In November of 2008 bodies were found while work crews were digging in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Workers had stumbled onto additional remains of a slave cemetery -- first discovered in 2003, that dated back to 1705. Archeologists swooped in and collected the artifacts which had been neglectfully covered over by centuries of development in a New England community not known for its slave holding past. Perhaps if more people had remembered that the evils of slavery had played out in northern communities like Portsmouth, folks would have found the remains sooner. And if generations hadn't thought that slavery was just fine, the graves might not have been so easily and ignobly forgotten in the first place.
That "there-was-nothing-wrong-with-it" cultural norm is probably why the graves of the "Salem Witches" are lost to history as well. See, for generations after the "witches" were hanged and buried, the community -- at least the politically powerful -- thought they were well rid of these troublesome characters and neither preserved their execution site nor where their bodies were interred.
It's believed that at least three of the victims' bodies -- I'll refer to them as victims from here on out as they clearly were not witches but rather victims of state sponsored terrorism -- were exhumed by their families and given respectful burial elsewhere. According to Professor Emerson Baker of Salem State University, Salem's most famous victim, John Proctor, who was featured in Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," was reburied as were George Jacobs and Rebecca Nurse.
No one who robbed the graves of convicted criminals would have admitted to the offense so no real details remain of what may have happened in the other two cases, but Prof. Baker recounted the legend of Rebecca Nurse's son rowing a boat over to the site where the victims were buried and bringing her home to rest in an unmarked grave on the family's property.
George Jacobs' land was developed in the 20th century and a male skeleton was found. The remains appeared centuries old and the man seemed to have died violently, perhaps of a broken neck. In 1992 these remains were buried at Rebecca Nurse's house in what is now the town of Danvers although at the time of the witch trials it was known as Salem Village.
If these three folks found final resting place elsewhere there are still 17 unaccounted for victims: 16 that were executed by hanging and one, Giles Corey, who was pressed to death during his "interrogation."
The Salem Witch Trials were a big deal. About 10 percent of the 1,500 person community was charged with the crime. Prof. Baker recounted that more than "150 persons were accused of witchcraft and had their lives ruined... two or three died in prison."
The Massachusetts Bay Colony had a new governor in 1692 and Sir William Phips was the first ever to be born in the Colony. Prof. Baker ventures that because he was not a native Brit, Phips, "would not have wanted to appear soft on crime." And these trials were an effective "way to control the community with the fear of community wide evil and harm." In addition to controlling the populace, it also made the governor look tough to the King back in England who had given him power over the region.
Still, with this enormous criminal investigation and 1,200 pages of trial records that have survived until today, not one document remains that depicts the whereabouts of the victims' bodies. Prof. Baker believes this may be more about guilt than coincidence. Baker explained, "Samuel Sewell -- one witch trial judge who later apologizes -- kept a diary for the last 40 years of his life. But, the summer of 1692 is blank." Baker speculates that after the trials there was a "willful collective amnesia" brought about by "collective guilt." And that may be because, according to Baker, these theocratic persecutions killed the truly pious of the town. Baker explains, "The ultimate sadness of the story is that they executed the most Christian of them all. Nobody who confessed to being a witch was executed. Only those so devoted that they wouldn't lie to save their lives paid with their lives." And now the victims have spent 320 years buried in unconsecrated graves and unknown to their descendants.
One such descendant, author and broadcaster Jack Heath, wants something done about it. Heath feels, "19 people were hanged and none of them were witches. There should be a sign where they were hanged and a sign where they were buried. This is very improper." Heath goes on to speculate that much like the Portsmouth slave graveyard, "There's probably a development there."
Prof. Baker agrees that it's possible that just about anything could be over the victims' graves. But Baker doesn't see that as a bad thing, necessarily. He thinks it might raise awareness of political persecution through time, "If it is in the front yard of a McDonald's, so much the better. Then they could mark the location and let the people rest in peace."