(Area from the intersection of Salem End Road and Willowbrook Road west on Salem End Road to the border of Framingham and Ashland)
In April 1692, three sisters from the north shore of Massachusetts found themselves locked in a cell in Salem Village, (Danvers) awaiting trial for witchcraft. By September, two of the sisters had been hanged for the crime, the third barely escaping with her life to Framingham. Seventy-one year old Rebecca Nurse and her sister Mary Esty were two of the twenty men and women (and two dogs!) put to death in Salem that year. Sarah Clayes was the sister who got away. It’s unclear just how she was able to escape the noose and find refuge here in Framingham. Some legends say that she and her family traveled here by night, hiding out in caves and hollowed out trees. Others believe that Deputy Governor of the colony Thomas Danforth, who owned the land now known as Framingham, helped her escape. Danforth had been one of the questioners at the hearing in Salem in which Sarah was first accused as a witch, but later spoke out publicly against the trials. Could his guilty conscience have helped spare Sarah’s life? More than 300 years later, people are still fascinated by the story, and many make Salem End a pilgrimage on their tour of “witchcraft sites.” Some say they can feel a supernatural presence near her house, which is possible, given that one of the sisters- Mary Esty – is said to have appeared as a ghost before her accusers, still proclaiming her innocence. Perhaps the trio of sisters gathers here in town to find solace in each other’s company.
The hangings in September 1692 were the last in the colony, and the remaining accused people were eventually released from jail, as long as they paid their jail costs. In 1711, the colony passed a bill, which restored the rights and good names of the accused, and granted restitution to the heirs of the victims. Sarah Clayes was the central character in a 1986 television movie called “Three Sovereigns for Sarah,” starring Vanessa Redgrave. In 1957, the state of Massachusetts issued a formal apology for the events in 1692.
Ironically, back in Danforth’s hometown of Framlingham, England, witches had been tried and executed in large numbers about 50 years earlier. The pond in front of Framlingham castle was often the scene of a “witch ducking,” considered a foolproof way of identifying witches. The accused was bound with rope and tossed into the pond. If they floated, they were a witch. If they sank, there was good news and bad news. The good news was they were not a witch. The bad news is…they sank.
There was another so-called witch who took up residence in Framingham for a short time. Back in the mid-1930’s, actress Margaret Hamilton lived on Gilbert Street with her husband before taking on her signature role as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz in 1939.