Proctor’s Ledge and Pendle

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 Postbut 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).

Perley Crevice

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. 

blanding011216witches3met

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”.

Pendle Guide Simon Entwistle

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“Tercet” waymaker # 9 on the Lancashire Witch Walk, dedicated to the memory of Anne Whittle.


14 responses to “Proctor’s Ledge and Pendle

  • saraannon

    I am a direct descendant of both Rebbecca Nurse and William Phips which seems an inescapable influence despite growing up in New Mexico. I tend to think that the earthshakingly traumatic realization that still resonates down the line was that we persecuted and self-righteous Puritans were not capable of maintaining the promised Eden, but were no better than those we had left behind. The realization that all and or any of us who were once victims could lie steal cheat and murder for profit right along with the worst of our persecutors is one worth remembering if we are to avoid persecuting others now and in the future.

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  • saraannon

    ‘self-righteous puritans were not ONLY not capable’
    my computer seems afflicted by demons, 😉

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    • daseger

      Very interesting, Sara! Thanks for your comments. Still inescapable in Arizona, huh? So it’s not just a New England guilt thing.

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      • daseger

        NEW MEXICO! Demons here too.

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      • saraannon

        Nope, its more like a narcissistic personality disorder thing…We would dearly love to be seen as god’s perfect Chosen people and it is quite shocking and humbling to be forced to admit even with all our gifts (we do tend to fit the Rhodes scholar profile- smart, literate, creative, athletic, charismatic, etc) we are imperfect fallible humans like every one else.

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      • saraannon

        On a slightly unrelated note, one of the peculiar bits of unsubstantiated trivia passed along in my maternal line is that Rebecca’s daughters were prone to passing along the news that they were really Jewish on their deathbeds to selected (usually at least) granddaughters. Do you know of any actual information pro or con the Jewishness of the Townes family out there?

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      • daseger

        Oh my goodness, no–but I’m certainly going to look into it!

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      • saraannon

        It is a bit of a challenge since the Jewishness is passed along the maternal line and women change their last names with every marriage… and have been purposefully concealing it for generations besides. Settling the rumor might come down to mitochondrial DNA testing, which I haven’t gotten around to quite yet….

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  • Sean Palmatier

    I am totally with you on being frustrated by people’s behavioral disregard for the preservation of historic sites, on the continued misinformation from sources local and general about the actual events of the Essex County witch hysteria, and disrespect for the rich historical city (beyond 1692) that is Salem.

    That said, there is something very satisfying in the knowledge that the colonists whose superstitious views led to those innocents being put to death would be horrified by our open mockery of their belief in supernatural harm. We should be proud of the playful disregard of such superstition that manifests every October in Salem, as there are parts of the world in which people are still executed for magical crimes. As the saying goes: sometimes the best revenge if a life well lived.

    It falls to we historians to fight the good fight for advocacy, and accuracy. Although this seems a perpetual uphill battle I’m always excited to see you posting on it. I’m looking forward to the day when someone says something about ‘witch burnings’ in Salem and a non historian corrects them. Until then, keep fighting the good fight.

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    • daseger

      Hi Sean, interesting perspective and thanks for the encouragement…I don’t know, I’m getting a bit tired of this particular topic: got to get back to less controversial “wondrous” things! Hope all is well.

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  • Brian Bixby

    I was recently reading “America Bewitched” by Owen Davies (2013), a partly scholarly, partly popular account of how Americans dealt with witchcraft AFTER Salem. (If you don’t know about Pennsylvania hex doctors, you don’t know how persistent witchcraft belief is.) What’s interesting about Salem from this perspective is how it always serves as the touchstone for later events. “Civilized” Americans trying to end witchcraft persecutions among Native Americans always noted that they (white Americans) had once persecuted witches, too, at Salem, but had since grown more civilized. And this is typical. Salem is used both to point out how fallible and credulous Americans ONCE WERE, and as a contrast to benighted Americans who STILL BELIEVE.

    Now I’ve not yet seen the post you’ve put up today on the “Bewitched” statue, though I can well guess your position. And while kitsch is in many ways anti-history, nevertheless there’s a point to Samantha Stevens being commemorated in Salem that fits in with Davies’ argument: once again, it’s the contrast between what was, and what is now. (Though Wiccans may beg to differ.)

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    • daseger

      Very eloquent point, Brian. You will note (when you get to the Samantha post, which you no doubt will as you’re such a faithful reader–I would think you’ve had enough of me and Salem) that my feelings have evolved somewhat on Samantha–I think she should stay in Salem, just not in that particular place.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Brian Bixby

        Well, someday I need to get up there (again, I was able to catch Margo Shea just before she left) so we can talk Shakers as well. And I hope to make it to your Samantha post today, but I’m playing catch-up after a long weekend at the sci-fi/fantasy con ARISIA.

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