Memorial to Salem witch trial victims in bad condition

By Mary Elizabeth Williams-Villano

Blight at site blamed on poor plant choice.

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They should have listened to the landscape architect.

The Salem Witch Trials memorial at Proctor's Ledge in Salem, Massachusetts, has been open slightly less than a year, but that was enough time for a dozen young trees planted at the site to have died, according to a story published in The Salem News. Other parts of the memorial site are overgrown with weeds.

Researchers led by Salem State University professor Emerson "Tad" Baker confirmed in early 2016 that Proctor's Ledge was the spot where 19 people were hanged for alleged witchcraft at the end of the 17th century. The memorial was dedicated last July.

However, the historic area looks as though it’s under a witch’s curse. A complaint logged on SeeClickFix, a web-based program for reporting municipal issues, called the site a "blighted property.”

“It was promised to be kept well groomed,” the complaint goes on to say, “but half of the trees and shrubs are dead and it is inundated with weeds to the point it can't be distinguished where the weeds end and the shrubs begin.”

Landscape architect and site designer Martha Lyon had proposed juniper or cedar trees be planted at the memorial site. But she was overruled, and faster-growing arborvitae saplings were planted instead after neighbors pushed for perimeter trees "for privacy purposes."

"As we saw over the last couple of months, the memorial’s designer was correct and the arborvitae did not thrive in that location," says Dominick Pangallo, chief of staff to Mayor Kim Driscoll, "so the city will be replacing them with a plant type as initially recommended."

Pangallo added that Greenscapes, the city's landscape contractor, "has the site on their route for biweekly maintenance for weeding, litter pickup and so forth."

Baker, after driving to the memorial to see its condition for himself, says "the arborvitae are dead as a door nail, unfortunately."

Lyon said it's not surprising that the arborvitae didn't survive because they were planted during the summer, not a great time for tree planting. She also said the overall site was quite challenging. "The planting palette that will survive on a site like that is very limited because it's very rocky," she said. "There isn't a lot of soil."

City officials say they will replace the dead trees with ones more compatible with the terrain. A water line was also recently added to improve irrigation, and plantings "better suited to the slope and shallow soil" will go in shortly.

“From this time forward, I hope residents and visitors to Salem will treat the tragic events of 1692 with more of the respect they’re due and are being shown today,” Baker said during the ceremony. “We need less celebration in October — and more commemoration and sober reflection throughout the year.”

City officials pledge that they will "continue to monitor the site based on both neighbor feedback and the maintenance crews' regularly scheduled work."