Once there was a dirt road, the “Boston road,” that ran beside a pond on the way out of Salem. (Now it is called Boston Street.) Then there came a railroad, and a shoe factory, and today a Walgreens drugstore with the actual witch execution site in back, next to the drive-up prescription window.
Why did no one know that?
When the last person who remembered the executions of 1692 was gone — and with no one interested in building a memorial to a shameful episode — memory of the site was lost. People knew that they took place “over there” (gesturing to the southwest), and the most notable geographic feature over there became known as Gallows Hill. As Emerson Baker, a history professor at Salem State University puts it,
The executions on Gallows Hill were the climax of one of the most famous events in American history, but the hangings themselves are poorly documented. The precise location and events of the executions have been, until this point, generally lost to history. Tradition has simply placed it broadly on Gallows Hill, which covers many acres of land. In the 17th century Gallows Hill was common land located just outside the boundary of the city of Salem, then defined by a protective palisade (a fortified wall)
Watch this videotaped lecture delivered in October 2016 at the Salem Witch Museum by Prof. Baker and local historian Marilynn K. Roach. They point out that Sidney Perley, a Salem lawyer and antiquarian, worked out the answer in the early 20th century — they call him their “patron saint.” Key evidence: sight lines from known 17th-century houses from which people viewed the hangings: they could see Proctor’s Ledge but not Gallows Hill from there.
For even more information, see Baker’s Gallows Hill Project website.
With the site identified, Baker said, descendants of the accused witches contacted him from all around the country, offering contributions toward a memorial. But Salem’s mayor, Kimberly Driscoll, stepped forward and said that building the memorial was the city’s responsibility. Here is the city’s news release. (They did accept donations but funded it mostly through a state Community Preservation Act grant.)
As for me, I liked the view from the Walgreens better, and I left a little tribute (an antique British shilling) there under a stone.If archaeologists ever find it, they might attribute it to a Victorian-era visitor. The contrast between the stark rock outcropping where “witches” died and the tidy Walgreens drive-up lane is just another Salem thing. You cannot easily make them mesh, any more than you can mesh those nineteen people and today’s Pagan Witches. (Well, I can think of one way, and I will try to deal with it later.)
The name “Gallows Hill” is wrong too. For one thing, as Marilynn Roach points out, the sheriff’s and constables’ expense records and requests for reimbursement survive, in minute details. And nowhere is there something like “X shillings for dressed timber and labour for building of ye gallows.”
There are no oaks on Proctor’s Ledge today (mostly locust), but in 1692 apparently there was a big oak tree with sturdy, spreading branches. No cost, just bring a ladder. Hence the sapling oak in the memorial??
Archaeologists crawled all over Proctor’s Ledge and used ground-penetrating radar, but they found nothing: no bones, no remnants of any structure. There had been a report of bodies dumped in crevices in the rocks, but if so, their families or somebody recovered them.
And now some “woo,” since you have read this far. On June 25, 1914 a fire burned through the southern part of Salem, pretty much everything south of Derby Street. Eighteen thousand people were left homeless, and more than 1,300 buildings destroyed, many of them wooden tenements housing factory workers (shoes, textiles, etc.) Photo source here.
Where did it start? At the foot of Proctor’s Ledge.
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