In January of 2016, the Gallows Hill Project confirmed that Proctor’s Ledge, not Gallows Hill, is the site of the Salem Witch Trials hangings that occurred in 1692. The ledge is a small hill located between Proctor Street and Pope Street in Salem, Mass.
Prior to this announcement, many believed that nearby Gallows Hill, at the intersection of Manswell Parkway and Witch Hill Road, was the site of the 1692 executions.
The reason for this is because in 1867, historian Charles Wentworth Upham determined in his book Salem Witchcraft that Gallows Hill was the probable location of the executions but admitted that there is no actual evidence to support this conclusion.
There are a number of reasons why Gallows hill is not the original site of the executions. The first reason is Gallows Hill is much too steep for the cart carrying the accused witches to climb.
The second reason is that, according to one local legend, Benjamin Nurse, son of accused witch Rebecca Nurse, supposedly rowed a boat under the cover of night from a creek near the Nurse homestead into the North River and right up to base of the hill where the execution took place in order to gather his mother’s body and give her a proper Christian burial on her property.
Since there are currently no waterways, and never have been, leading directly to Gallows hill or anywhere near it, this makes it an unlikely location for the execution site.
The reason why the Gallows Hill Project team believe Proctor’s Ledge is the execution site is because of a number of letters and diaries discovered by historians over the years. One such letter, published in Upham’s book, was written by Dr. Holoyoke in 1791, and reads:
“In the last month, there died a man in this town by the name of John Symonds, aged a hundred years lacking about six months, having been born in the famous ’92. He has told me that his nurse had often told him, that while she was attending his mother at the time she lay in with him, she saw, from the chamber windows, those unhappy people hanging on Gallows Hill, who were executed for witches by the delusion of the times.”
Historian Sidney Perley wrote an article, published in the Historical Collections of the Essex Institute periodical in January of 1921, where he stated that he located the home where Symonds was born on North street and found that Gallows hill is not even visible from the home because it is blocked by Ledge hill.
What he found was visible from the home was a smaller hill, now named Proctor’s Ledge, close to Gallows hill, near Proctor street. As this hill was lower and less steep, it would be much easier for the cart carrying the accused witches to climb.
Other evidence also supports Proctor’s Ledge as the execution site. According to Perley, the North River used to spill out into a large bay that pooled into Bickford’s pond, which has since been filled in, at the base of Proctor’s Ledge, thus allowing Benjamin Nurse direct access in his boat to the execution site.
Proctor’s Ledge also has a rocky crevice running along the side of it and, according to the statement of Boston merchant Robert Calef, who visited Salem in 1692 and published a book in 1700 about what he witnessed there, titled More Wonders of the Invisible World, the bodies of some of the accused witches were placed in a rocky crevice after their execution:
“When he [George Burroughs] was cut down, he was dragged by the halter to a hole, or grave, between the rocks, about two feet deep, his shirt and breeches being pulled off, and an old pair of trousers of one executed put on his lower parts; he was so put in, together with Willard and Carrier, that one of his hands and his chin, and a foot of one of them, were left uncovered.”
According to Perley, an old family story from the Buffum family states that Buffam could see, from his house on nearby Boston street, Burrough’s exposed hand and foot sticking out of the crevice, so just after night fall he went to cover them so they were no longer visible.
Perley also interviewed a man named Edward F. Southwick who, as a boy, used to live with the great-great granddaughter of John Proctor, Mrs. Nichols. According to Southwick, Mrs. Nichols told him that the accused witches were executed near this rocky crevice.
Another clue about the location of the execution site comes from the diary of John Adams. According to an entry in his diary in 1766, Adams mentioned visiting the site of the executions at a place he called “Witchcraft Hill”:
“Returned and dined at Cranch’s; after dinner walked to Witchcraft hill, a hill about half a mile from Cranch’s, where the famous persons formerly executed for witches were buried. Somebody within a few years has planted a number of locust trees over the graves, as a memorial of that memorable victory over the ‘prince of the power of the air.’ This hill is in a large common belonging to the proprietors of Salem, & c. From it you have a fair view of of the town, of the river, the north and south fields, of Marblehead, of Judge Lynde’s pleasure-house, & c. of Salem Village, &c.”
When Perley discovered the small hill in 1921, he asked the owner of the hill at the time, Solomon Stevens, if locust trees had ever grown on the hill. Steven’s family confirmed that there were once locust trees on the hill but they had been cut down years before:
“Through the infirmities and weakness of years, he [Solomon Stevens] was unable to talk intelligently, but his son and daughter said that there had been two large trees standing there, until about 1860, when the son felled them, and dug out the stumps, as the trees were in their garden. He pointed out the place where each had stood, – on the near side of the fence running along the brow of the ridge or hill at the left of the picture, – one where a little dot appears, and the other in the shrubbery about thirty or forty feet to the left of the first, at the very edge of the picture. The last-named tree (the one farthest to the left) stood in a crevice between the ledges..The writer has found neither evidence nor tradition that locust trees ever grew upon the top of Gallows hill; nor that a crevice ever existed there where the bodies of Burroughs, Willard and Carrier could have been partially buried.”
All of these factors point to Proctor’s Ledge as the execution site. Despite locating the execution site, the Gallows Hill Project team found no evidence that the victims were buried at the ledge and the location of their graves remain unknown.
Gallows Hill is now a public park located at Mansell Parkway, Salem, Mass.
Calef, Robert. More Wonders of the Invisible World. 1700
Perley, Sidney. “Where the Salem Witches Were Hanged.” Essex Institute Historical Collections, Vol. 57, No. 1, Jan. 1921, pp. 1-18
Belanger, Jeff. Weird Massachusetts: A Travel Guide to Massachusetts Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets. Sterling Publishing Co, 2008
“John Adams in 1766-1774.” The Historical collections of the Topsfield Historical Society, Vol. 26, 1921, pp. 15-23
Rosenthal, Bernard. Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692. Cambridge University Press, 1995
LaMarche, Pat. “The Salem Witches are Missing.” Huffington Post, 22 Sept. 2012, www.huffingtonpost.com/pat-lamarche/salem-witch-trials-_b_1905804.html
Baker, Emerson W. “The Gallows Hill Project.” Salem State University, w3.salemstate.edu/~ebaker/Gallows_Hill
What an excellent way to make history come alive – turn it into a treasure hunt!
I think it might be quite possible to find this spot with a little luck and the help of a geologist and archeologist team. If the hangings did indeed take place on top of a hill, there would be very little depositional actions over the years. I believe there would be far more erosional action which would strip away most of the depositional remnants such as dead tree’s, wind blown debris, etc.
I find it very interesting; in fact I find all of colonial history very interesting. But the witch trials in particular because I am the descendant of at least five of the accused, including Sarah (North) Martin, executed on July 19, 1692. What is also interesting is that those of Adams’ generation were just as fascinated by these events as we are. Compare this to Western Europe, for example, – the Bamberg and Wurzburg trials come to mind – where witches were executed by the tens of thousands, which has never expressed a particular care, or interest, and one gains a sense of how different a world colonial America really was. It was quaint, it was orderly, and for average people far more socially palpable; thus as atypical, this incredulous fascination that is with us to this day. Salem is applicable to the present in terms of its divisiveness, expressed even then in broadsides – media “sensationalism” – which inform of a divide between those who supported the afflicted and sought prosecution and those who dismissed such “superstition.” Note Adams’ comment, too: he describes the devil as having the power of air. Superstitious belief of this form and manner had been with us since the time of the Druid, and served in any variety of ways.
Haha hey there, were cousins! Shes my 11th great grandmother.Not to be that guy but its Susannah, not Sarah 🙂 Id like to see some proper grave or burial if we can find her. Ill go to that if im living.
I guess you’re my cousin too. Susannah is my 9th great grandmother. ‘Martin’ was still our surname until my great grandmother’s generation. Since then, ‘Martin’ has been a given name in each generation, including my own first name. We still have some letters written by her grandson who fought in the Revolutionary War. Also, we have a shawl that we believe might have belonged to her. After 400+ years, there is no way to prove it though.
My mother was one of the people who helped get the last hysteria victims pardoned by the Mass legislature. That was only about 15 or so years ago. Until then, Susannah and four others were still convicted witches. At least with my branch of the family, that episode in history has been an extremely galling subject ever since it happened in the 1690s. Those cute little witch symbols on all of the Salem city street signs are not very cute to anyone who actually thinks about what happened. I’m sure all of the descendants can relate.
Anyway, I’m really grateful to websites like this one which seek to keep finding the truth. I know there has been dispute for some time as to the location of the ‘real’ Gallows Hill. It sounds like a very good case has been made to support the idea that Proctor’s Ledge is the real site of the executions. I would very much like to get back there again and look at Proctor’s Ledge. It’s nice to know that our ancestors are not forgotten.
that is very interesting because I am the descendent of Bridget Bishop
“The power of air,” meaning, essentially, powerless. What I meant to say, is that Adams too found these events incredulous. Well written article, btw. Thanks!
I have always been drawn to the Salem witch trials, I have found this website to be very interesting.
Fantastic web-site. After looking at geography, modern satellite images, the size and where the old river ran, as well as the location of the Symonds house and the recollected account of the nurse that gave birth to Mr. Symonds at the time of the hangings, it seems that Ledge Hill could be a probable location of the hangings over the other locations for a couple of reasons.
First, the Symonds House was located approximately a mile away from either present day Gallows, or the smaller hill. That is a substantial distance to actually be able to see people hanging from a tree. Ledge Hill is less than a half mile away and one would certainly be able to discern the figures of people hanging from a tree at that distance. Secondly, the old river also ran right next to the base of Ledge Hill so it meets the criteria that Benjamin could have rowed a boat to the location and walked up to the top of the hill using a pathway which is present day Tremont Street.
Fascinating article and great investigation. I’m a big fan of history, strangely however I never dug into the Salem trials beyond reading “The Crucible”. I’m currently reading “Delusion of Satan” by Frances Hill, and am very much enjoying the story.
The book does make some mention of streets, but not enough to distinguish between the claimed Gallows Hill and the Ledgy Hill (or Proctor’s Ledge). Unfortunately I’m not a native New Englander and have never even been to Salem or Danvers, so audit the moment, Google Earth is my only means of exploration.
Based on the Perley map, the hill could be either North or South of Mason Street perhaps between Flint and Tremont. The other map (from “A Short History of Salem Village Witchcraft Trials”) seems to point to another potential location candidate, however, I will have to study the history of the North River to see if it flowed that far west at one time.
The one thing I found interesting about the second location (described in “A Short History…”) are the names of two streets that are quite close to this location. Proctor Street and Putnam Street are immediately to the West and North, respectively. Considering street names are usually linked in some way to the history of their location, perhaps these two streets were named at some point in the past 200+ years to commemorate two of the biggest names of the Witch Trials: Thomas Putnam, probably the person most suspected of engineering all of the accusations, not to mention daughter Ann who was one of the “afflicted” who along with Abigail Williams, Elizabeth Hubbard, et.al., collectively made all (or most) of the accusations. The other, Prior Street, is named after one of the most well-known accused families (comprised of John, his wife Elizabeth, and son William— both John and Elizabeth would be hanged). Anyway, it’s only my speculation but those names do fit well into the history of the location set forth in the map above.
I hope to vacation there soon and take a walking tour of my own (not sure if any of the “official” walking tours cover these areas). Perhaps Halloween, 2016!
Paul my husband and I are also going for Halloween 2016. I don’t know if any tours cover where the actual site maybe but I’m hoping a trip to city hall records will uncover something. Maybe we will bump into each other along our investigation.
My daughters and I stayed in Peabody around 15 years ago. We first started our research in Salem. Yes, I found it odd that the town of Salem’s police cars had pictures of the stereotypical Halloween witches on the doors of their cars. Salem unfortunately has bought into the tourist trade with shops that sell crap. Had a difficult time finding any historical info showing us where everything took place. For those who thought everything started in Salem like I did, only the trial took place in this town. I bought a book in the visitors center that told us that the town of Danvers is where the young girls gathered with Tituba in the home of Reverend Parris. We drove to Danvers where behind another home we found the foundation of the Parris home. The epicenter is Danvers. It was originally known as Salem Village. Rebecca Nurse’s home is in Danvers and John Proctors home was very close to Peabody. Gallow’s Hill is truly one frightening place to be at night. I’ll never forget that trip. It was awesome!
I am a decendent of Rebecca Nurse and have wanted for years to go to that area to visit.
I have such a reverence and respect for all these individuals that suffered so much at that time. I truly admire that they held onto their faith so strongly. What a great lesson for us!
We are finally going to try to make it there in August. Any advise any of you have for our visit would be much appreciated.
I’ve been to Salem several times and it is true that if you really want a feel for the people of the trials you have to go to Danvers (originally Salem Village) to see the foundations of Rev. Parris’s home, the Nurse farm, and the witch trial memorial, which is stunning. John Proctor’s land is still occupied and private property on a very busy road in Peabody, but you can see the house built by his son on the property from the street, and Proctor is buried somewhere on that tract of land. The Coreys are buried in Peabody as well.
Salem is fun and historical, but has come pretty far away from the tragedy of 1692. Very touristy. Some good historical sites and museums, though!
I lived in Salem and could be related to Dorcas Hoar, who was from Beverly and was by all accounts a quintessential witch. I studied the location of the burials and I thank you for this article. I had hoped to do something similar, but moved away and never did.
I am convinced Proctor’s ledge was the Gallows hill. It is behind a drug store and parking lot now.
This location would have been on the road between Salem Town and Village. Upon entering a town, there would often be the locations of gallows and pillories at this time period. It was an advertisement for what to expect if you did not follow the rules. There are many similar examples in Massachusetts history.
The witches were not to be buried. The natural rocky New England coastline was a feature of Proctor’s ledge. This crevice or many of them, would be perfect places to leave the victims. They would not be left on the ground, no, they were at least tucked into the rocks. The families could easily find them after and bury them elsewhere.
One person (Keith) commented about the state of Proctor’s ledge. I was there several times. No rocky coastline is evident there now. It must be well below the soil level. The hill could have even been covered with earth. For an example; the site of the Plymouth plantation was recently discovered well below a burial hill in Plymouth.
The business of Salem witch history in my opinion is a clunky affair. The hype surrounding the trials and the locations tourists visit miss the mark for studying, visiting and celebrating real history and historic places.
If the whole history/tourist game in Salem could be redone or rewritten to be more accurate, it would be big improvement. This subject is proof of the difference between history and tourism.