Salem will dedicate memorial at site of witch trial hangings

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SALEM, Mass. — In an update to a previous story, the city of Salem has finished its memorial project dedicated to the people executed in its infamous witch trial hangings. It was July 19, 1692 that the first of three mass hangings took place; five people were killed including Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin, Rebecca Nurse, and Sarah Wildes.

A bench at the 1992 Witch Trials Memorial [H. Greene].

Mayor Kim Driscoll chose this date to honor the victims and to dedicate the new memorial, located at Proctor’s Ledge where the actual hangings took place.

As we reported last year, the hanging site has been ignored, forgotten, or left to speculation. Many people assumed that the executions occurred not far away at the top of Gallows Hill. However, with renewed effort and modern technology, the actual location is no longer a mystery.

“I find it is an incredibly important story that is often told wrong,” said Dr. Emerson Baker, professor of history at Salem State University, told the Wild Hunt. Baker has been studying 17th century New England for almost 40 years, and Salem’s story for over 20.

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, that small abandoned area is where the hangings actually occurred. A local team of scientists and historians, working under the Gallows Hill Project, announced this discovery in January 2016.

Modern day Witch Sandra Wright 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.”

Gallows Hill Park [Willjay/Wikimedia Commons]

The space called Proctor’s Ledge is located behind a Walgreens, bound by Boston and Proctor streets. Since the Gallows Hill Project announcement, the city and local residents have come together to raise money for a new memorial monument at the site.

According to the city’s website, “The design and construction of the memorial, as well as improvements to the streetscape and the parcel itself, were funded primarily through a $174,000 Community Preservation Act grant, as well as dozens of small donations, many from descendants of those wrongfully executed at the site.”

The memorial itself was designed by Massachusetts architect Martha Lyon. In 2016, Lyon told a local reporter that, in soliciting ideas for designs, “opinions of the project are about as far apart as you can be.” Some ideas focused on the city needing to simply create a historical marker and to clean up the area for better access. Others had a broader vision, imagining a site that served as a reminder of the intolerance and injustices that perpetuated the trials. Still others were looking for a quiet, respectful memorial to the victims.

Over the centuries, the residents of Salem have not always embraced their locale as “America’s Witch City.” As noted by Lyon in her discussion of the new monument, the 1936 city board, who voted to buy the land at Proctor’s Ledge, could not agree on what to do with it, or why they were purchasing.

As recently reported by The Salem News, an old 1936 article demonstrates this point. When asked the site’s purpose, the 1936 board president said, “it was something to memorialize the affair of the witches.” However, another councillor said that he “did not think that was something of which they were very proud.”

Nothing was ever developed.

It would be years later that the city as a whole finally acknowledged and embraced its well-known past, as Baker explained to TWH in 2016. “The Crucible, along with Bewitched and then the 300th anniversary in 1992 all helped popularize it, along with the arrival of [Laurie] Cabot and other Wiccans,” he said.

It took the slow movement of time, a growing cultural legacy and mythos, and the arrival of real Witches to turn the city into what it is today, including its relationship with Witchcraft, past and present.

As noted, to mark the 300th anniversary of the trials, the city did erect a memorial, but it is not located at Proctor’s Ledge. The Witch Trials Memorial, as it is called, still remains in place, nestled between other buildings on a small plot of land.

The new memorial, which is located at the actual hanging site, is the next addition to the city’s recognition of its history and the unique culture that has since formed there.

[City of Salem.]

The Proctor’s Ledge Memorial will be dedicated July 19 at noon, as proclaimed by Mayor Driscoll. The event is open to the public and will take place on Proctor Street.

Leading up to the memorial’s unveiling, Discoll also proclaimed June 10, 2017 as an official “Day of Remembrance.” The proclamation reads:

WHEREAS:  325 years ago on this date of June 10the in 1692 Bridget Playfer Bishop of Salem Town was wrongfully and unjustly executed for the supposed crime of witchcraft, becoming the first of 25 innocent people to die as a result of the hysteria; and

WHEREAS:  All of the dozens of individuals were each wholly innocent and convicted based on spectral evidence, lies, and hysteria; and

WHEREAS:  Salem continues to shine a light on its history in order that all may learn from the lessons and legacies of this city’s past; and

WHEREAS:  The values of inclusivity, tolerance, open mindedness, and kindness are central to who we are as a community and are directly informed by the events of our past;

NOW, THEREFORE, I, Kimberley Driscoll, Mayor of the City of Salem,  do hereby proclaim June 10, 2017 as:

A Day of Remembrance in recognition of the tragic events that unfolded 325 years ago commencing on this date, and do call upon the residents of Salem and all places to mark this occasion with reflection on the lessons and legacies of our community’s past and with acts of kindness and generosity to strangers and neighbors alike.

When asked this week about the new memorial installation and upcoming dedication, Wright said she still feels the same way as she did a year ago, adding that “the city is talking about amendments to the tour regulations that will prevent tour companies from taking tours to Proctor’s Ledge.”

She likes that idea: “I don’t think we need to parade tours there. There are many other places in downtown Salem that this subject can be discussed. Let those who are truly interested in seeing the actual site make their way there if they choose… as people have been for decades.”

“Determined tourists have been seeking out Gallows Hill on their own for ages,” she explained.

“They won’t need a guided tour or a crafted speech; the journey itself is part of the message the past has revealed to us today: if we are not vigilant, we could lose sight of the lesson, so we must work to protect the innocent and preserve the peace that came at too high a cost.”

In 2016, Wright made the comment, which she still holds to be true, that ultimately “Magick is not limited to line of sight or property lines.”

Despite all of the attention being given to any one memorial, “the current [of magick] 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.”

She said, “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.”

This year, magic has changed the city’s narrative once again, turning that neglected “backdrop” into a dedicated historical marker, a somber memorial site, and a place that people can personally embrace and remember the city’s famous past in whatever way or however they choose.

Updated 7/16/17 3:04 pm