In 2016, this rocky ledge and the surrounding area was confirmed by scholars as the exact location where the Salem Witch Trial hangings took place in 1692. Over the course of four separate occasions in June, July, August, and September of that year, 19 innocent people were executed by hanging after being found guilty of the charge of “witchcraft” in an infamous series of trials fueled by religious hysteria. At the base of the hill there is now a memorial stone wall and oak tree dedicated to the victims of the witch hunt. Each of their 19 names can be found engraved in the stones along the face of the wall.
Backstory and Context
Lasting from February of 1692 to May 1693, the Salem Witch Trials were the largest and deadliest series of witch hunts in American history. Over 200 people (mostly women) were accused of witchcraft. Thirty were found guilty, five died in jail and, most infamously, on July 19, 1692, nineteen people were executed by hanging. Due to local shame surrounding the incident in the following decades, the exact location of the hangings was never marked and eventually, the knowledge died with those who had been present. The general area was always traditionally known to be Gallows Hill. The problem, however, arose when considering that Gallows Hill extends over several acres. For years, the specific spot was simply guessed at.
In 1921, Salem lawyer and historian Sidney Perley conducted extensive research utilizing court documents and written eyewitness testimonies from the time period. He ultimately concluded that the hangings had taken place at the bottom of Gallow’s hill, at a place called Proctor’s Ledge. Several key pieces of evidence led to this discovery. For example, eyewitness testimony describes the accused, many of whom too weakened by jail to walk, being carried to the hanging site in wooden carts. Afterwards, eyewitnesses wrote that the victims’ bodies were cut down from the tree (contrary to popular belief there were no gallows at Salem) and temporarily dumped into a rocky crevice due to superstitions about being “tainted” by the body of a witch. Perley observed that the actual peak of Gallows Hill was far too high and rocky to trek up with a cart carrying prisoners. Alternately, Proctor’s Ledge was low and clear enough to do this successfully, had a crevice running along the side of the ledge as described, and had other characteristics which distinguished it as the plausible location.
Perley’s research was enough to compel the city of Salem in 1936 to purchase the property around Proctor’s Ledge under the title “Witch Memorial Land”. No marker acknowledging the events was made, however, and the ledge sat behind a row of houses for years. Then in 2010, the Gallows Hill Project, created by a team of seven scholars, set out to definitively pinpoint the location of the 1692 hangings. Over the course of 6 years they reviewed hundreds of historical documents and employed new technology unavailable to Sidney Perley in 1921 including ground radars, aerial photographs, and digital maps. In January of 2016 the Gallows Hill Project team corroborated Perley’s findings and confirmed Proctor’s Ledge as the location of the Salem Witch Trial hangings. Shortly afterwards it was announced that the city would be building a permanent historical marker in response to the findings.
On July 19, 2017- the 325th anniversary of five hangings on Proctor's Ledge- a memorial to the innocent victims was dedicated near the base. All 19 names can be found engraved with the date of their deaths along the arc of the stone wall. An oak tree, symbolizing endurance and dignity, grows in the middle of the memorial.
Baker, Emerson W.. The Gallows Hill Project, Salem State University. January 2016. Accessed September 6th 2020. http://w3.salemstate.edu/~ebaker/Gallows_Hill.
Brooks, Rebecca Beatrice . Proctor's Ledge Memorial, History of Massachusetts Blog . May 5th 2019. Accessed September 6th 2020. https://historyofmassachusetts.org/proctors-ledge-memorial/.
Luca, Dustin. On 325th anniversary, city dedicates Proctor's Ledge memorial to Salem Witch Trials victims, The Salem News. July 19th 2017. Accessed September 6th 2020. https://www.salemnews.com/news/on-th-anniversary-city-dedicates-proctor-s-ledge-memorial-to/article_76aa994a-6cf5-11e7-9f01-27b9c156b42c.html.
McNeill, Arianna . Proctor's Ledge in Salem confirmed as witch execution site, The Salem News. January 11th 2016. Accessed September 6th 2020. https://www.salemnews.com/news/local_news/proctors-ledge-in-salem-confirmed-as-witch-execution-site/article_d9e2a242-fdf7-56ac-94eb-5e3f943d0cc3.html.
Newman, Caroline. X Marks the Spot, UVA Today. January 19th 2016. Accessed September 6th 2020. https://news.virginia.edu/content/uvas-help-salem-finally-discovers-where-its-witches-were-executed.
Woodside, Christine. The Site of the Salem Witch Trial Hangings Finally Has a Memorial, Smithsonian Magazine. July 13th 2017. Accessed September 6th 2020. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/site-salem-witch-trial-hangings-finally-has-memorial-180964049/.