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Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Exact Site of Salem Witch Trial Hangings Confirmed

Nearly 325 years after 19 people accused of witchcraft were hanged in Salem, a team of researchers using historical documents and 21st-century archaeological techniques has confirmed the exact site where the falsely accused met their fate: Proctor’s Ledge.

Researchers announced they have confirmed the plot is where those accused of witchcraft were hanged in a wave of hysteria that swept this seaside city in 1692.

Proctor's Ledge is a wooded spot overlooking Walgreens on Boston Street and is unremarkable. It is a rocky ledge of knotted trees, surrounded by houses and the path to the top is unpaved. It is a small city-owned plot of woods nestled between two residential streets and behind the Walgreens pharmacy.

All 19 people who were executed by hanging during the witch trials are believed to have died at Proctor’s Ledge; five others accused of witchcraft died in jail, and one was crushed to death.

While there are about 1,000 records detailing the Salem witch trials, the information about the executions is scant. Historians have found no evidence that gallows were constructed and surmise the accused witches were hung from tree branches.

Proctor's Ledge

Historian Sidney Perley had pinpointed Proctor’s Ledge nearly a century ago as the site of the hangings by using historical documents, but his findings were lost to time.

1921 map shows what historian Sidney Perley’s research of the area found

In one letter written in 1791 by “Dr. Holyoke.” The letter described a story told by John Symonds, who was born the year the hangings occurred.

He has told me that his nurse had often told him, that, while she was attending his mother at the time she lay in with him, she saw, from the chamber windows, those unhappy people hanging on Gallows’ Hill, who were executed for witches by the delusion of the times,” the letter read.

Proctor's Ledge - Site of Salem Hangings

Another description came from Rebecca Eames, a Boxford resident hauled into Salem for questioning Aug. 19, 1692, the same day five executions took place.

Eames’s guards escorted her along Boston Road, below Proctor’s Ledge, the researchers said. As they approached the courthouse, the guards came upon the hangings and left Eames at a nearby house while they watched the executions.

Eames later told the magistrate she was at “the house below the hill” and saw some “folks” at the execution. Roach determined the house Eames cited was probably the McCarter residence or one of its neighbors on Boston Street.

Image of what the area looked like in 1861

Once researchers established the vantage points for the eyewitness accounts, they turned to the mapping technology and aerial photography.

They learned the eyewitnesses could not have seen the top of Gallows Hill from where they observed the executions, but they could see Proctor’s Ledge, located in between what is now Proctor and Pope streets.

Their inquiry also concluded no victims are buried at Proctor’s Ledge, the researchers said.

At the time of the hangings, Proctor’s Ledge was public land where residents could let sheep graze, Baker said. It is named for Thorndike Proctor, who purchased land there during the 18th century. He is a descendant of a witch trial victim, John Proctor.

Given that executions then were meant “to serve as an example of what happens to people who break the law, the highly visible site was logical, Baker said.

Now the city intends to mark the location with a memorial, according to Mayor Kim Driscoll, but the Mayor also wants to respect the rights of the people who live in the area. The city doesn’t want visitors tramping through private backyards looking for the spot.

Instead, Mayor Kim Driscoll encourages visitors to go to the memorial and museum downtown.

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