howie

    my great uncle john proctor was hung there, luckily his wife was sparede because she was pregnant

  • Laura

    I am planning eventually to read that new book you cited by Peter Elmer, Witchcraft, Witch-Hunting, and Politics in Early Modern England. But I have to say, when I look at all the books on the topic in New England, I’m kinda lost. Some time would love to have your snapshot reviews and recommendations!

    • daseger

      It’s amazing how many more books there are on Salem than on all of the European trials combined! There’s a real range….but since he is the man of the hour and it really is a very good book on context, I would start with my colleague Tad Baker’s book, A Storm of Witchcraft. But I’m biased!

  • Katherine Greenough

    Dear Donna, You scooped the Globe! Your story came out before theirs did! It certainly is big news for anyone interested in history. Congratulations from Kathy Greenough, Becky Putnam’s cousin.

  • Alan Lord

    Hi Donna – I was not suggesting that anyone should purposefully continue to perpetuate the “myth” that Gallows Hill was the site of the executions. I was merely speculating that if the proposed memorial is done in a low-key manner, the actual site may somewhat escape the tramplings of the casual tourist. Indeed, one needs only to look at the photo that you have posted of the Salem Witch Trials Memorial of last October to understand that.

    Naturally, the importance of the actual site is of utmost importance only to a relatively, small group of serious historians. The understanding that the people of Salem/Salem Village found themselves engulfed in hysteria and the tragic executions that resulted from that hysteria is the most important message.

    Having been born and raised in Salem, along with residing in Topsfield and later Portsmouth, NH, I have a very firm understanding of the history of the area. My ancestor, Anthony Brackett of Portsmouth, NH – along with his family and others, were the unfortunate victims of the “Brackett Massacre” of 1691. Some of the victims were captured by the indians.

    As far as the Puritans of Salem were concerned, anyone who entered into their community and later found out to be a former captive of the indians, was considered a “plant” of the devil sent to “infect” the community. Needless to say, they were “encouraged” to leave. Yet another persecution levied by the Puritans.

    At any rate, after the publishing of the investigators findings – which has now found its way into the national news (Reuters published an article on this story, earlier this evening) – it will be interesting to see if this turns out to be a problem for the residents of the neighborhood. Perhaps it would have been best to have a bit of a plan to help lessen the potential of the commercialization or unwanted intrusion of the neighborhood prior to the group’s publishing their findings.

    By the way, the use of ground-penetrating radar that showed nothing, does not constitute any kind of evidence.

    As always, your posts are very much appreciated. I look forward to each and every one of them.

    Alan Brackett Lord

    • daseger

      Thanks, Alan. Sorry I misunderstood your previous comment a bit–I certainly got the point of “low key” memorialization (if that’s a word!). That is my primary concern as well–I love the Memorial downtown but the city is not protecting it–or the adjacent Old Burying Point–from the tour guides or the ravages of Witchcraft Tourism. I received around 70 emails from people who were horrified by the pictures of the these sacred spaces in October from people all over the country, and many descendants of people buried on Charter Street. I certainly don’t want to see this sacred site so desecrated. We’ll see what happens next!

  • Alan Lord

    Corrections to previous post – “Indians” (capitalized)

    • daseger

      And I’m back again, Alan: do check out the Salem News and Boston Globe articles that I have linked in the post: I might have (probably) got the science wrong.

  • Emerson Baker (@EmersonWBaker)

    Alan and Donna, I’ve enjoyed reading this and have a couple observations. First, a great deal of planing went into the timing of the release of our findings. We have been working with the city since we started our work back in 2010. We had a very good meeting a few months ago with Mayor Driscoll to first present our findings. We deliberately waited until winter, after the tourist rush was over. we have stressed that there is nothing to see there now, and encouraged people to continue to go to the existing memorial. The city organized a neighborhood meeting back in December where we presented our findings, and answered questions. Much of the presentation focused on things like, access, traffic, parking, and other things that are very important to the neighborhood.

    I’m sure things there is always room for improvement, but we have tried. The city, and all of us involved in the project are very concerned about the residents of the neighborhood as well as the site. No one who moved their counted on this. My understanding is that the city is eager to hear concerns, and to work with people, and to try to minimize the impact of the site. The goal is not to create another tourist destination, but to see that that site is properly cared for, monitored, and marked so it cannot be lost again.

    So, yes, low key. As I’ve said repeatedly to reporters, that is what is appropriate for this site, given its nature, and its location.

    And, I have to tell you I have been unprepared and overwhelmed by the response I have received from descendants of the victims. I’ve received long e-mails and voice mails from people across the country who are incredibly thankful that this site is finally going to be recognized. So, it is not just the historians that care about this. A lot of people are very thankful to Salem for doing this.324 years later the healing process continues.

    I don’t know the specific steps, meetings, etc. the city has planned right now, but I encourage you both and others who care about Salem to be involved so that this can be done in the best way possible.

  • Alan Lord

    Emerson (if I may) – I was delighted to see your post. As I was out driving today, the thought that you might have chosen this time of the year to release your findings popped into my mind. You are, of course, quite correct in pointing out that there are more than just a select few that have more than a casual interest in your finally nailing down the actual site.

    My mind has been greatly relieved to hear of all the “bases” that you and your team have covered in regard to helping to see to it that the site will be handled with care and sensitivity.

    Thanks, so much, for all of your painstaking research and related work on this project – You and everyone involved in this project.

  • Bobcat Beat : Confirmed Salem, Mass. site where 19 hanged during the Salem witch trials

    […] Seger, “This Time with Dignity,” Streets of Salem, January 12, 2016. A thoughtful discussion of Gallows Hill and Salem’s legacy […]

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