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The House Below the Hill

One of the most infamous episodes in American history, the Salem witch trials of 1692 have been studied in almost obsessive depth, but the subsequent executions of 19 innocent people has been relatively poorly documented. A research group known as the Gallows Hill Project has now proved conclusively, however, that the deaths by hanging were carried out not on the ominously named hilltop itself, as many had supposed, but on an area farther down the slope, called Proctor’s Ledge. The fact that the spot now stands next to a Walgreen’s drugstore, illustrating uncannily two extremes of American culture, is just one of the reasons that major news outlets such as the Washington Post and the Huffington Post have picked up on the story. But this discovery provides certainty to a story that has been plagued with rumor and mystery for three centuries.

The research team’s determination of the location began with the testimony of a woman accused of witchcraft named Rebecca Eames. During her own examination, Eames confirmed she had witnessed five hangings of already accused and convicted people from “the house below the hill.” This remark in Eames’s testimony provided an invaluable clue for Benjamin Ray, author of the recent Satan and Salem: The Witch Hunt Crisis of 1692 and curator of the University of Virginia’s Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project, and Chris Gist, a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialist in the Scholar’s Lab at UVA’s Alderman Library.

The research team believed that Eames’s “house below the hill” remark was in reference to a house on Boston Street. This was the main road that led into the courthouse and was across from several acres of public land, now called Gallows Hill. Researchers knew the executions took place on Gallows Hill, but they did not know exactly where. To find out, Ray and Gist analyzed maps of Salem drawn by early 20th-century Salem historian Sidney Perley, using technology that Perley lacked, namely GIS software. As Gist pointed out, “Anything that is spatial can be leveraged using GIS.” Using current topographical analysis, historical maps, and aerial photos, Gist created a view-shed analysis of the topography surrounding Boston Street and Gallows Hill to determine which ledges on the side of the hill would have been visible from the houses on Boston Street.

“We were able to spatialize history to gain more evidence and deepen the historical narrative,” Ray said. “We wanted to know which house Rebecca Eames was likely in and whether she was telling the truth. She had been deliberately lying in other parts of her testimony, confessing that she was a witch to save herself from the gallows. How could we be certain that she could see the executions as she testified, from any of the nearby houses? We also wanted to test the accuracy of Perley’s hand drawn maps. GIS mapping was the best way to tackle both questions.”

Identifying the site has few archaeological implications—the bodies were not buried at this location and, despite the suggestion of a gallows here, the hangings were probably carried out simply with a rope tied to the branch of a large tree—but it has profound historical and cultural significance, removing centuries of uncertainty and allowing the community of Salem to properly preserve and memorialize this important chapter in its history.

Some of the content in this post comes from the UVA Today article “X Marks the Spot.” Benjamin Ray’s Satan and Salem: The Witch Hunt Crisis of 1692 is available now.

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