Salem seeks input on Proctor's Ledge memorial

Professor Tad Baker walks around Proctor's Ledge, near Pope and Proctor streets in Salem, earlier this year after announcing that a team of researchers had determined it was the execution site for 19 people accused of witchcraft in 1692. The city plans to create a memorial.

SALEM — When asked to describe Proctor's Ledge, some called it historic, internationally known ("They saw it in Tokyo"), quiet, overgrown and undeveloped.

For others, Proctor's Ledge represents a regrettable moment in Salem's past. The undeveloped city-owned site between present-day Pope and Proctor streets was recently confirmed as the execution site for 19 people accused of witchcraft and hanged at the end of the 17th century.

City leaders began a fresh planning process for a memorial Tuesday night with a brainstorming session that brought about 40 North Shore residents to City Hall Annex in the midst of Super Tuesday voting.

The 325th anniversary of the Salem Witch Trials comes next year. City leaders are pushing for a memorial to be set up at the site in 2017 to coincide with the anniversary.

Martha Lyon, of Martha Lyon Landscape Architecture in Northampton, said opinions of the project "are about as far apart as you can be."

For the 40 attendees, broken up into three groups, that was certainly the case.

Reading from a list of notes her group took, Brookline resident Noreen Farrar said improving access to the site is a top priority. 

Then she referenced suggestions from two other groups.

"Based on what the other groups came up with, I think it's more preservation than access," Farrar said. "But that's just my opinion."

Though the discovery is recent, the conversation to memorialize the execution site predates this winter's announcement by about 80 years.

In a presentation, Lyon highlighted five years of discourse from the City Council between 1931 and 1936, at which time city leadership spent $1,000 to buy the site then, for reasons unknown, did nothing with it.

"Several questions were asked concerning this proposed Witch Memorial," a Salem Evening News article that was discussed at the meeting reads. The article appeared on the front page of the paper's May 29, 1936 edition.

"Councillor [Adam] Stefanski wanted to know what the memorial was supposed to be for. President [Francis] Dolan said it was something to memorialize the affair of the witches," the article reads. "Councillor Stefanski did not think that was something of which they were very proud."

Stefanski ultimately voted against acquiring the land, the lone dissenting vote, according to the article. The order passed.

In his comments Tuesday night, Hamilton resident Arthur Towne said the site represents "one of the saddest periods of Salem history."

Towne is connected to Edmund Towne, brother to Rebecca Nurse. Arthur's wife, Jean Towne, has her own connection — to John and Elizabeth Proctor. John was ultimately hanged, but Elizabeth was reprieved due to pregnancy.

Jean Towne said the memorial is "a wonderful opportunity for the city of Salem to somehow make up to the victims for all the problems that happened back in 1692."

Attendees were asked to list their concerns for the property, what they would upgrade, what they would do to memorialize the site and what was important to memorialize about it.

As the groups went over the questions, individual people threw suggestions out to be written on easel-sized paper pads. 

What's important to memorialize? According to those taking part, several things: the injustice of the situation, the intolerance, fear and ignorance. The victims themselves must also be honored, attendees said.

Salem resident Betsy Lahikainen walked the meeting through her group's suggestions.

"In terms of concerns? Safety of the site," Lahikainen said. "There's a lot of concern about respect for the neighbors, and limiting the access, which I assume has to do with impact on the site."

"In terms of what makes this a special site, it's part of a history of intolerance," Lahikainen continued. "It has also been preserved so far because it hasn't been built on. It's hallowed ground, and it's one of the most important sites in Salem."

Kristin Harris, of the Salem Historic Society, spoke for the second group.

"On the memorial, there should be the names and dates of the people that met their end there," Harris said. "That's very important, remember that these were people. They weren't parts in a play. They were living people that were executed at the site."

Making a memorial: steps going forward

With the input gathered, Lyon will now "go back and, in record time, synthesize all that you came up with here and come up with several different ideas," she said at the meeting. "We're going to get together, go over those and try to finalize them."

Three concepts will eventually be up for view on the city's website. One final plan will ultimately be selected, according to Lyon.

"Once the final concept is devised, the intention is to apply for some funds to construct," Lyon said. "There are several different alternatives, but I think the priority right now, this year, is to get access to the site improved."

For more on this story or other story-related inquiries, email Salem reporter Dustin Luca at dluca@salemnews.com, call 978-338-2523 or message @DustinLucaSN on Twitter.

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