Researchers identify Salem Witch trial hanging site

Heather Greene —  January 17, 2016 — 3 Comments

SALEM, Mass — On Jan. 11, it was announced that researchers with the Gallows Hill Project had definitively identified where the 19 victims of the Salem Witch trials had been killed. Up until this point, the hanging site was ignored, forgotten or left to speculation. Many believed that the hangings actually occurred at the top of Gallows Hill. However, with renewed effort and current technology, the actual location is no longer a mystery.


[Photo Credit: H. Greene]

“We are happy to be able to bring years of debate to an end. Our analysis draws upon multiple lines of research to confirm the location of the executions,” said Dr. Emerson Baker, professor of History at Salem State University, and one of the Gallows Hill Project team members. Dr. Baker has been studying 17th century New England for almost 40 years and Salem’s story for over 20. In an email interview, he told The Wild Hunt, “I find it is an incredibly important story that is often told wrong.”

Dr. Baker further explained that, in 1936, the city of Salem purchased a strip of land near the base of Gallows Hill. It was labeled “Witch Memorial Land,” but was never marked or utilized in any way. As it turns out, this small area is where the hangings actually occurred.

The space is called Proctor’s Ledge and is located behind a Walgreens, bound by Boston Street and Proctor Street. Today that city-owned property still remains unmarked and appears only as a typical unused lot nestled in an urban jungle. The greenery is overgrown, and the ground is littered with scrap iron and trash. Dr. Baker believes that “it needs to be cleaned up and treated with respect and dignity.”

That is exactly what the city now plans to do. Mayor Kimberley Driscoll responded to Monday’s announcement by saying:

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. Salem is constantly looking to the lessons of its past. Whether it was through the formation of our No Place for Hate Committee and our landmark non-discrimination ordinance, or through the good work of the Salem Award Foundation, the lessons we learn from our history directly inform the values and actions we take as a community today. Salem, long known for a dark time in our past when people turned on each other, is now a community where people turn toward each other. Having this site identified marks an important opportunity for Salem, as a city, to come together and recognize the injustice and tragedy perpetrated against 19 innocent people.

How did this group identify the exact area? Dr. Baker details the methods in his own essay on the topic. To summarize, in 2010, Elizabeth Peterson, Director of Salem’s Corwin House, or the Witch House, brought together a team of researchers to look into the matter. That team included Dr. Baker as well as Shelby Hypes, Chair, Salem Award Foundation; Tom Phillips, producer of Salem Witch Trials: Examine the EvidenceBenjamin Ray, professor of Religion, University of Virginia; Marilynne Roach, Salem witch trials historian and author; and Peter Sablock, professor of Geology, Salem State University.

Over the next six years, the group gathered a combination of data, including the 1936 research done by historian Sydney Perley, eyewitness accounts and testimonies and output from current geological studies, to pinpoint the exact location. Based on their analysis, it became very clear that the location could not be the top of Gallows Hill. The location had to be Proctor’s Ledge.

Gallows Hill Park [Photo Credit: Willjay / Wikimedia]

Gallows Hill Park [Photo Credit: Willjay / Wikimedia]

Aside from documentation and geological findings, the team also explained, “Executions were meant to be public events, so everyone could witness the terrible consequences that awaited those who committed witchcraft and other serious crimes. The top of Gallows Hill would be much more difficult to access than Proctor’s Ledge, which is high ground located just outside the walls of Salem, close by the only road out of town.”

Modern day Witch Sandra Wright is a Salem native and was not surprised when she heard the news. She told The Wild Hunt, “This is knowledge I’ve had for years, based on writings discussing clues like the location of the North River, as well as maps from the 1800s.” Wright is a third-generation Salem resident who is High Priestess of Elphame coven. She and her husband currently live on land owned by her family for over 100 years – land that is located on Gallows Hill.

“When my husband was researching our home on Gallows Hill, trying to go back before my family acquired the property almost 100 years ago, insurance maps showed [Proctor Ledge] to be the location,” she explained. “For years, Witches and psychics have asked me how I could stand living there with all the tormented spirits, and I said it never disturbed me. I grew up in it, and never felt any ill will or harmful energy in my beloved park or my woods.”

So why has it taken so long for the city to confirm the spot or for this project to even be undertaken? Dr. Baker said, “Witchcraft has cast a long shadow over Salem.” He explained further that Salem, as a city, was embarrassed by what had occurred. The first book describing the incident was published in 1699 in London, and it mocked the city for the hysteria.

In his own A Storm of Witchcraft, Baker argues that Salem was America’s first tragedy and first “large scale government failure and cover-up.” He further explained how the legacy of what happened was carried across the country as people moved west. “It was a terrible fall from grace that people have never been able to forget,” Dr. Baker said. “Salem has long been a metaphor of persecution, scapegoats and rushing to judgment – well before the Crucible.”

In 1936, when Peley theorized that Proctor Ledge was the hanging location, the city purchased the property, noting its value. But shortly after, the data were quickly lost and the study buried. Dr. Baker explained, “I think it was that collective amnesia at work again. Some people wanted to do the right thing, but others would rather have it forgotten.”

Although Salem was dubbed the “Witch City” as early as 1892, it took decades for the concept to be fully and positively embraced. Baker said, “The Crucible, along with Bewitched and then the 300th anniversary in 1992 all helped popularize it, along with the arrival of Cabot and other Wiccans […] And I think the city first really grappled with it in preparations for 1992, which was when the memorial was built.”

Salem Witch Trial Memorial [Photo Credit: Willjay / Wikimedia]

Salem Witch Trial Memorial [Photo Credit: Willjay / Wikimedia]

This 1992 Salem Witch Trial Memorial is located in a entirely different part of the city and rests next to a cemetery with graves dating back to 1692. Dr. Baker speculates that the space was chosen for its convenience to downtown. In 2013, Covenant of the Goddess members held a ritual in that space to honor the dead. This memorial ritual was a spontaneous event that occurred during the organization’s national meeting, Merry Meet, which was being held at the historic Hawthorne Hotel only blocks away.

Unfortunately Proctor’s Ledge, even when converted into a memorial space, will not be big enough to hold similar rituals or larger memorial events. Describing the space, Dr. Baker said, “The site on Gallows Hill is a postage stamp lot, right in people’s back yards, with no available parking.”

Wright agreed, saying “It is no more than a rock ledge and some trees now behind the Walgreens.” She added, “We will continue to hold our public rituals where it makes sense to hold them. We have no desire to disrupt the neighborhood.” She has held rituals in the public park, the Salem Greens or the 1992 memorial site, all of which are downtown.

“Magick is not limited to line of sight or property lines,” she added. “The current runs beyond the square footage designated by the historians or the city government, and we can tap into it without needing to physically stand on the exact location, which has changed over the centuries. What once stood as an ominous cautionary tale to all whose eyes dared look upon it has since become the unassuming, neglected backdrop to a parking lot. That’s the Magick of Time!”

Going forward, the city is taking the Gallows Hill Project findings and “requesting a Community Preservation Act grant to help fund a project on the location that will clean the heavily wooded parcel up, install a tasteful plaque or marker, and include elements to ensure neighbors’ property and traffic are not negatively impacted by any visitors.”

Dr. Baker described the the overall community response as positive. He said, ” I have personally received overwhelmingly supportive and favorable responses from the community, and from descendants. It is really heartwarming.”

Wright, herself a longtime neighbor of Proctor’s Ledge, said, “I’m happy to see the city recognizing this location for the sake of preserving an accurate account of our history.”

For more information on the project or Salem’s history, the Gallows Hill Team has provided an extensive list of sources on the press release website.

Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer, film historian, and journalist, living in the Deep South. She has collaborated with Lady Liberty League on religious liberty cases, and formerly served as Public Information Officer for Dogwood Local Council and Covenant of the Goddess. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History from Emory University with a background in the performing and visual arts. Heather's book on witches in American film and television will be published by McFarland in 2018.
  • Govannon Thunorwulf

    The one time I was at the memorial site on “Gallows Hill,” I didn’t feel as tho this was the site of the hangings. I do remember walking passed “Proctor’s Ledge” on my way to the site and feeling some strange energy, but this “strange energy” feeling happened many times all over Salem. I enjoyed walking around Salem, but the multitudes of various energy throughout the area was too much for me. I would not be able to live there.

  • Robert Mathiesen

    Sinday Perley’s article idetifying the site of the hangings was published in _The Historical Collections of the Danvers Historical Society_ vol. 9 (1921). A PDF of the entire volume is openly available on line through google.

  • Christian Day

    Great article and I loved Sandra’s commentary as usual.

    As I’ve stated elsewhere, I am glad that researchers have come together to finally deduce what many in Salem already suspected was the precise location of the infamous hangings of the 1692 Witchcraft trials. All in all, it’s still pretty close to the Gallows Hill park, where Witches have gone for years to commemorate the victims of the trials. Some people argued it was in Danvers where the Danvers State Mental Hospital was, though that theory seemed to fit part of a broader argument that the trials happened in Danvers, a fallacy you see repeated often by online armchair historians who know nothing of Salem Town’s very real connection to the incident. Yes, many of the victims lives in what is now Danvers, but they were imprisoned, brought to trial, and hanged in Salem Town proper and the politics of Salem Town had a huge influence on the causes behind the trials.

    I do wish they had dug further, literally, to find possible remains. I don’t agree that the relatives all came to claim the bodies. I have never seen that written anywhere in the numerous books I’ve read on the subject of the trials, and even the story that Rebecca Nurse’s family came to get her is still unproven local folklore.

    On other articles like this, some of the local residents have taken opportunities to attack any association between Salem and the modern Witch.

    Witches have been in Salem for nearly fifty years. If they can talk about the Gulf War like it’s a page out of a history book (making me feel even older) then we’re definitely part of the history of the city. Witches live and work in Salem. Countless other Witches live elsewhere and work in Salem, including my husband and I, who live in New Orleans but own property in Salem as well as several businesses. Several years back, the city’s official tourism organization, Destination Salem, commissioned a tourism survey and asked respondents why they chose Salem. Among the many choices they were allowed to check off, including Maritime history, 1692, arts and culture, dining, and shopping, 89% of the respondents included “the modern Witch” as part of the tapestry of qualities that attracted them to the Witch City. Before people thumb their nose at such tourist dollars, they should consider that they might be offending an actual group of people whose ultimate goal is to deepen their connection to spirit and help others to do the same.

    One question I’ve been asked for years is, “why are there Witches here in Salem if nobody in 1692 were Witches?”

    First off, we don’t know for sure who practiced folk magic and who didn’t and it really depends on how you define Witchcraft in the spectrum between operative magic and nature religion. Whether it is made up of simple folk practices or complex ceremonies, magic can be found in all religions. The Puritans certainly frowned on any form of occult behavior, but if Tituba, Abigail Williams, Betty Parris, and the rest of the cast of Mean Girls 1692 were any indication, not everyone followed the rules. Now, whether there were practitioners of a religious cult of Witches in 1692 Salem is another matter entirely and I doubt very much that there were.

    Secondly, Mohammed didn’t make a pilgrimage to a McDonald’s in Dearborn, Michegan; Jesus didn’t roll the stone at the local Cracker Barrel in Virginia Beach; and there’s no Wailing Wall in Booklyn. Sometimes, all it takes is for one person of a faith to set down roots and the rest of the forest grows from there.

    Finally, the city of Salem is more associated with Witchcraft in the public mind than anyplace on Earth. What better place for real Witches to educate the public about the misconceptions and truths created by incidents such as the trials?

    I think some might seek to invalidate the commemorations held in the park due to this most recent investigation. I disagree with that since the park is still the closest area to the site unless people want to hold a circle in the Walgreens parking lot or disrespectfully traipse through neighboring yards. Heck, years ago many thought it was at the top of the hill and still held their commemorations at the bottom where it was flat and easy to walk.

    Like Sandra Mariah Wright, I prefer to honor the victims of the trials at the memorial at the Charter Street Cemetery since there is something physically there to commemorate them. I appreciate the mayor’s plan to memorialize the site but I agree with Sandra Wright that the best place to honor them is the park. Whether they were actual Witches or not is irrelevant to me. They were jailed, tortured, and hanged because their society played into age-old stereotypes and misconceptions about Witches. In that regard, they now serve to remind us not only of the types of tragedies that the wrong ideas of Witchcraft can lead to, but the results of societal scapegoating in general. The trials are an important part of history we should never forget, and, so too are the stories of all those murdered as a result of the misguided hatred of Witches.


    Christian Day