Ever since Walt Disney began animating in the 1920s, his name has been linked to a cast of screen characters.
Some of these are witches. There’s the Evil Queen of Snow White and The Seven Dwarves, Maleficent of Sleeping Beauty, Ursula the Sea Witch of The Little Mermaid, and the Reverend George Burroughs of Salem Village, Massachusetts…
Disney’s Connection to the Salem Witch Trials
George Burroughs wasn’t animated, except maybe when he stood behind the pulpit from 1681 to 1683 as Salem Village’s minister. Nor was he an actual witch.
But Burroughs was accused of witchcraft and executed for it during the Salem witch trials. And he was, genealogists at Ancestry have shown, Walt Disney’s 6x great-grandfather.
And even more has been discovered about Disney’s unlucky ancestor. Researchers revealed the location where he and 18 others similarly accused were hanged in 1692: not at the summit of Gallows Hill, as had been assumed, but near its base at Proctor’s Ledge.
The Hanging Tree
Today, Proctor’s Ledge is filled with rocks and trees and surrounded by houses and a pharmacy.
In Burroughs’s time, it was public land grazed by sheep, and records suggest that anyone standing on it could be seen for miles. This high visibility is likely why the spot was chosen for the hangings, which were to show residents the consequences of running afoul of the law.
Of course, history has shown that the witch trials arose out of superstition and fear, not from any law breaking. After the hysteria was over, 24 people accused of witchcraft were dead.
Of those 24 people, 19 are believed to have been hanged at Proctor’s Ledge, while four died in jail, and one was crushed to death while being tortured to get him to plead guilty or innocent.
The team of writers, historians, and professors that pinpointed the execution site was convened in 2010 to clear up three centuries of uncertainty. Though approximately 1,000 trial-related documents exist, and some show Gallows Hill as the spot where the hangings took place, none gave the exact location.
The team relied heavily on the research of Sidney Perley, a 19th-century Salem lawyer and historian who actually discovered the truth of Proctor’s Ledge, but his findings were forgotten.
Researchers also reviewed eyewitness accounts and used aerial photography and ground-penetrating radar to essentially confirm Perley’s previous discovery.
The team concluded that no victims are buried at Proctor’s Ledge and that gallows likely were never erected at the site. Rather, the accused were probably hanged by a rope thrown over a tree limb.
Who Was Proctor?
Burroughs is also indirectly associated with the name of the site, which wasn’t called Proctor’s Ledge until the 18th century. It was named for Thorndike Proctor, who owned land there and who was a descendant of John Proctor, himself a victim of the Salem witch trials hanged at the same time as Burroughs.
Interestingly, John Proctor also has a connection with 20th-century performing arts, as well as another witch hunt of sorts. He was a main character in The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s 1953 play about the Salem witch trials written as an allegory about McCarthyism.
Might you, like Disney, have ancestors tried for witchcraft? You can do a quick search on Ancestry’s New England, Salem Witches, and Others Tried for Witchcraft database to find out.
Whether you want to uncover the witches, pastors, or movie moguls in your family story, Ancestry is offering a 14-day free trial with access to their 19 billion records to help you find the amazing stories.