Salem Dedicates a Memorial at Site of Witch Trial Hangings

On July 19, 1692, five women accused of witchcraft were publicly hanged from a tree on a rocky ledge in Salem, Massachusetts. The grisly event would mark the first of three mass executions held during the infamous Salem witch trials. Now, 325 years after that fateful day, Smithsonian reports that Salem mayor Kimberley Driscoll will dedicate a memorial at the site—called Proctor’s Ledge—to honor the 19 men and women hanged during the trials.

The ceremony will take place on Wednesday, July 19, at noon, according to the Salem News. Speakers will include Driscoll, Salem State University history professor Emerson "Tad" Baker—who, along with a team of local researchers, recently identified the site of the hangings—and a descendant of Rebecca Nurse, an accused "witch" who lost her life on July 19, 1692.

Salem is already home to one memorial of the infamous prosecutions, dedicated in 1992 to mark the 300th anniversary of the trials. The new monument on Proctor’s Ledge is “a ledge wall that goes into the site with granite blocks,” city preservation planner Patricia Kelleher told the Salem News. "Within that retaining wall, there are blocks—19 blocks—and each block will have the name of the person and the date of the execution." These blocks will be illuminated at night, and a sidewalk along an adjacent residential street will allow visitors to pay their respects at the ledge.

The Salem witch trials are a major part of the New England city’s identity. But until 2016, the exact location of the hangings had been been lost to time. Local lore had it that the executions had been staged at the top of Gallows Hill, but no evidence existed to support that claim.

To solve the mystery, a team of local experts—including Baker—launched a research endeavor called the Gallows Hill Project. They examined eyewitness accounts of the hangings, read the writings of local historian Sidney Perley, and used aerial photography and ground-penetrating radar to locate the outcrop near the base of the hill, where many of Salem’s accused witches lost their lives. (Five additional individuals died in jail during the trials, and one was crushed to death with rocks.) Their findings were announced in early 2016.

During the 17th century, Proctor’s Ledge was public grazing land. In later centuries, it was named for Thorndike Proctor—a descendent of trial victim John Proctor, who became the main character in Arthur Miller's The Crucible—who purchased the surrounding land. Today, the wooded site is owned by the city, and sits between two residential streets and behind a Walgreens.

To respect nearby homeowners’ privacy, local officials advise visitors to continue paying their respects at the city's downtown monument to the Salem witch trials. However, they have acknowledged the importance of placing a marker on the execution site—even if they'd prefer it not become a new tourist attraction.

"I think knowing the exact location where the executions took place is important because we want to get history right," Driscoll said in a statement. "It's also an opportunity to come together and recognize the injustice and tragedy.”

[h/t Smithsonian]

The Time the U.S. Government Planned to Nuke Alaska

iStock.com/mesut zengin
iStock.com/mesut zengin

In the 1950s, the idea of harnessing nuclear power was a bit of a public relations disaster. The world at large knew nuclear bombs only as tools of mass death and destruction. But if the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC)—later the Department of Energy—had its way, nuclear explosions would have been reinvented as peacetime assets to humanity.

As proof of concept, the AEC planned to nuke Alaska.

Atlas Obscura details the plot, which reads almost as farce. In the late 1950s, the AEC was developing Project Plowshare, a plan to repurpose thermonuclear weapons to change the literal face of the Earth. Imagine blasting through mountains to create railways or widening the Panama Canal. The instantaneous landscape shifts caused by such weapons were economically attractive—saving on labor costs—and might also provide access to natural resources like oil. The excavation and fracking potential seemed limitless.

In 1958, the AEC and physicist Edward Teller proposed the first step in this bold new direction: Project Chariot. The plan was to detonate a 1-megaton H-bomb near Cape Thompson in Alaska along with several other, smaller explosions to create a crater 1000 feet in diameter and 110 feet deep. The resulting deepwater harbor would facilitate mineral mining and fishing access. The U.S. government rhapsodized about the idea in the media, claiming the then-contemporary weapons had low fallout and would create a port that would be nothing but a net gain for Alaskans.

Residents, however, met these plans with a degree of skepticism. The Inuit population who lived nearby and would have to cope with the radioactive consequences of such a scheme voiced their opposition to the idea. They pointed to earlier test blasts that showed radioactivity showering the vicinity. In 1954, a blast in the Bikini Atoll had a nuclear fallout of 7000 square miles in the Pacific Ocean. Owing to such tests, the Inuit were already demonstrating heightened radioactivity levels. So were the caribou they ingested. The notion of a “clean” nuclear bomb was something no one wanted to test with their own life.

Project Chariot never materialized, and the idea of wielding nuclear power to replace manual labor was laid to rest by 1977.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

Vermont and Maine Are Replacing Columbus Day With Indigenous Peoples' Day

David Ryder/Getty Images
David Ryder/Getty Images

The narrative surrounding Christopher Columbus has shifted in recent years, leading some U.S. states and cities to reconsider glorifying the figure with his own holiday. If the governors of Vermont and Maine sign their new bills into law, the two states will become the latest places to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples' Day, CNN reports.

In 1971, the Uniform Holiday Bill went into effect, officially designating Columbus Day as a federal holiday to be celebrated on the second Monday of October. The holiday was originally meant to recognize the "discovery" of America—a version of history that erases the people already living on the continent when Columbus arrived and ignores the harm he inflicted.

As Columbus's popularity decreases in the U.S., some places have embraced Indigenous Peoples' Day: A day dedicated to Native American culture in history. The holiday is already observed in Seattle, Washington; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Alaska. Earlier this year, Sandusky, Ohio announced they would swap Columbus Day for Voting Day and give municipal workers the election Tuesday of November off instead.

Indigenous Peoples' Day has been celebrated in place of Columbus Day in Vermont for the past few years, but a new bill would make the change permanent. The Vermont state legislature has voted yes on the bill, and now it just needs approval from Governor Phil Scott, which he says he plans to give. If he passes the law, it will go into effect on October 14, 2019 (the date Columbus Day falls on this year).

Maine voted on a similar bill in March, and it gained approval from both the state's Senate and House of Representatives. Like Governor Scott, Maine governor Janet Mills plans on signing her state's bill and making the holiday official.

Regardless of the legal status of Columbus Day, Indigenous Peoples' Day celebrations take place across the country every October. South Dakota hosts Native American Day festivities at the Crazy Horse Memorial each year, and in Seattle, Indigenous Peoples celebrations last a whole week.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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