A team of scholars in Salem, Massachusetts, has uncovered the scene of one of the darkest chapters in the history of New England: The site where 19 innocent people, mostly women, were executed after being accused of witchcraft in 1692.
Today, the site is located behind a Walgreens in what local NPR station WGBH called "an abandoned jungle of barren woods and trash" where homeless people often camp.
Since the hangings were witnessed by people all over Salem, many assumed they took place at the top of Gallows Hill, which is located just up the road. But a team of researchers found that some of those witnesses couldn't have seen the hill from where they were.
Once the researchers matched up all the accounts, they found that the actual execution site was at a set of rocks called Proctor’s Ledge -- which is today located just behind the drug store:
"Ground-penetrating radar and high-tech aerial photography shed new light on the topography of the site as it is today and as it was in 1692," professor Benjamin Ray of the University of Virginia said in a news release. "As a result, we can now say with confidence that Proctor’s Ledge is the site of the hangings."
The radar also revealed that the soil around Proctor's Ledge is just three feet deep, so while the accused were executed on the spot, they would not have been buried there.
"I just get this tremendous sense of history here and also kind of the burden of that history in Salem," Emerson “Tad” Baker, a Salem State University professor who was on the team that found the location, told the Boston Globe.
"Being in a spot where something happened, especially something important, you get a connection," Marilynne Roach, another member of the team, told WGBH. "You missed the event but you’re there. The way people feel on Civil War battlefields. The place becomes a monument to the people."
The city purchased the land in 1936, CBS Boston reported. At the time, an attorney and local historian had also concluded that Proctor's Ledge was the site of the hangings despite local tradition saying it had been atop Gallows Hill.
Since the site has been definitively discovered, the city is considering a marker or memorial for the victims.
"Now that the location of this historic injustice has been clearly proven, the city will work to respectfully and tastefully memorialize the site in a manner that is sensitive to its location today, which abuts both residential homes and a commercial building," Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll wrote on Facebook.
Because of homes and limited parking in the area, however, the mayor said the better place to remember the victims is the memorial in downtown Salem.
"Salem, long known for a dark time in our past when people turned on each other, is now known as a community where people turn toward each other," Driscoll wrote. "Having this site identified marks an important opportunity for Salem, as a city, to come together once again."
The 19 people killed at Proctor's Ledge were not the only victims of the hysteria. As the Globe notes, five other accused witches died in jail and one was crushed to death.
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