Not a night goes by when visitors on the Spellbound Tours Ghost Tour fail to ask me how to find the infamous Gallows Hill, the location where the innocent victims of the Salem Witch Trials were unjustly hanged. It is a justifiable question. Despite being clearly labeled on the city maps the exact location of Gallows Hill has been intentionally shrouded in mystery since the last bodies crashed out of the hanging tree. Many Salem locals still harbor a deep embarrassment and shame about the Witch Trials centuries later. They hate to admit that their ancestors had committed such foolish and disgusting acts against their neighbors, and when the topic of Gallows Hill comes up it is not uncommon to hear them snort “it didn’t happen here, it all happened in Danvers”, or “ahhh, nobody knows”. The thing is, we do know. Gallows Hill is only about a mile and a half from the current day downtown Salem.
The Danvers argument makes a little sense, after all at the time of the Witch Trials there were two parts of Salem, Salem Town (modern day Salem), and Salem Village (modern day Danvers). It is absolutely true that many of the participants in the witch hysteria came from Salem Village, but historically Gallows Hill was never mentioned as being in Salem Village. All the historic records describe the hill as being on the outskirts of Salem Town. In fact, the route to Gallows Hill is explicitly spelled out in more than one old text!
The condemned were loaded up into a horse drawn cart and trucked down Prison Lane (current day St. Peter Street) until they reached what is modern day Essex Street, then through the jeering mob they rode, turning onto what is now Boston Street, up Proctor Street, and that was the end for them. Gallows Hill is the slow, sloping incline behind the modern day pharmacy. The Walgreens at the intersection of Boston and Proctor Streets is the base of Gallows Hill. Very close to what today is known as Gallows Hill Park.
The “witches” were roughly handled and dragged to a rocky outcropping and taken to a gnarled tree chosen as the Hanging Tree. No gallows was ever built for them. The strict, fanatical Puritans believed that all work was an honor to God and they dared not insult him by laboring to build a structure from witch to hang the witches. They were simply strung up and dropped. They died of asphyxiation and broken necks, and after death their bodies were allowed to swing in the breeze as a warning to other would be witches. Eventually they were cut down and unceremoniously heaved into a ditch and left uncovered. It was against the law to bury a witch in consecrated ground. In Puritan Salem if you got caught giving your witch relative a Christian burial, you risked the noose yourself.
The majority of the witch bodies moldered up on the hill, but a few brave families dared rescue their loved ones. Notably Rebecca Nurse’s family stole up to the hill and appropriated her remains. The Rebecca Nurse tale is used as an argument against the historic Gallows Hill location, because according to the legend Rebecca’s son put her body in a boat and rowed away from Gallows Hill all the way to the Nurse Homestead. Claims are made that this would be impossible if the hangings took place at the traditional Gallows Hill location, there is no body of water there currently. People forget that in 1692 the time there was a pond called Bickford’s Pond close by that linked to the North River. It is entirely plausible that this is the body of water the Nurses utilized.
If you go to Gallows Hill today be careful. The neighbors do not exactly encourage historians or ghost hunters snooping around. Some will go to great lengths to explain how and why the witches were not at all, no way hanged in their yards, others will just tell you to get lost, and some folks just do not know the truth that their homes are sitting on the site of one of the United States’ most senseless tragedies. Yet even if they deny that the witches were hanged in that vicinity they cannot deny that that area of Salem is home to some of the most bizarre hauntings and violent crimes in Salem’s history!