It was during the extremely hot summer of 1692 that Puritan judges in Salem, an English settlement in the Massachusetts Bay Province, convicted twenty people of witchcraft and publicly executed them.
Now, 330 years later, visitors to this coastal town will find a simple, peaceful monument next to the old colonial cemetery and hear, nearby, the occasional ringing of church bells. Entering a rectangular room bordered by rough stone walls and shaded by tall carob trees, one crosses a wide threshold with the words of the victims, their protestations of innocence and their prayers to God, carved from the walls of the monument, symbolizing society's indifference to their plight. . Twenty granite benches protrude from the walls, each bearing the name of a person unjustly accused and murdered.
Erected in 1992, this was the first public memorial in Salem to these tragic events. As we celebrate the monument's 30th anniversary, it is perhaps more important than ever to remember the lessons of these injustices.
The Salem witch trials were the largest and deadliest in North American history. Over the course of a year and a half, nineteen people were hanged and one was brutally tortured to death. Although widely referred to as the "Salem Witch Trials," the accusations spread throughout Essex County and beyond. In total, between 150 and 200 people aged from four to eighty-one were detained. At least five died in the prison, including convict Sarah Goode's minor daughter.
None of the accused were "witches", defined in the seventeenth century as someone who sold their soul to the devil. Rather, it was a crime often brought against social individuals within a community.
Each of the twenty victims has their own heartbreaking story that can only be pieced together from fleeting comments in the archives. Take, for example, the story of Elizabeth How of Ipswich, an industrious fifty-five-year-old wife and mother who was executed on July 19, 1692. A decade earlier, she had been in a heated conflict with a neighbor who accused her of bewitching a child to death . "Whatever bad happened to anyone, the crowd was at her door," wrote nineteenth-century historian Charles Upham. It was no surprise that Elizabeth was struck again in 1692.
The brief references to Elizabeth's family affection are deeply moving. In his statement, her 94-year-old father-in-law, James Howe Sr., who commented on his 30-year acquaintance with her, said, "as my son's wife, [she] is very considerate. gentle, obedient and kind, considering his lack of sight, leading him gently by the hand.' While imprisoned in Boston, a full day's journey from Ipswich, Elizabeth was visited twice a week by her blind husband, James Jr., driven by one of their daughters. Despite testifying in her favor , she was executed along with four other innocent women that day in July.
Although small in comparisonEuropean witch hunt, which claimed the lives of approximately 45,000 people over 300 years, Salem became infamous. Suspicions of witchcraft were common, but executions were rare in the "New World". Immediately after the Salem trial ended, there was a sense that something had gone wrong. In 1697, the judge and twelve jurists apologized for their role in these events, as did the prosecutor almost a decade later.
The increasing recognition of this injustice made Salem a common cultural reference as early as the eighteenth century. Recorded by the Founding Fathers during the American Revolution, included in early textbooks as an example of moral failure, and used as a metaphor for the modern search for a scapegoat in the twentieth century, the tragedies of Salem have never left the public memory.
The curious have traveled to Salem for centuries, drawn by the town's grisly history. While visiting the area in 1766, future President John Adams noted in his diary a visit to "Magic Hill" - believed to be the site of the execution. In 1895, a Salem visitor's guide noted, "The witchcraft which drove many from Salem for their lives two centuries ago now brings thousands of visitors to Salem every year."
Confronting our dark heritage can prove difficult. It is often difficult for modern audiences to understand the reality behind the witch trials, as the word "witch" usually refers to a figure of a nation or folk culture rather than an actual person. Only in the last half century has there been an increase in the number of monuments to witch trials in the world, which vary in size from small tablets and simple markings such asThe Brechin Monument in Scotland, on larger memorial stones on which they were placedTorsåker parish, Sweden, and huge buildings whichSteilneset monument in Vardø, Norway. Each of these memorials is both an attempt to remember the victims, many of whom have living descendants, and to educate people in hopes of preventing similar acts of hysteria and scapegoating.
Limited efforts to commemorate Salem's victims began in the late 1880s, mostly encouraged by descendants. The first honoree was Rebecca Nurse, a seventy-one-year-old beloved mother, church member, and respected neighbor. Her hanging on 19 July 1692 shocked society. Family legend says that her remains were exhumed after the hanging and buried in an unmarked grave on the nurse's property.
In 1885, more than 600 people, many of them descendants, gathered at the nursing home in Danvers (formerly Salem Village) to witness the unveiling of a granite obelisk with a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier. Two other early memorials were erected: a plaque in Amesbury to Susannah Martin erected by the Amesbury Improvement Association in 1894 and another plaque to John Proctor in Peabody erected by his descendants in 1902.
It would be nearly another century before the memorial debate continued in Salem. In 1986, the mayor's office formed an advisory committee to discuss how to celebrate the upcoming 300th anniversary of the witch trials. Although a "firm and strong foundation" was built over the next several years, according to Tercentenary Executive Director Linda McConchie, progress was slow and encountered obstacles.
As noted in early visitor guides to Salem, the witch trials have long fascinated those outside the community. However, some locals were reluctant to acknowledge this dark legacy. In the trials, neighbors turned on neighbors and they had a legacy of shame and embarrassment, a feeling that lasted for generations. A former Danvers resident who grew up in the 1960s recalls being told in his youth, "in polite society you don't talk about divorce and you don't talk about witch trials."
TheNew York Timesreported in 1988 on a proposed statue by sculptor Yiannis Stefanakis of Beverly, Massachusetts, a monument depicting the three accused Towne sisters: the executed Rebecca (Towne) Nurse and Mary (Town) Esty, and the survivor Sarah (Town) Cloyce . The funds were raised privately with no public call for designs. There was an outcry. Salem First Church Pastor John Szala, who chaired the mayor's advisory board at the time, said, "[Stefanakis] brought it up to the City Council and it was rushed through without a hearing and without letting the public know what he was doing. As The result is that society is divided."
Stefanakis spoke about the support for the project: "I got a lot of letters from all over the country. However, I received very, very few letters and money from Salem. I don't think they were ready for that even after 300 years".
This comment brings to mind a story shared by Danver City Archivist Richard Trask. In 1970, he led efforts to expose the institution of guardians in Salem Village, important to the witch trials as the point at which trouble began and escalated. Trask remembers complaints from neighbors. "Don't," they said. "Why do you have to bring it up?"
As the town's witch-related tourism developed in the second half of the twentieth century, some felt that Salem's sad history was being overlooked and the human history behind the witch trials forgotten. "The goal [of the centenary] was to restore the historical significance and importance of this tragic event," says McConchie. The forty-year commission - chaired by McConchie and Patty MacLeod and Alison D'Amario fromSalem witch museum—designed an annual commemoration with two key elements: the construction of a public monument and a permanent way to honor the innocent victims. The latter they achieved by creating the Salem Prize for Human Rights and Social Justice.
With an estimated budget of $100,000 and an available piece of land in downtown Salem, the commission issued a public call for plans. Almost 250 applications were received and assessed by a jury consisting of skilled artists, architects and museum experts.
In November 1991, playwright Arthur Miller revealed the winning design by Maggie Smith and James Cutler. In the Commission's final report on the tenth anniversary, the monument is described:
"Impressive in its simplicity, the memorial is surrounded on three sides by hand-crafted granite plaster walls. The victims' declarations of innocence are carved on the stone threshold. These protests are cut off mid-sentence, symbolizing society's indifference to oppression. The Six Carob Trees , the last to bloom and the first to drop their leaves, represent the great injustice of the Tasting.From the back of the monument, visitors can see the 17th-century headstones in the nearby Charter Street Cemetery, a reminder of all those who were silent witnesses to the tragedy. Cantilevered stone benches around the memorial's perimeter bear the names of each of the twenty victims, creating a quiet, contemplative environment that evokes the spirit and strength of those who chose to die rather than compromise their personal truths."
These twenty innocent people refused to confess to witchcraft and were put to death for it.
The dedication of the Salem Witch Trials Memorial was the centerpiece of the 30th anniversary. On August 5, 1992, Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, gave a special speech in which he spoke eloquently of his lifelong commitment to ending hatred and human suffering.
"In times of inhumanity, humanity is still strong," he urged. “Because the people were fanatics, Salem was strong... And bigotry is the greatest evil we face today. And for today, there's Salem's."
That same day, the commission awarded its first Salem Award to Gregory Alan Williams, a hero of the Los Angeles riots that erupted earlier that year following the acquittal of police officers accused of beating Rodney King. MacLeod reflects, "We wanted the award to be a permanent teaching tool." The Salem Awards Committee, now known as Voices Against Injustice, presents the Salem Award each year.
During 1992, the 40-year program focused on the enduring lessons of the witch trials, encouraging people to consider the dangers of scapegoating in times of great fear and uncertainty. At the opening on March 1, Amnesty International's Joshua Rubenstein used the trials as a point of reference to examine human rights abuses throughout history and today.
Despite the efforts of countless people to make the Salem Witch Trials Memorial a reality, the structure at the heart of downtown Salem has collapsed less than twenty years later. The problem was twofold: first, it was never clear who was responsible for maintaining the monument.
Second, the original design called for the stones to be laid loosely without supporting mortar. People started taking pieces of it as souvenirs, and it was often used during the geocaching craze of the early 2000s. Another attempt was made to raise funds for the renovation of this important site.
The structure was strengthened and rededicated on September 9, 2012. Today, the monument is well maintained by the Peabody Essex Museum, the City of Salem, and Voices Against Injustice.
Like so much about our venerable city, the Salem Witch Trials Memorial means different things to different people. For modern witches, it is affirmative. For posterity, sentimental. For tourists, a must stop. In contrast, several longtime residents, when asked about the monument, said they never visit it or have strong opinions about the site.
Many self-identified witches have moved to Salem over the past half century. Modern witchcraft means something different to each person, although it can be broadly described as a sense of spiritual fulfillment and personal empowerment that stems from the long and complex history of witchcraft.
Margaret McGilvray, practicing witch and founder of The Witchery, an art and performance space in Salem, reflects, "When I'm at the Witch Trials Memorial, I'm not analyzing from a historical perspective. I can feel it. And that's why it's such a powerful monument. It allows me to feel."
Teri Kalgren, a member of the Witch Education League and owner of Artemisia Botanicals, who has lived and worked in Salem since the late 1980s, noted that while she wishes there were more interpretive signs on the monument, it is “ nice and very formal to move on. As a witch, I see [the witch trials] as something that could potentially happen again. It shows man's inhumanity to man."
In recent years, as genealogical research has become more accessible, the number of descendants arriving in Salem has increased. According to the New England Historical Genealogical Society, 15 million Americans can trace an ancestor's connection to the witch trials. For many, a trip to Salem is a great pilgrimage. It is a misconception that victims of witch trials were forbidden to be buried in cemeteries. Ongoing investigations show that the remains of some of these people were removed from the hanging and quietly buried in their family homes. As the final graves of the victims remain unconfirmed, the memorial has become the main site of tributes.
Throughout the year, and especially on the anniversaries of the hangers (10 June, 19 July, 19 August and 22 September), visitors leave flowers, coins and trinkets on the stone. The memorial gives descendants a physical place to leave personal notes, many of which are heartfelt.
Thousands of tourists visit the monument every year. While most treat the site with respect, some, especially during the Halloween season, may not appreciate the weight of this tragic story. Perhaps this is the reality of any public monument dedicated to such distant events.
As the meaning of the word "witch" changes, so does Salem. Navigating the spectrum of popular interests is no easy task. Salem's legacy includes colonial history, persecution of innocent people, beloved fictional witches, spooky Halloween fun, and modernMagi. The Salem Witch Trials Memorial takes center stage today, publicly reminding thousands of visitors of the city's darkest chapter.
This permanent memorial is not only an interesting place to visit, but also a significant statement about the humanity involved in such a tragedy. The tendency to blame "the other" in times of uncertainty and fear is a permanent human behavior. Whether a child's fatal illness is blamed on an argument with a neighbor in the seventeenth century or an entire race in the COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to find scapegoats.
Remembering the witch trials in Salem and around the world, modern societies begin the difficult process of coming to terms with their own darkest tendencies.
Rachel Christ-Doan is the Director of Education at the Salem Witch Museum, where she conducts research, collaborates with students and teachers, oversees the management and development of exhibits, and creates educational programs.
Jill Christiansen is the Assistant Director of Education at the Salem Witch Museum, specializing in Salem Witch Trials research and serving as a bookseller for the museum store.
The authors would like to acknowledge the contributions of the many dedicated people involved in this project, especially the trio of Patty MacLeod, Alison D'Amario and LindaMcConchie, who led the two-year effort to establish the Salem Witch Trials Memorial, the Salem Award and years of planning for the Tercentennial.