We go up every October, but this year we took a somber detour before we went downtown to the Halloween festivities. We went to find Proctor's Ledge, the site where the city's famous nineteen accused witches were executed in 1692.
Historians were only recently able to accurately determine where the witch trial's gallows stood. It was known the executions happened on Gallows Hill, but not precisely where. In the 18th century two locust trees had been planted at the site as a memorial, but by the 19th century they were gone and there was no record of where they had been. Most historians in the 1800s simply assumed the executions had occurred at the top of Gallows Hill.
In the 1920s Salem historian Sidney Perley put forth an alternate theory. The doomed prisoners were brought to the gallows by ox cart, and Perley felt that the top of Gallows Hill was too steep for an ox cart to ascend. Based on eyewitness testimonials he instead argued that the gallows were built lower down the hill in an area known as Proctor's Ledge.
Perley's theory was verified just this year by seven scholars who worked together as the Gallows Hill Project. They combed through thousands of records trying to find references to the site. The final piece in the puzzle was found by historian Marilynne Roach in an account from the trial of Boxford's Rebecca Eames.
On August 19, 1692 Eames was being brought into Salem by Boxford constables when they encountered Salem constables bringing five accused witches to the gallows for execution. They were accompanied by a large crowd. Not wishing to miss the execution, the Boxford men left Eames at "a house below the hill" owned by John Macarter. During her examination later that day Eames testified that she had been able to see the hangings from Macarter's house.
This was the key that historians were looking for. The location of Macarter's house was well-documented, and it would have had a view of Proctor's Ledge, confirming Perley's theory. Further, Eames would not have been able to see the top of Gallows Hill from the house, ruling out the other theory. (As an FYI, Rebecca Eames was convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to hang but happily was never executed.)
Proctor's Ledge today is an empty lot owned by the City of Salem. Located at 15 Proctor Street, it's nestled between some houses and hidden away behind a Walgreens. It's an incongruous location for someplace so infamous and darkly legendary. Happily it is located several miles from the busy downtown area, so I don't think anyone will be selling fried dough or souvenir t-shirts outside it any time soon. And I write that as someone who later that day ate fried Oreos on Salem Common and owns a Salem t-shirt. I have no problem with people making money off tourism or having fun. I love the carnival atmosphere of Salem in October, but Proctor's Ledge shouldn't be part of it.
|A memorial ring of shells someone left on the ledge.|
My sources for this week's post: Benjamin Ray's Satan and Salem, plus this article in The Salem News.