As convicted witches, the Salem Witch Trials victims were not allowed a Christian burial in consecrated ground. As a result, it is not known where they were buried.
After each victim was executed at Proctor’s Ledge, their body was cut down and placed in a shallow grave in a rocky crevice at the execution site.
According to local legends, it is reported that the family members of at least three victims, Rebecca Nurse, John Proctor and George Jacobs Sr, came to retrieve the body of their loved ones and buried them in their family cemetery.
Yet, it is not known what happened to the bodies that were unclaimed or if any of them were actually unclaimed.
The first person executed during the Salem Witch Trials was Bridget Bishop, on June 10, 1692, but what happened to her body after the execution is a mystery.
Sheriff George Corwin carried out the execution and wrote a note at the bottom of Bishop’s death warrant stating that he had carried out his orders and she had been executed and then “buried in the place.” Curiously though, Corwin then crossed out the words “and buried in the place” for reasons unknown.
That line is most likely a reference to the practice of placing the bodies in a shallow grave at the execution site to await retrieval of reburial of the body elsewhere but, if that is the case, why did he cross it out?
Historian Winfield S. Nevins states in his 1892 book Witchcraft in Salem Village in 1692 that he thinks that Corwin probably only crossed it out because the matter of burial was not mentioned in the death warrant so he felt it wasn’t necessary to include it.
Nonetheless, even though Corwin crossed it out, it still indicates that Bishop was buried at the site, even if temporarily.
The trials and executions continued after Bishop’s death and the following month, on July 19, 1692, Rebecca Nurse was hanged at Proctor’s Ledge, alongside several others.
Nurse family legend states that her son Benjamin rowed to the execution site on the North River that evening to retrieve Rebecca’s body and then buried her in an unmarked grave in the Nurse family cemetery on the Nurse farm in Salem Village.
The following month, on August 19, 1692, George Jacobs Sr, John Proctor, George Burroughs, John Willard and Martha Carrier were hanged at Proctor’s Ledge and local legend states that the bodies of Proctor and Jacobs were secretly retrieved by their family and buried on their farms in Salem Village.
According to historian Charles W. Upham in his book Salem Witchcraft, Jacobs’ grandson later went to the execution site and strapped George Jacobs Sr’s body on the back of a horse and brought it back to his farm where he was reportedly buried in a grave marked by two stones beneath some trees.
Another old family legend, from the Buffum family who lived nearby on Boston Street, states that after the bodies were all placed in the rocky crevice, Burroughs hand and foot were still sticking out of the crevice so Joshua Buffam went to the crevice just after nightfall to cover them so they were no longer visible (Perley pp. 14-15.)
What happened to Burroughs’s body or the other remaining unclaimed bodies after that day is unknown.
A month later, on September 19, Giles Corey was tortured to death by Sheriff George Corwin in a field near the Salem jail because he had refused to continue with his trial.
As a result, his death was treated as a suicide and he was reportedly buried in or near the crossroads, as suicides traditionally were, by Butt’s Brook in Salem (Roach 297). It’s not clear if his body remained there or if he was reburied on his farm in Peabody.
The last executions of the Salem Witch Trials took place on September 22, 1692 but there are no legends or stories about what happened to those bodies.
Shortly after, on December 14, 1692, the Massachusetts General Court finally changed the law and allowed a condemned witch to be given a Christian burial but by then it was too late because the last executions had already taken place (Goss I.)
Although a few other witches were later convicted in January of 1693 and sentenced to death, they were given a reprieve and were set free.
Nearly a century later, in 1766, John Adams was visiting his brother-in-law in Salem and wrote in his diary that he had visited the execution site at Proctor’s Ledge, which he referred to as Witchcraft Hill, where the locals believed the convicted witches were buried:
“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.’” (Adams 199).
In 1854, the rumor about George Jacobs Sr being buried in an unmarked grave on his farm seemed to be somewhat confirmed when the remains of an unknown elderly man, who died of what appeared to be a broken neck, were discovered on the former Jacobs farm in a grave marked by two stones. The body was exhumed and examined before being reburied in the same spot.
In 1892, historian Winfield S. Nevins published his book Witchcraft in Salem Village in 1692 in which he states that he believed the convicted witches were hanged on a hill near what is now Nichols Street and then buried near the head of Hanson Street:
“After a long investigation I am convinced that the condemned persons were hanged near the head of what is now Nichols Street, on the hill, a little to the south east, perhaps; and the bodies were buried near the head of Hanson street. Caleb Buffman, who lived at the foot of the hill and made coffins, is said to have assisted in conveying the bodies to the North River, whence they were taken away in boats by relatives and friends” (Nevins 77.)
In the early 1900s, historian William P. Upham rediscovered the location of small 15-acre farm in Peabody that John Proctor owned and the discovery led Upham to believe that the many rumors he had heard about Proctor being secretly buried near that location might actually be true. That land is now owned by the Peabody Veterans Memorial High School.
In 1915, local historian Sidney Perley also stated that John Proctor was buried there in an article he published in the Essex Institute Historical Collections:
“Soon after the execution of Mr. Proctor, for alleged witchcraft, Aug. 19, 1692, his body was brought home and buried on the northeast corner of this lot.”
In the 1950s, George Jacobs Sr’s farm was sold to developers and two bulldozers accidentally uncovered the grave of the unknown man that had been first discovered in 1854.
The remains were placed in storage for decades and then later reburied in the nearby Nurse family cemetery in 1992 where it was marked by a replica 17th century headstone that reads “Here Lyes Buried Ye Body of George Jacobs Sr.”
In 2016, Proctor’s Ledge, the site of the Salem Witch Trials executions was finally confirmed by researchers which led to hopes that the graves of the remaining victims would be found there but an investigation of the site didn’t reveal any graves.
Roach, Marilynne K. The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-By-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege. Taylor Trade Publishing, 2004.
Nevins, Winfield S. Witchcraft in Salem Village in 1692. North Shore Publishing Company, 1892.
Goss, K. David. Documents of the Salem Witch Trials. ABC-CLIO, 2018.
Adams, John. The Works of John Adams. Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1850.
Upham, Charles W. Salem Witchcraft: With an Account of Salem Village and a History of Opinions on Witchcraft and Kindred Spirits. Vol. I, Wiggin and Lunt, 1867.
Essex Institute Historical Collections. Vol LI – 1915, Essex Institute 1915.
Perley, Sidney. “Where the Salem Witches Were Hanged.” Essex Institute Historical Collections, Vol. 57, No. 1, Jan. 1921, pp. 1-18
LeMarche, Pat. “The Salem Witches Are Missing.” Huffington Post, 22 Nov. 2012, huffpost.com/entry/salem-witch-trials_b_1905804