One of the oldest tricks in the book is to ask somebody how many witches were burned during the Salem witch trials. It’s a trick question, because the Puritans executed witches by hanging. Of course, it’s also a trick question because none of the victims of the trials were actually witches. The trials were in fact a massive moral panic, in which neighbors involved in feuds accused each other of witchcraft in order to get rid of adversaries and the like.
The site of the hangings has long stood abandoned and unmarked, but that’s about to change. The town of Salem will be dedicating a memorial to the victims of the trials on July 19th, a recognition of this great injustice that is long overdue.
If they’d been there in 1692, they would have known. That’s when the rocky ledge on the parcel next door turned into a site of mass execution—and when the bodies of people hanged as witches were dumped into a low spot beneath the ledge known as “the crevice.” In the night, when the hangings were over, locals heard the sounds of grieving families who snuck over to gather up their dead and secretly bury them elsewhere.
But for much of history, the site sat quietly obscured by woods and buildings. A leather tannery and railroad operated nearby, and in recent years, houses surrounded it. And for O’Connor, Benedict and much of Salem, that history has faded despite the town’s outsized reputation.
Now, it will finally be commemorated when Salem mayor Kimberley Driscoll dedicates a memorial below Proctor’s Ledge on July 19. The date coincides with the first of three mass executions there. On the same day in 1692, five women—Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin, Rebecca Nurse, and Sarah Wildes—were hanged from a tree on the ledge, and their bodies fell into a “crevice,” where the memorial now marks their names.
Later victims included wealthy landowner John Proctor, killed in August. He had publicly condemned the witch trials and had punished his female servants for claiming to be possessed by witches’ spirits in the hysteria of the day. Proctor’s Ledge is named for his grandson, who bought the land knowing its history.
The next time you see Salem’s “witch city” motto, keep in mind that the place should probably really be called the “non-witch city,” regardless of how popular culture keeps insisting on associating the victims of the Salem trials with real witches. They weren’t. They were the unfortunate targets of what was essentially a theocracy run amuck with no real checks on its power.