Read CHAPTER XXX of Dulcibel A Tale of Old Salem , free online book, by Henry Peterson, on

Eight Legal Murders on Witch Hill.

A mile or so outside of the town of Salem, the ground rises into a rocky ledge, from the top of which, to the south and the east and the west, a vast expanse of land and sea is visible. You overlook the town; the two rivers, or branches of the sea, between which the town lies; the thickly wooded country, as it was then, to the south and west; and the wide, open sea to the eastward.

Such a magnificent prospect of widespread land and water is seldom seen away from the mountain regions; and, as one stands on the naked brow of the hill, on a clear summer day, as the sunset begins to dye the west, and gazes on the scene before and around him, he feels that the heavens are not so very far distant, and as if he could almost touch with these mortal hands the radiance and the glory.

The natural sublimity of this spot seems to have struck the Puritan fathers of Salem, and looking around on its capabilities, they appear to have come to the conclusion that of all places it was the one expressly designed by the loving Father of mankind for a gallows!

“Yes, the very spot for a gallows!” said the first settlers. “The very spot!” echoed their descendants. “See, the wild “Heathen Salvages” can behold it from far and near; the free spoken, law-abiding sailors can descry it, far out at sea; and both know by this sign that they are approaching a land of Christian civilization and of godly law!”

I think if I were puzzled for an emblem to denote the harsher and more uncharitable side of the Puritan character, I should pick out this gallows on Witch Hill near Salem, as being a most befitting one.

This was the spot where, as we have already related, approaching it from the north, Master Raymond had his interview with jailer Foster. But that was night, and it was so dark that Master Raymond had no idea of its commanding so fine a view of both land and water. He had been in Boston during the execution of poor Bridget Bishop; and though he had often seen the gallows from below, and wondered at the grim taste which had reared it in such a conspicuous spot, he had never felt the least desire, but rather a natural aversion, to approach the place where such an unrighteous deed had been enacted.

But now the carpenters had been again at work and supplanted the old scaffolding by another and larger one. Now the uprights had been added too and on the beam which they supported there was room for at least ten persons. This seemed to be enough space to Marshall Herrick and Squire Hathorne; though at the rate the arrests and convictions were going on, it might be that one-half of the people in the two Salems and in Ipswich, would be hung in the course of a year or so by the other half.

But for this special hanging, only eight ropes and nooses were prepared. The workmen had been employed the preceding afternoon; and now in the fresh morning light, everything was ready; and eight of those who had been condemned were to be executed.

The town, and village, and country around turned out, as was natural, in a mass, to see the terrible sight. And yet the crowd was comparatively a small one, the colony then being so thinly settled. But this, to Master Raymond’s eyes, gave a new horror to the scene. If there had been a crowd like that when London brought together its thousands at Tyburn, it would have seemed less appalling. But here were a few people not alienated from each other by ancestral differences in creed or politics, and who had never seen each other’s faces before but members of the same little band which had fled together from their old home, holding the same political views, the same religious faith; who had sat on the same benches at church, eaten at the same table of the Lord’s supper, near neighbors on their farms, or in the town and village streets; now hunting each other down like wolves, and hanging each other up in cold blood! This it was that set apart the Salem persecution from all other persécutions of those old days against witches and heretics; and which has given it a painful pre-eminence in horror. It was neighbor hanging neighbor; and brother and sister persecuting to death with the foulest lies and juggling tricks their spiritual brothers and sisters. And the plea of “delusion” will not excuse it, except to those who have not investigated its studied cruelty and malice. Sheer, unadulterated wickedness had its full share in the persecution; and that wickedness can only be partly extenuated by the plea of possible insanity or of demoniacal possession.

The route to the gallows hill was a rough and difficult one; but the condemned were marched from the jail for the last time, one by one, and compelled to walk attended by a small guard and a rude and jeering company. There was Rebecca Nurse, infirm but venerable and lovely, the beloved mother of a large family; there was the Reverend George Burroughs, a small dark man, whose great physical strength was enough, as the Reverend Increase Mather, then President of Harvard College, said, to prove he was a witch; but who did not believe in infant baptism, and probably was not up to the orthodox standard of the day in other respects, though in conduct a very correct and exemplary man; there was old John Procter, with his two staffs, and long thin white hair; there was John Willard, a good, innocent young man, lied to death by Susanna Sheldon, aged eighteen; there was unhappy Martha Carrier four of whose children, one a girl of eight, had been frightened into testifying before the Special Court against her; saying that their mother had taken them to a witch meeting, and that the Devil had promised her that she should be queen of hell; there was gentle, patient and saintlike Elizabeth How, with “Father, forgive them!” on her mild lips; and two others of whom we now know little, save that they were most falsely and wickedly accused.

There also were the circle of the “afflicted,” gazing with hard dry eyes on the murder they had done and with jeers and scoffs on their thin and cruel lips.

There, too, were the reverend ministers, Master Parris of Salem village, and Master Noyes of Salem town, and Master Cotton Mather, who had come down from Boston in his black clothes, like a buzzard that scents death and blood a long way off, to lend his spiritual countenance to the terrible occasion.

Master Noyes, however, the most of the time, seemed rather quiet and subdued. He was thinking perhaps of Sarah Good’s fierce prediction, when he urged her, as she came up to the gallows to confess, saying to her that, “she was a witch, and she knew it!” Outraged beyond all endurance at this last insult at such a moment, Sarah Good cried out: “It is a lie! I am no more a witch than you are. God will yet give you blood to drink for this day’s cruel work!” Which prediction it is said in Salem, came true Master Noyes dying of an internal hemorrhage bleeding profusely at the mouth.

It was not a scene that men of sound and kindly hearts would wish to witness; and yet Joseph Putnam and Ellis Raymond felt drawn to it by an irresistible sense of duty. Hard, indeed, it was for Master Raymond; for the necessity of the case compelled him to suppress all show of sympathy with the sufferer, in order that he might more effectually carry out his plans for Dulcibel’s escape from the similar penalty that menaced her. And he, therefore, could not even ride around like Master Putnam, with a frowning face, uttering occasional emphatic expressions of his indignation and horror, that the crowd would probably not have endured from any one else.

There were some incidents that were especially noticeable. Samuel Wardwell had “confessed” in his fear, but subsequently taken back his false confession, and met his death. While he was speaking at the foot of the gallows declaring his innocence, the tobacco smoke from the pipe of the executioner, blew into his face and interrupted him.

Then one of the accusing girls laughed out, and said that “the Devil did hinder him,” but Joseph Putnam cried, “If the Devil does hinder him, then it is good proof that he is not one of his.” At which some few of the crowd applauded; while others said that Master Putnam himself was no better than he ought to be.

The Reverend Master Burroughs, when upon the ladder, addressing the crowd, asserted earnestly his entire innocence. Such was the effect of his words that Master Raymond even hoped that an effort would be made to rescue him. But one of the “afflicted girls” cried out, “See! there stands the black man in the air at his side.”

Then another said, “The black man is telling him what to say.”

But Master Burroughs answered: “Then I will repeat the Lord’s prayer. Would the Devil tell me to say that?”

But when he had ended, Master Cotton Mather, who was riding around on his horse, said to the people that “the Devil often transformed himself into an angel of light; and that Master Burroughs was not a rightly ordained minister;” and the executioner at a sign from the official, cut the matter short by turning off the condemned man.

Rebecca Nurse and the other women, with the exception of their last short prayers, said nothing submitting quietly and composedly to their legal murder. And before the close of one short hour eight lifeless bodies hung dangling beneath the summer sun.

Joseph Putnam and Master Raymond, and a few others upon whom the solemn words of the condemned had made an evident impression, turned away from the sad sight, and wiped their tearful eyes. But Master Parris and Master Noyes, and Master Cotton Mather seemed rather exultant than otherwise; though Master Noyes did say; “What a sad thing it is to see eight firebrands of hell hanging there!” But, as Master Cotton Mather more consistently answered: “Why should godly ministers be sad to see the firebrands of hell in the burning.”

Then, as the hours went on, the bodies were cut down, and stuck into short and shallow graves, dug out with difficulty between the rocks in some instances, the ground not covering them entirely. There some remained without further attention; but, in the case of others, whose relatives were still true to them, there came loving hands by night, and bore the remains away to find a secret sepulcher, where none could molest them.

But the gallows remained on the Hill, where it could be seen from a great distance; causing a thrill of wonder in the bosom of the wandering savage, as of the wandering sailor, gazing at its skeleton outline against the sunset sky from far out at sea waiting for ten more victims!