In 1692 the Massachusetts Bay Colony was rocked by a hysteria that led to the arrest and trial of over 200 people, and the execution by hanging of 19 women and men and six dogs, many convicted on the basis of hearsay and “spectral evidence” based on the wild claims of a handful of teenage girls. The hysteria finally climaxed when the wife of John Hale, one of the judges in the witch trials, was accused. At that point, the absurdity of the entire endeavor began to become visible even to the magistrates. As they say in a neighboring town across the harbor “Dawn breaks over Marblehead”.
The location of the witch executions has been a subject of controversy for generations. One theory suggested the witches were hung on Winter Island, an area that later was used for a garrison and military prison. The theory was that shallow areas near the hill on Winter Island would have been likely burial spots since no convicted witch could receive a “Christian Burial” It was an interesting theory, but there is no archaelogical evidence to suggest anyone was hung there, human or canine, in the 17th century.
For the past two hundred years the prevalent view has been that Gallows Hill, with this lovely water tower atop, was the actual location. A children’s playground and Skateboard Park on the outskirts of a wooded area was believed to have been the spot where townspeople gathered to watch the grim demise of the unfortunate accused.
Last year local historians raised a new theory. They contend that the actual site of the hangings was about 400 yards east of Gallows Hill Park, at Proctor’s Ledge. Proctor’s Ledge is a small plateau behind Walgreens Drugstore. The historians contend that local accounts say the hangings were visible to townspeople from their homes on Federal Street. They concluded it could not have been what is commonly called Gallows Hill because it is too far away to be seen. Now Salem is constructing a plaque on the site while some continue to dispute it’s authenticity.