Wednesday, February 10, 2016

AT LAST! AT LAST!!!!!!!!!!!

For 175 years, historians have argued over the site of "Gallows Hill" -- the place in Salem, Massachusetts, where 18 people were hanged as witches in 1692.

Like a lot of things, people "just knew" where the hanging place was. But 1692 was a long time ago. By 1760, all the adults and all the child-accusers involved in the Salem Witch Trials were dead. Memory fades fast, particularly when you are embarassed and humiliated by the event and wish to forget... And forget they did. In Salem, a hundred years later, no one could remember just where the "witches" had died.

After the 150th anniversary of the Salem Witch Trials, there was a renewed interest in the event. In 1867, historian Charles Wentworth Upham argued that a hill in Salem -- now Gallows Hill Park at Manswell Parkway and Witch Hill Road -- was the probable location of the executions. But this site covers more than 30 acres. Upham and most people just assumed that the hill at the top of Gallows Hill Park was the site of the hangings.

But by the 1950s, scholars began to question this assumption. For one thing, the hill atop Gallows Hill Park is very, very steep. Many diaries and letters stated that the accused were brought to the place of hanging by cart. But how could carts have made it up this steep hill? For another, Benjamin Nurse, son of accused witch Rebecca Nurse, allegedly rowed a boat to "Gallows Hill" at night to retrieve his mother's body. But the hill atop Gallows Hill Park is not near any body of water. Additionally, new letters and documents had come to light which provided new evidence about the hangings. One letter discussed how the site was covered in locust trees. Various documents, diaries, and letters noted the absence of locust trees at the hill atop Gallows Hill Park. Boston merchant Robert Calef, who visited Salem in 1692 and wrote a book about the trials in 1700, also said that eyewitnesses told him that the dead were rolled into a shallow "crevice" at "Gallows Hill". There is no such crevice or ravine atop Gallows Hill Park.

Instead, many people beginning in the 1950s pointed to Proctor's Ledge, a smaller hill on the edge of Gallows Hill Park. Salem resident John Symonds had been born in 1691 in a house near "Gallows Hill". Just before he died at the age of 99 (!), he told a neighbor about the hangings. His nurse told Symonds that she could see the hangings from a window in the McCarter House where Symonds was born. Only Proctor's Ledge, not the hill atop Gallows Hill, can be seen from the McCarter House.

Further investigation revealed that a backwater of the North River used to pool near the base of Proctor's Ledge. Locust trees also grew on the site.

And on the top of Proctor's Ledge? A crack in the earth. It's still there.

Now, a team of five historians, archeologists, geologists, and cultural landscape experts have formally identified Proctor's Ledge as the actual site of the hangings.

At least three of the 19 deceased had their bodies retrieved by family members. That would leave 16 bodies buried at Proctor's Ledge. It's unlikely any of the remains exist. They were buried under a few inches of soil, and their remains most likely would have been eaten and scattered by scavengers. It's also been 324 years. Exposed bones don't last long.

If you go to Proctor's Ledge today, you'll approach it from the parking lot in back of the Walgreen's story. You'll see a wall of rock there. Originally, Proctor's Ledge was a gently sloping hill. The hill was cut away and the rock blasted out when a railroad was built in the area in 1870s. The hangings probably took place on the flat area atop Proctor's Ledge, which is near the northeast part of the hill. You'll even see the shallow crevice there.


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