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Video: America's Hidden Stories Salem's Secrets Witchcraft Era

In 1692, the townspeople of Salem, Massachusetts found themselves in a panic over witchcraft. But after several months, the paranoia and violence ended almost as quickly as it began. All trials were halted, publications about the terror were officially banned, and the location of the execution site vanished from any records. Today, a group of historians uncovers new information about the infamous witch hunt in an effort to answer its most enduring mysteries. America's Hidden Stories: Salem's Secrets Smithsonian Chanel

Transcript: Terrified puritans believe the devil has risen. Woman: They're convulsing, and they're being bitten and choked. Man: Right here she says she's first accosted by Satan. Narrator: 19 suspected witches are hanged. Man: Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. Narrator: But the hidden history of Salem may be very different. Man: These people are Christian martyrs. Man: They share the idea that truth is more important than even life itself. Narrator: To find out why so many were accused of witchcraft, modern historians will enter

a lost puritan world.

Man: Oh, my god.

Woman: These girls had the power

of life and death

in their hands.

Narrator: They will use

high technology

to find where the victims

were hanged and secretly buried.

Woman: We might be on the spot.

Narrator: It may change forever

what we thought we knew

about the Salem witch hunt.

Man: The Salem witch trials

are the first

large-scale government cover-up

in American history.

Man: So there's our proof.

Narrator: History may be more

shocking than we ever imagined.

Today, technology forces

the past to give up its secrets.

Newly discovered documents turn history on its head, and discoveries in ancient archives reveal startling stories we never knew. August 19, 1692. A huge crowd gathers to watch five witches being hanged, somewhere in a small Massachusetts town called Salem. Katherine howe: People traveled from all over. It was the most exciting thing that was happening. So there was a spectacle element to it. Narrator: The puritan colony of Massachusetts is in the middle of a panic over suspected witches. Neighbor accuses neighbor, and family members turn on each other in an orgy of paranoia and violence. The witch scare had begun earlier that year, in January. Young women have mysterious fits, thrashing in bed and acting possessed. Accusations the girls have been attacked by witchcraft quickly tear through the colony. The local ministers believe that the devil is at work. Man: The wiles of the devil! The worst of all evil! Narrator: The court takes action to protect the town; All witches shall be prosecuted and hanged. This is the third day of executions that summer, but today's are unusual: For the first time in Salem, four of the accused are men. One is a puritan minister. Another is a prosperous, church-going husband and father named John proctor. Stacy schiff: John proctor is the first man to be accused. He's a tavern keeper, he's on seemingly good terms with everyone. Emerson baker: He's a pretty successful sort of fellow and very much a god-fearing Christian. Narrator: That an upstanding puritan church-goer like proctor is about to hang shows just how fevered the witch hunt has become. He is the last to die that afternoon. Richard trask: To be the last one to be executed on a particular day meant you have to watch everybody else be executed. Baker: Proctor protested his innocence and his unwillingness to die before the gallows, that he was an innocent man. Narrator: Eight more will hang that summer. Then, almost as quickly as it had begun, it is over. Puritan authorities come to their senses and halt the trials. A blanket of silence falls over the stunned community, and any writing or publication about the terror is officially banned. The location of the execution site vanishes from any records. Baker: I really feel the Salem witch trials are the sort of first large-scale government cover-up in American history, you know, hundreds of years before Watergate. Narrator: That cover-up is launched in the fall of 1692 when the governor of the colony, sir William phipps, bans any writing or publication about the witch hunt. Books were reported burned in Harvard square. Baker: He's essentially trying to Bury the fact that innocent lives were lost here. Narrator: Even today, in a town made famous by the witch trials, vital information is missing and questions lie unanswered. Trask: There's about 900 documents in all, but there are huge gaps. Baker: It's amazing what we don't know. Trask: Yeah. Narrator: Now, a group of historians has uncovered new information about the witch hunt. Marilynne roach: The executions, the people who had died there. Narrator: Richard trask, marilynne roach, tad baker, and Ben ray have spent their lives researching the witch trials. They hope to finally answer its most enduring mysteries. Roach: History of the Salem witch trials... Narrator: What caused the girls to have thrashing fits and act possessed? Baker: Fits that no one can diagnose. Narrator: Why had the accusations of witchcraft spread so quickly, ripping through the colony like a disease? Ben ray: It begins to spread from something small to something large, and it's gonna happen to you! Narrator: And where was the location where those witches were so publicly hanged? Ray: We had the narrative, but we didn't know where the narrative came to its most vicious conclusion. Narrator: Finding the long-lost hanging site could write a final missing chapter in salem's history. Baker: Salem, the witch city, people don't realize that this is built on the death of 19 Christian martyrs. I think it's really important that the site be found and identified. Roach: The place is worth preserving as a memorial to what happened and what should not have happened. Trask: And there were victims from Salem... Narrator: Richard trask runs the peabody archival center. He grew up here and is a direct descendant of executed witch John proctor. Trask: The location of the execution of the accused witches, which should be such an important place, was kind of lost to history. Now, this is... Narrator: One book about the trials did escape the puritan censors. It was published in London eight years after the hangings. Trask: "More wonders of the invisible world" by Robert calef. He was a man who thought injustice was being done, and he was going to record it. Narrator: Calef's book gives even more importance to finding the lost hanging site. He reported that immediately after the executions, the bodies were dumped nearby in a shallow grave. Trask: This is calef talking about the execution. "And he was cut down." He was dragged by the halter to a hole, or grave, between the rocks. One of his hands, and his chin, and a foot of one of them, "being left uncovered." Narrator: If the hanging site can be found, it's possible that remains of the accused witches still lie close by in unmarked graves. Inside a secure vault at the peabody archives are surviving documents from the time of the witch hunt. Although publishing books about the witch trials was illegal, clues that explain why the witch hunt started are hidden within 300-year-old court records and fading church documents. Trask: This is, you know, where the most important or valuable things are located. Narrator: Richard trask's daughter, Elizabeth Peterson, is studying the family history being passed down from her father. She wants to know why her long-ago relative John proctor was accused and hanged. Elizabeth Peterson: He's an older man. You know, and generally people think of witches as women. Trask: Well, John proctor lived in Salem farms, a little below Salem village. But he went to the Salem village church, and reverend parris was the minister of it. Narrator: Minister Samuel parris plays a key role in the start of the witch crisis. Trask: This is the minister's record book, and it's in the handwriting of the reverend Samuel parris. Peterson: Are these original pages? Trask: They're original pages. Peterson: Wow. Trask: March 27, 1692, and he says, "the devil hath been raised amongst us", and his rage is vehement and terrible." Narrator: The reverend parris left more than just words in Salem village. Baker: Very few people even realize this is here. Narrator: This is the site of parris' former home. Baker: Is where the story really starts. This is the beginning of the Salem witch trials. Ground zero. Narrator: The shocking events that happened here 300 years ago lit the flame that began the witch crisis and led to the death of elizabeth's relative, John proctor. Peterson: A witch. Baker: Absolutely. Narrator: The puritans had arrived a generation earlier, in 1626, seeking to build a pure Christian utopia in the new world. The immigrants found themselves in a frightening and often hostile land. Schiff: These are people who advertise themselves as a flock in the wilderness, and they very much are. They're on the edge of a frontier. And the dark is really palpable. Narrator: When Samuel parris arrives as the new minister, Salem village is anything but a puritan utopia. It is filled with refugees from a long-running Indian war, and property disputes pit neighbor against neighbor. Parris preaches that the devil is responsible for salem's trouble. Parris: Stand against the wiles of the devil! Narrator: For the women who share his home... His wife, 9-year-old daughter, 11-year-old niece, and Indian slave tituba... The devil waits in every corner. Baker: Imagine these young girls, they have their father, Samuel parris, storming around the parsonage, up in his study writing these fire and brimstone sermons, saying god is terribly angry, Satan has been let loose in our country, repent, for your soul burns in eternity in hell. This is scary stuff for a 9-year-old, right? Narrator: In January, the young girls begin to act strangely and complain of agonizing pains. Schiff: They say that they're being bitten and choked. They're convulsing in various ways. Their bodies are pretzeling into different postures. One of them runs into a fireplace. They will shriek, and they will not be able to stop the shrieking. Narrator: For reverend parris and the other ministers in the colony, there is an obvious diagnosis: Witchcraft. Tens of thousands of suspected witches had been executed in medieval Europe. Baker: The big problem in the 17th century is that witches are real. Everyone believes in witches; Ministers, university professors know that they exist. Narrator: The first ominous proof of a witch infestation in Salem now comes from parris' own slave. For reasons we'll never know, tituba admits to being the devil's agent, casting a spell on the girls in parris' home. Schiff: It will be her confession that will really make the crisis take off, because once she says, "I am practicing witchcraft," it's very hard for anyone to deny the existence of it in the community. Peterson: What actually started all this was inside this parsonage. Baker: It's right here that tituba says that she's first accosted by Satan who forces her to afflict the girls. Narrator: The stage has been set for a plague of witchcraft, unlike anything the new world had ever seen. Witches were traditionally female and lower class. But John proctor is an upstanding businessman and church-goer, with a wife and 16 children. So why is proctor accused of being a witch? Andrew poleszak: We put this waistcoat on him, basically in keeping with the English fashion of the time. Narrator: To help figure it out, a team of historians and costume designers are recreating his 17th century world. Frank gentile: I thought puritans always wore black; Obviously these are not black clothes. Howe: Too many 1950s movies, I think. Roach: Oh, yes, and Thanksgiving pageants. Black was an expensive color. Poleszak: I know what the clothes were supposed to look like, but his, John proctor's financial standing at the time, what would that really have been like? Howe: John was doing really well for himself, but he also, he didn't have any sort of official standing in the town, which would be a class signifier at that time. But he had a very successful farm. But john's first two wives were lost to dying relatively young. Roach: In childbirth. Howe: His second wife definitely died in childbirth. And so this Elizabeth is his third wife. She's in her forties. The primary driving factor of John and elizabeth's marriage would have been economic necessity. Now, that being said, by all accounts, they actually had a very solid partnership. She was middle class; She enjoyed some material wealth because of john's success. Narrator: But success won't protect them. The Salem witch hunt is unique. Even the wealthy and pious will find themselves accused. In late February 1692, the proctors and much of Salem village watch with fear as more girls are stricken with bizarre fits. One of them is 13-year-old Ann Putnam, whose family connections make her stand out. She's the daughter of Thomas Putnam, an ally of the reverend Samuel parris. Parris: The whole armor of god! Baker: He's a man whose father had been the most wealthy, most important member in Salem village, but he only inherits a small portion of that wealth and position. He's a fellow with a chip on his shoulder. He's got a large family, lots of mouths to feed. Narrator: Like parris, Thomas Putnam blames his misfortune on the devil. Baker: He's ready, willing and able to look for Satan and to help root him out and to find the culprits in Salem village. Narrator: Suspected witches are investigated by the Salem magistrates. On march 1st, Ann Putnam tells the magistrates that Samuel parris' slave tituba has cast a spell on her. Ann Putnam: I saw the apparition of tituba, which did torture me by pricking and pinching. Narrator: Ann Putnam also accuses two other women in town. Roach: They name tituba and the two neighbors, Sarah good and Sarah Osborne. Narrator: Like tituba, neither Sarah good nor Sarah Osborne have money nor many friends in the village. Schiff: They're pretty much the first three people you would have voted off the island anyway. Narrator: If the accusations had stopped here, we'd probably never have heard of the Salem witch hunt. But that march, the afflicted girls turn on a very unexpected target... A well-regarded church member, 71-year-old Rebecca nurse. Baker: Rebecca nurse was a puritan Saint. She was a very devout woman, a beloved grandmother, and a staunch pillar of the community here. Narrator: The putnams had long feuded with the nurse family over property boundaries. In march, Thomas Putnam files a complaint on behalf of his daughter, against Rebecca nurse. Some historians suspect Putnam is fanning the flames of the witch crisis for his own ends, and may secretly be telling the other girls who to accuse. Schiff: Thomas Putnam seems to play a role as the man behind the curtain here. Does he suggest names to them? Roach: Someone's been suggesting, if not directly, whispered comments, as to what, who would be bewitching the girls. So they know names. Narrator: John proctor watches the accusation of Rebecca nurse with growing anger. Trask: He didn't believe in witchcraft. Or at least, he didn't believe in what was happening in Salem village as witchcraft. Narrator: Soon after the possessed girls accuse Rebecca nurse, proctor's own servant Mary Warren begins to have fits. Whatever the reason for Mary warren's fits, proctor wants them to stop. He takes matters into his own hands. Howe: John proctor says that he's going to beat the devil out of her. He thinks it's all nonsense, he doesn't believe it. Narrator: Such a beating is nothing unusual. Women were dominated by men in puritan new england, with children and servants at the bottom of the social ladder. Lizzie polk: What would life have been like for a servant girl? Roach: There was a lot of work that needed to be done, so you would be sunup to sundown, constant, I would think. Howe: The puritans didn't have a sense of "teenagerhood" the way it's like a special life stage right now. Narrator: In "the crucible," Arthur miller's play about the Salem witch trials, John proctor has an affair with one of the first young accusers, Abigail Williams, and that leads to his undoing. Howe: That is definitely not what happened. The affair between John proctor and Abigail Williams is a figment of Arthur miller's fevered 1950s male imagination. The real John proctor was around 60. He was not in his mid-thirties. And the real Abigail Williams was around 11. She was not a 17-year-old temptress. Narrator: But does proctor have an affair with his own servant, Mary Warren? Baker: John proctor is a very complex character. But you do kind of have to wonder about his relationship with Mary Warren. There is even a question that there might have been some sort of sexual relationship going on, some kind of sexual abuse. Narrator: And is that fueling mary's accusation and proctor's rage when he beats her? Later, 20-year-old Mary testifies about pulling proctor's spirit into her lap. And proctor in turn calls Mary his Jade. Baker: Now that's a really unsettling term, and it really kind of implies a woman of low stature or ill repute. Narrator: Whatever the relationship between proctor and Mary Warren, that winter and spring, salem's power structure is turned upside down. Schiff: If you look at the age of the accusers, it's somewhere around 16. So there's definitely a sense here of youth running the show and of a sort of celebrity status granted to the girls. Howe: What drove these girls to accuse people that they had known, in many cases their entire lives, as witches, which is a capital crime during this time period? That's really the million-dollar question, isn't it? Narrator: Several of the female accusers are refugees from the Indian wars and have seen family and friends butchered. Schiff: The Indian wars play a huge role in that so many of the girls who seem to be afflicted by witchcraft have been touched in some way by tragedy, have lost family members, have themselves been refugees from settlements. Narrator: At first, John proctor's beating works. Mary Warren apologizes. She pins a note on the meetinghouse and suggests the other girls are lying. Howe: And so Mary ends up recanting, and then a lot of the other afflicted girls go after her for recanting, because it seems to undermine their authority. Ray: They begin to turn on her, and she realizes, my gosh, I'm going to hang. Baker: So instead she accuses Elizabeth proctor, her husband John, of being witches. Narrator: It's a key moment. Mary Warren clears her name of suspicion by accusing her masters. John and Elizabeth proctor are charged with witchcraft and thrown in jail. Accusations of witchcraft now spread like a terrible contagion, from the parris house, deep into the puritan colony. And it's about to get worse. To figure out why, historians Ben ray and marilynne roach are working with graphic artist Edmund earle. Ray: This is a copy of the original manuscript. Narrator: Ben has spent decades poring over 300-year-old documents, attempting to map how the accusations spread. Edmund earle: So not only do these documents tell you, say, where it would happen, but it says when, and from that you can chart the accusations as they happen through the course of the year? Ray: Exactly. Narrator: There had been witchcraft scares in new england before, but nothing approaching the violence of that terrible summer in 1692. Ben believes that mapping the spread of the panic reveals clues that explain why Salem spun out of control. Earle: I'll make a Mark on 16. Narrator: Edmund builds a three-dimensional visualization of the witchcraft outbreak. Earle: So, Ben, on February 29th, you see the first three. Ray: Yes. Earle: And if I play, you'll watch the days progress up at the top, and you can watch as the accusations spread out. Narrator: One reason the witchcraft accusations spread so quickly: The magistrates permit the use of something called "spectral evidence," evidence that only the accusers can see. Schiff: And it's essentially the idea that if the bewitched can see something, that something is real. Even if the rest of us can't see it, so that if one of the bewitched girls says this particular suspect is stabbing me at this particular moment, and that is not obvious to anyone else in the court, it still remains true and incontrovertible. Narrator: In April, when suspected witch Bridget bishop is examined by magistrate John hathorne, accusers Abigail Williams and Ann Putnam say the ghost or spectre of Bridget bishop is attacking them. Magistrate: Goody bishop... Narrator: Bridget tells the magistrate she has nothing to do with the girls' torments. Bridget bishop: No! Narrator: Bridget bishop is found guilty and hangs on June 10. She's the first accused witch to die. It's a key moment, visible on the map. Ray: Do you see a pause? There's no, nothing new appearing on your screen, right? There's an important transition point here. There's a pause for about three weeks. After Bridget bishop is executed on June 10th, there's something significant going on there. Roach: They're beginning to doubt. Narrator: The map suggests the authorities are concerned. The judge in charge of the special court trying witches, William stoughton, is a hardliner. He's in favor of spectral evidence. But the governor of the colony wants a second opinion and asks the puritan church establishment to weigh in, is spectral evidence acceptable? Schiff: The court will go to the Massachusetts ministers for advice. They're out of their depth, they were not entirely certain how to adjudicate the witchcraft. They've never had an epidemic of this size, they really need to know what actually they're meant to be looking for. Ray: The ministers in Boston say, "well, we don't like the evidence, because it's spectral," but on the other hand, we know there are witches, "so go after them." Earle: Oh! Narrator: Spectral evidence now has the church's blessing. The bureaucracy of death moves into high gear. Making matters worse, judge stoughton permits huge crowds inside the courts. Howe: You would have had a terrified person standing, about to be examined, and then you would have pews and pews and pews, people lining the walls waiting to see what was going to happen. Hathorne: Why do you seem to act witchcraft before us, by the motion of your body, which seems to have influence upon the afflicted? Bishop: I know nothing of it. Narrator: Hunting witches has become a spectator sport. Howe: And it's been argued that one of the reasons that the accusations become so fantastical with the afflicted girls fainting, screaming, is that the people coming and wanting to see the performance of this behavior encouraged the afflicted girls basically to play it up because of the attention. Narrator: Ben says the map reveals another key factor gleaned from the 300-year-old documents. Ray: So it starts what you might call phase two. We're gonna get this spread out further across eastern Massachusetts. And that's because word has kind of gotten out that if you confess, you will not be brought to trial, at least immediately. But to authenticate your confession, you not only have to describe the kind of witchcraft you're doing, you have to name someone. Earle: Oh! Ray: And they name two or three people. Narrator: If you confessed, you were spared the rope, but you were expected to turn in someone else. The outbreak map illustrates how the court system creates a feedback loop of paranoia and violence. Ray: It's Samuel parris who's at the center of it all, he says, "this was a plague-like experience." Narrator: It is a summer of pure terror. Neighbor accuses neighbor, family members turn on each other, and on July 19th five are hanged, including 70-year-old church member Rebecca nurse. And the number of men, women and children in prison keeps growing. Schiff: The jails of Massachusetts are full to bursting. There have never been this many witchcraft accusations in the entire rest of Massachusetts history. Narrator: Blacksmiths are busy forging shackles to restrain the accused. Peterson: Alright, you're going to help me? Because I don't know that I can even do this myself. Baker: Yeah. Narrator: One of the accused witches in prison is Elizabeth peterson's long-ago relative John proctor. Peterson: Was he jailed like this and probably shackled as well? Baker: Absolutely. This is what it would have looked like for John proctor the whole time he was in prison. Narrator: For his wife Elizabeth, things are even worse; She's pregnant. Also jailed is Dorothy good, the 5-year-old daughter of Sarah good, one of the first accused. Eleanor Williamson: Why did they put witches in these shackles? Baker: They put them in shackles because iron has magical qualities, they thought. It could stop witchcraft and evil from happening, so as long as you're shackled like this, you couldn't hurt anybody if you were a witch. Narrator: On July 19th, Dorothy becomes an orphan. Her mother is also found guilty and hanged. In prison, John proctor's 16-year-old son William is tortured. Proctor writes a desperate petition to the church. The courts are rushing to judgment, and torture is being used to win confessions. Baker: And so this is gonna come up here. Narrator: Volunteer Jack kaplan demonstrates how it might have happened. Baker: Here's what he says, "my son, William proctor," when he was examined, because he would not confess that he was guilty"... Baker: When he was innocent. Peterson: Right. Baker: "They tied him neck and heels" till the blood gushed out of his nose." Peterson: Oh, my gosh. John proctor: We humbly beg that you would have these magistrates changed, hoping you may be the means of saving the shedding our innocent bloods. Baker: This is his last-ditch plea when he writes to the ministers in late July, asking them to use the proper rule of evidence. He even asks for a change in venue. Can we move the proceedings to Boston? But his pleas fall on deaf ears. Narrator: On August 5th, the special court preserves its nearly 100% conviction rate, finding John proctor and his wife Elizabeth guilty. Two weeks later proctor finds himself riding in a cart to be executed. It takes him and the four other accused witches through the streets of Salem. Roach: There must have been a great crowd, people would have been all along the route, and maybe following it to see what happened when they get to the gallows. Narrator: A huge crowd gathered to watch the accused die at a site somewhere in this town. They were about to witness the darkest hour in the history of puritan new england. The Salem witch executions would have been horrific. Ralph riviello: So, most hangings back then were short-distance hangings. Baker: Ralph, how high off the ground do you think they... Narrator: Dr. Ralph riviello is a specialist in forensic medicine. Riviello: Unlike what we know nowadays about hangings, where it's done to break the person's neck and to have a merciful death, this is far from it. Baker: So, it's not a quick death? Riviello: No, it's not, it's actually strangulation. Baker: Ugh. Narrator: Before proctor's own execution, he'll watch four others hang, the most shocking of which is a puritan minister, George burroughs. George burroughs: Our father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Narrator: Burroughs stuns the crowd with his final words. Schiff: He manages to say the lord's prayer while on the ladder. The effect of that is hard for us to understand, but to a 17th century new englander, a witch was unable to utter the lord's prayer. Burroughs: But deliver us from evil. Narrator: The prayer spoken from the hangman's ladder is nearly too much for the crowd. Schiff: There will almost be an attempt to intervene and to stop the execution. Narrator: Instead, another puritan minister, cotton mather, tells the crowd that reciting the lord's prayer is a diabolical trick. Schiff: Mather will remind them that this is a meaningless act, and that this is a very dangerous man, and the execution will proceed. Roach: Cotton mather said, "even the devil can be disguised as an angel of light. Just because he looks innocent, he's not." And then the hangman pushes reverend Burrows off the ladder to strangle. Riviello: So that rope blocks the carotid arteries, jugular vein, the trachea, the windpipe. That period is followed by convulsions or shaking, seizure activity. Narrator: The final spasms of agony could have been seen as evidence of witchcraft. Riviello: I'm sure a lot of people in the crowd felt it was the demons or the witches leaving their body. Baker: Right. Schiff: John proctor would have witnessed all of that and would soon thereafter to follow to his death. Narrator: Finally, John proctor, as unlikely a witch as could be, is walked up the hangman's ladder. Baker: Get him up the ladder here. Here. You've got to get the noose over his head. It's just a simple slip. Now, Ralph, what is it? "Turned off the ladder?" Is that the expression? Riviello: Turned off the ladder, yes. Baker: Turn him off the ladder. Narrator: This is the place where Christian martyrs had been executed, where perhaps the best and the worst of puritan new england had faced each other. The historians believe that if they can find the site it will write a final chapter in the Salem story. For years, legend had it that the witches were executed at the highest point in town, a spot named gallows hill. A 19th century historian, Sidney perley, suggested the location was lower down and closer to town. The historians agree. Gallows hill would have been too steep for a cart, and too far to attract a big enough crowd. Ray: You need to transport people from the city jail, outside to some elevated place where the executions can be seen as an example to everyone. Roach: Visible, but not in someone's backyard. Baker: I equate it to the crucifixion of Jesus, which took place outside the walls of Jerusalem at golgotha, which is this rugged hillside. Roach: There was one document which was the questioning of Rebecca eames. Narrator: Marilynne roach has made a discovery in the 300-year-old documents. It's a courtroom interrogation of another accused witch, Rebecca eames. She may have seen the hangings. Roach: She was asked if she was at the execution. "She was at the house below the hill, she saw a few folk"... Being executed. The house below the hill. Baker: The house below the hill. Roach: So... Narrator: By studying old maps, marilynne thinks she's identified "the house below the hill" where Rebecca eames might have seen the hanging. Roach: 19, 1. Ray: I can see a number 15, 17. Roach: And here's number 19. Ray: Number 19. Well. Roach: So the house was here. Ray: It's laundromat. Roach: Yeah, well. Narrator: Rebecca is being taken to court along the main road at the same time the crowd has gathered to watch John proctor and the other accused witches hang. Roach: Her guards, I think, didn't want to miss the excitement, so they put her in one of the houses in the vicinity, where she then observed people being hanged. Narrator: In the 17th century there were only a couple of houses on the street. Their map suggests that in 1692, this house would have had a clear view of high ground. Roach: Right over there, straight. Narrator: But today any view is obscured by trees. Is this really the long-lost hanging site, behind an auto body repair shop, off a busy street? Ben and marilynne show their calculations to graphic artist Edmund earle. Earle: So you're saying that you have records that there's one of these houses where you could actually see where the hangings would have been? Roach: Yes. Ray: We were most interested, whether from this house, what you could see here. Narrator: Edmund has taken the old maps and ben's calculations and built a three-dimensional view of a 17th century world. Roach: There's a testimony from Rebecca eames, who was arrested in boxford that morning. They asked her, "did you see what was going on?" And she said she was in the house below the hill, somewhere along here, and she could see folks being hanged. Baker: Is it possible to see what the street view would be like if you were looking out the front door of this house? Narrator: This is the house marilynne and Ben had visited earlier. Edmund zooms his virtual camera back through the centuries. Earle: So if we go way in... Baker: Sure. What do you see? Earle: And we look up... Ray: Oh, that's good. Roach: And there you see it! Narrator: The trees are now stripped away, and the view of the high ground is clear. The team is almost certain they have located the long-lost hanging site. Earle: This is the vantage point from right in front of the house. Baker: Yup. Roach: There's people up there being hanged. Baker: Exactly. Narrator: A three-dimensional graphic is one thing; Now they want to investigate the site itself. The location they identified now sits in the middle of a suburban development. Roach: So we must be close. Baker: Yup. Ray: We're in someone's backyard here. Baker: But it looks like it might be the place, doesn't it? Roach: Yeah, it does. Ray: And look, there's a high ledge right there at the top. Narrator: The high ledge would have been visible from the street below. This is the hanging site of the Salem witches. Roach: So we might be on the spot. For 300-plus years, it hadn't been marked. Tom brophy: Hello. Narrator: Tom brophy, a retired fireman, grew up in this house, where stories had been passed for generations. Brophy: When we were little kids, my parents and some of the neighbors used to say, "watch this land over here, someday it'll be very important." Witches, you know. Baker: So your family always knew? Brophy: They had heard the rumors that the original site was right in this general area. Baker: Wow. Narrator: If this is the hanging site, are the remains of the Salem witches buried here? One 17th century book reported that the dead had been buried nearby. The witches were considered unclean, forbidden Christian burial, and dumped in a mass grave. Trask: He was dragged to a hole, or grave, between the rocks, about two foot deep. Peter sablock: Now stretch the tape out to that tree down there. Narrator: Geologist Peter sablock is helping the team search for the rock crevice where the remains were thrown. The ground-penetrating radar he's brought fires electromagnetic pulses thousands of times a second. They bounce back when they hit different soil and rock layers to reveal what's hidden below the surface. Brophy: As we're doing some readings, will this basically show us if there was some body buried? Sablock: What it will show us is disturbed ground. Brophy: And this is showing basically very little... Sablock: Very little soil, very, very little soil. Brophy: Yeah, yeah. Narrator: The bedrock lies close to the surface, except in one place. Sablock: You can see the whole stream. This is the crevice. Brophy: That is the, that is the crevice. Sablock: That is the best candidate. Narrator: The dead were buried here. But the mass grave was shallow, and never meant to be permanent. Sablock: But none of those fractures extend deep enough to inter a body for 300 years. There is virtually no chance that there are any remains at all. It's just too close to the surface here. Narrator: But that may not be where the Salem story ends. Legend has it that some of the bodies, including John proctor's, were stolen in the darkness after the executions. Kelly daniell: It all kind of culminates with these people being hung, but we don't really hear what happened afterwards. Narrator: Researcher Kelly daniell and tad baker are both fascinated by a legend that John proctor's family had stolen his body from the mass grave at the hanging site. Is that story true? And if so, where had they reburied him? Baker: I've always been interested in these family traditions in families like John proctor about coming to claim their loved ones and give them proper burial. Daniell: Yeah, it's definitely a detective story. I think it's a solvable mystery. Narrator: When she arrived at her new job at the peabody historical society, Kelly discovered the research notes of a Salem investigator from the past. In the 1800s William upham had interviewed surviving relatives of John proctor. Daniell: He began talking to proctor descendants, one of which mentions her aunt pointing to a spot on a rocky hill on this 15-acre plot and saying that was where our ancestor of witchcraft notoriety was buried. Narrator: Modern tools allow for the next steps in a 200-year-old investigation. Daniell: The best image is this satellite image that doesn't have too many trees, where you can actually see the property boundaries pretty clearly. Baker: Even the stone wall's there. And that x marks the spot, right there. Daniell: X marks the spot. Narrator: The location is on land that proctor once owned, off a main road through peabody, near the local high school. Daniell: Let's check it out. Baker: Absolutely. Baker: This is the boundary line, right? Daniell: So really marking that northeast corner of John proctor's property. Baker: Yeah. Narrator: John proctor had been found guilty of witchcraft, a crime worse than murder. Removing his body for reburial would have been hazardous. Daniell: This element of secrecy is almost purposeful on the part of the family members, at least directly after the witch trials. Baker: And John proctor was buried in the rocks. Right up in here is the northeast corner. Daniell: We don't really hear what it would have been like for the families who had to take the bodies of their loved ones out of a crevice, and by dark of night bring them up a brook into a quiet corner of their family's land. So we can imagine his adult sons coming up proctor's brook, maybe taking some sort of wagon to carry their father's body, up this hill and interring him in kind of a faraway corner of their land. Baker: Right. Narrator: This is the location William upham had guessed was John proctor's final resting place. Tad and Kelly agree. Baker: You know, it makes, it all makes perfect sense, it all fits up. Narrator: Unfortunately... A school was built nearby in the 1970s, and the ground heavily disturbed. Baker: You can see the stone wall is just completely destroyed up in here. So, here's a question. I mean, what are the chances of proctor actually still being here? Daniell: I think based on the fact that it's been disturbed for utilities and construction up here, I think they're pretty slim. Baker: But pretty clearly this was the spot where the family said they brought John proctor. Narrator: John proctor's body had been carried here in secrecy and darkness. A political cover-up had further hidden the true story of the Salem witches. But three centuries later, the historians may finally have answers to some of the witch trials' biggest mysteries. Why had the young girls acted so strangely that year, having violent fits and accusing so many others? Howe: There is a modern phenomenon, which is called conversion disorder, which is when your body expresses emotional stress through physical symptoms. Narrator: Some of the accusers like Ann Putnam may have been doing the bidding of older adults, such as her father. But others were refugees from the Indian wars and worked as servants in a life of obedience, fear and occasional violence. Baker: They're literally terrified. They're not faking when they're screaming, yelling, having convulsions, fits. Roach: I go along with the theory that some of it is conversion disorder, hysteria it used to be called, where if someone is afraid enough, they can convulse or think that they have been wounded. Narrator: Although it may never be possible to know with certainty, for these young accusers pointing fingers may have been a reaction to the stress of daily life. Howe: My take is that the afflicted girls at Salem were living in a moment of incredibly rigid class and gender hierarchies, and the only way that their culture had to express that tension, to let that steam off, was in the form of a witch trial. Narrator: And perhaps the biggest question of all, why had the accusations spread so fast, like a virus? The Massachusetts judges allowed spectral evidence and encouraged citizens to accuse their fellow villagers. They are at the very heart of what makes the Salem witch scare unique. Baker: These are experienced judges, they've served in cases of witchcraft before where they'd let people go. So what caused things to change in 1692? Narrator: The head of the special court trying the witches was a hard-line former preacher, judge William stoughton. He's buried in an ornate tomb in Dorchester cemetery. Elizabeth Peterson is visiting the tomb with Stacy schiff and tad baker. Peterson: There he is in the middle of Dorchester. Schiff: Oh, my gosh. Baker: This is it, this is it. Narrator: Stoughton signed the death warrant for 18 witches, including elizabeth's relative John proctor. Peterson: Why do you think stoughton was like this? Schiff: He really clearly believes fervently that he is doing a public service. Narrator: For stoughton, this is a holy war. Indians are laying siege to the frontier, Satan is assaulting from within, and the authorities need to show england they can take a firm hand. Baker: He sees that Massachusetts needs moral reformation. We need to become, get back into church, we need to get out of the taverns, and that's how we're going to save the colony. Narrator: On September 22nd, eight more witches are hanged. But by late October, growing criticism of the trials leads the governor to close the special court and begin emptying the jails of suspected witches. One of the judges on the court, Samuel sewall, will later apologize for his role in the hangings. And years later, chief accuser Ann Putnam will also say she is sorry. But until his death in 1701, William stoughton remains unrepentant. Ray: After the trials were over, he was asked, "what do you think about your role?" And he says, "I never had any question about it." I was doing god's work." Narrator: And finally, where had the witch trial victims been so publicly hanged? Here, on a hillside in Salem, Massachusetts. On July 19, 2017, the site was recognized with a memorial built just below the ledge where the accused witches were hanged. Kim Driscoll: The shadow from proctor's ledge may be long and enduring, but it does not obscure us from that Fuller understanding of our common humanity. Narrator: The memorial is gratifying for the historians who helped find the hanging site. Ray: History is about place. I think the narrative comes to, in this place, a kind of ennobling conclusion, because these are people who transcend the rest of us. Roach: If people can be reminded of the real story, it should help, I hope, and do honor to the people who suffered. Narrator: Those who escaped the hangman suffered, too. Elizabeth proctor survived because she was pregnant. But she spent the rest of her life fighting to clear her name and win restitution for herself and a son she called John. As many as 100 million Americans may be descended from those accused of witchcraft in Salem. Trask: And when you look at these 19, the thing that makes them unusual isn't their personalities; But the one thing they shared in common was the idea that truth is more important than even life itself. Narrator: The rocky ledge where the accused witches were hanged today is a memorial to those martyrs and a tribute to the many historians who would not let their story die.

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