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Salem, Mass., Dedicates Memorial To Witches Who Died On The Gallows

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We hear the term witch hunt a lot these days. Well, the next story stems from that most famous witch hunt, the one in Salem, Mass. Today, people there are remembering the 19 men and women who were accused and convicted of being witches back in 1692. Andrea Shea of member station WBUR went to the ceremony at an execution site, Proctor's Ledge.

ANDREA SHEA, BYLINE: Salem residents and descendants of 19 people put to death for witchcraft gathered in chairs abutting the new Proctor's Ledge Memorial. It's a freshly landscaped, crescent-shaped plot with plantings, mulch and a swoop of granite wall. Nineteen gray blocks are etched with the names of the victims and the date they were killed.

JEFFREY BARZ-SNELL: We should not be here today. We should not be here dedicating this memorial and setting aside this small patch of rocky earth.

SHEA: That's Reverend Jeffrey Barz-Snell of the First Church in Salem.

BARZ-SNELL: We should not be here commemorating the heartbreaking and tragic loss of life - people who were falsely and unjustly accused of being in the snare of the devil.

SHEA: In 1692, Rebecca Nurse, who was killed on a hot July afternoon like this one, was a member of that congregation. Barz-Snell said his predecessor Reverend Nicholas Noyes helped fan the flames of hysteria that engulfed Salem.

BARZ-SNELL: We would like to think that we have learned from that evil and traumatic choices made 325 years ago. We would like to think we became better people. The truth is that the lessons from Salem are not just learned once but must be learned and relearned by each generation.

SHEA: Gail Garda is a descendant of Rebecca Nurse, who was killed on the spot. She asked the crowd to imagine what it was like for the settlers who emigrated from England to Massachusetts, searching for a better life and religious freedom.

GAIL GARDA: Who could have ever imagined amidst all the other fears that they were facing at the time - Indian attacks, invasion of the French, health epidemics - that over a brief period of months from February to September, that these 19 innocent people - five men and 14 women - would be convicted of witchcraft and brought here to Proctor's Ledge to be hanged. As far as we can tell from all the records, the accused were all just ordinary people no different than any of us here today.

SHEA: This site was identified by a team of researchers in January 2016, including Emerson Tad Baker, a Salem State University professor. But he said this story is not just Salem's because he estimates 100 million people are descendants of those accused in the witch trials.

EMERSON BAKER: In that sense, it really is our national story, our national shame and our national chance of redemption because, you know, if you're not a descendant of one of those people, probably the person standing next to you is. And a matter of fact, one of my ancestors, Roger Toothacher, died in prison awaiting trial in 1692.

SHEA: The Proctor's Ridge Memorial is meant to be a place of reflection. This isn't the first witch trial memorial in Salem, though. Another one was unveiled in 1992 to mark the 300th anniversary of the hangings. Still, some say it's been a long time coming. For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.