If you’re even somewhat familiar with my blog you can probably tell that the Salem Witch Trials, both past and present, is a continuous preoccupation/irritant for me. This is as much due to my residence as my paradoxical perspective: as a historian trained in early modern European history (when as many as 60,000 people were executed for witchcraft and roughly half that number put on trial), I just can’t understand why this very late and relatively small trial has been blown up into this epic and enduring event, by both academic historians and witchcraft entrepreneurs alike (well maybe I can understand the latter’s motivations). Yet there is such still such profound ignorance and misunderstanding about this event, which I think fuels its constant exploitation. This past week was a big week in Salem Witch Trial history, with the verification of Proctor’s Ledge as the execution site for the victims of 1692 by a team of dedicated scholars, authors and advocates: a disclosure that went viral pretty quickly. I tried to follow the coverage, from the very good Salem News and Boston Globe stories to the pieces in national and digital venues like USA Today and the Huffington Post, but because the latter were clearly based on the former (and the very substantive press release put out the Gallows Hill Project) I pretty quickly turned my attention to reactions (comments) in general and local reactions in particular. It appears that it is just about impossible for most people to view history without a 21st-century lens, so most of the comments were predictable: the “witches” executed on that site were the victims of today’s “Puritans”(evangelical Christians, Republicans, leftist Liberals, Hillary Clinton supporters, ISIS/ISIL–depending on your perspective). As you can imagine, this got old pretty quickly so I turned to local reactions, expecting more specificity and engagement. I got that, along with the sense of “is this news?”, which I see as a real tribute to meticulous work of Sidney Perley, who identified Proctor’s Ledge as the execution site nearly a century ago. Perley’s contributions were emphasized in the Gallow Hill Project press release as well, and since he is sharing the spotlight, I thought we should see him: pictured on Proctor’s Ledge in 1921 (from an article in The Collections of the Danvers Historical Society, Volume 9, 1921, edited by Harriet Silvester Tapley).
Beyond the we knew that sentiment, what else did I glean from local reactions to this news? Here follows a very random and impressionistic sampling of the good, the bad, and the ugly:
The Good: lots of descendants clearly wanted to weigh in with their ancestor’s story. This discovery/confirmation was clearly very relevant to them. I was also happy to see a real debate emerge about memorialization and what should be done with the site–more on that below.
The Bad: there’s still a lot of confusion out there, despite the prolific scholarship. People still refer to witch-burnings, ergotism will never die, and the Salem Village (present-day Danvers) origins of the accusations do not seem to be fully grasped, still.
The Ugly (or just silly): as Proctor’s Ledge is located right behind a Walgreens’ parking lot, there are lots of Walgreens jokes out there–you know, “the corner of happy and heresy”, etc.
Commemoration is tricky: the overwhelming local concern is just how Proctor’s Ledge will be marked–and what access will be granted. This concern is coming from various perspectives, principally that of the abutting neighbors, of course, and that of people who are opposed to the intensifying witchcraft “schlockiness” of Salem. This comment on the Globe article seems to unite these two perspectives: As a resident of the city who lives a stone’s throw from the site, I beg that this hallowed ground not be added to the array of grotesques that “commemorate” this act of insanity. Let the site be. It deserves to not be forgotten, but more so deserves not to be a stop on some disrespectful trolley tour of gawkers and Goths. Sadly (to me, at least) there were also comments that expressed resignation that Salem was always (or at least from 1692) going to be Witch City: again, from the Globe: Plymouth has its Rock and Salem has its witches and warlocks. One of our leading Witch City purveyors (who happens to live in New Orleans), expressed a similar sentiment in the Salem News: Witches are to Salem what music is here in New Orleans.
Salem Tour Guide Kenneth Glover at Proctor’s Ledge/ John Blanding, Globe Staff: “When people come [to Salem] . . . they all want to know where it happened.”
So I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but I think debate–if it is substantive and respectful–is always healthy for a community. Given that witch trials were so intense in certain areas of Europe in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries I’m always looking to these sites for examples of comparative commemoration–and none of them have turned themselves into a Witch City! I’ve always thought there were some important parallels between Salem 1692 and one of the more notorious English trials, the “Pendle” trials in Lancashire (1612), a comparison I made in a post from a few years ago. Salem was a larger and more isolated episode in terms of geography and time (185 accusations, 59 trials, 31 convictions, 19 executions, one death by torture/interrogation versus 16 trials, 10 executions and one death in prison in Pendle), but both were viewed as conspicuously collective and conspiratorial and well-publicized. There is some witchcraft tourism in Pendle, but as this community faced the 400th anniversary of the Trials in 2012, there was debate about how to acknowledge the dark event. And just at this time, engineers conducting reservoir repairs unearthed a seventeenth-century stone cottage with the remains of a mummified cat within its walls that was almost immediately heralded as a “witches’ cottage” and the site of a famous coven testified to by the Trial’s nine-year-old star “witness”, Jennett Device. After about a year of archaeological study (and vandalism) the site was revealed to be a weaver’s cottage and reburied “in order to preserve it”.
Simon Entwistle of Top Hat Tours on the site of the unearthed (and later reburied) 17th-century cottage in Lancashire.
There is definitely some schlock in Pendle, but their Witches Walk is a public initiative rather than a private “attraction”, profiting no one and serving as the main legacy of the 400th anniversary commemoration. This 51-mile route (indicating just how regional the Lancashire Trials were, just like Salem, and broken up into seven separate walks), connecting all the sites referenced in the Trial testimonies and culminating at Lancaster Castle, where the ten victims were condemned to die, is marked by 10 waymarkers, each inscribed with a tercet or verse of a poem by British Poet Laureate Dame Carol Ann Duffy. It is inspirational.
“Tercet” waymaker # 9 on the Lancashire Witch Walk, dedicated to the memory of Anne Whittle.