Even though the Salem Witch Trials happened 325 years ago, the bone-chilling and bizarre story is retold time and again. It remains one of the most fascinating events to happen on American soil. Whether people blame ergotism or the social constructs at play, it’s been endlessly studied. The conclusion always seems the same, though. It feels completely insane that the witch trials got to a point where people died. Despite the town’s mostly-kitschy brand of witch tourism, the dark truth behind Salem’s fame is always lurking just below the surface. Salem recently took another big step towards reconciling its past with its present. A few weeks ago, the town dedicated a witch execution memorial on the spot where they were hanged.
For years, people thought that the executions took place atop Gallows Hill. Tourists and locals alike were pointed to the hilltop as the spot, but there were always doubts about the exact location. Historically, the town was disinterested in highlighting their dark past anyways. When Arthur Miller came to town to research for his play The Crucible, locals were hesitant to help… and that was only in 1952.
The witch execution memorial
In 2016, researchers determined that the hangings occurred in the park, but below the hill, on a rocky outcropping called Proctor’s Ledge. The witch execution memorial features a granite wall set with memorial stones. In the center of the curved wall is an oak tree. The oak is important because hangings probably occurred from an oak tree. It was partially funded by the Associated Daughters of Early American Witches. Ironically, even though accused witch John Proctor was hanged here, that’s not how the ledge got its name. His grandson bought the patch of land, not knowing its history.
Today, homes and businesses surround the site, but back in the 17th century, things looked a lot different. The land was far enough away from town that people didn’t feel like the executions were taking place in their back yard, but close enough that people would travel to watch. On July 19th, 1692, five accused women were hanged from a tree on the ledge, and their bodies were dropped into a crevice below. That night, their grieving families snuck back to the crevice to reclaim their loved ones and rebury them elsewhere.
The new memorial might not bring us any closer to understanding how or why the witch trials happened, but it’s a stark reminder to, hopefully, never let things escalate to that level ever again.
If you’re interested in visiting Salem, here’s our guide to all things witchy and weird in town.