More than three centuries after a Massachusetts woman was convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to death, she is finally about to be exonerated, thanks to a curious eighth-grade civics class.
State Senator Diana DiZoglio, a Democrat from Methuen, has introduced legislation to clear the name of Elizabeth Johnson Jr, who was convicted in 1693 at the height of the Salem witch trials but never executed.
DiZoglio says he was inspired by research conducted by a group of 13- and 14-year-olds at North Andover High School. Students of civics professor Carrie LaPierre thoroughly researched Johnson and the steps that needed to be taken to ensure she was formally pardoned.
“It is important that we work to correct history,” DiZoglio said. “We can never change what happened to these victims, but at least we can make things clear.”
If lawmakers pass the measure, Johnson will be the last accused witch to be acquitted, according to Witches of Massachusetts Bay, a group dedicated to the history and tradition of 17th-century witch hunts.
Twenty people from Salem and neighboring towns were killed and hundreds more indicted during a frenzy of Puritan injustice that began in 1692, fueled by superstition, fear of disease and strangers, scapegoats and petty jealousy.
Nineteen were hanged and one man was crushed to death by rocks.
In the 328 years that followed, dozens of “suspects” were officially acquitted, including Johnson’s own mother, the daughter of a minister whose conviction was ultimately overturned. But for whatever reason, Johnson’s name was not included in various legislative attempts to clear things up.
Johnson was 22 when she became engulfed in the witch trial hysteria and was sentenced to hang. Never happened.
Then-Governor William Phips rejected his punishment when the scale of the serious court errors in Salem subsided.
But because she was not among those whose convictions were formally set aside, technically hers still stands.
“It is not clear why Elizabeth was not exonerated, but the [state] general assembly or the courts, ”DiZoglio said.
“Possibly because she was neither a wife nor a mother, she was not deemed worthy of having her name cleared. And since he never had children, there is no group of descendants acting on his behalf. “
His bill would amend the 1957 legislation, amended in 2001, to include Johnson, among others, who were pardoned after being wrongly accused and convicted of witchcraft.
In 2017, officials unveiled a semicircular stone wall memorial bearing the names of hanged people at a site in Salem known as Proctor’s Ledge. It was funded in part by donations from the descendants of those accused of witchcraft.
LaPierre said some of his students were initially ambivalent about the effort to exonerate Johnson because they launched it before the 2020 presidential election and at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic was in full swing.
“Part of the conversation was, ‘Why are we doing this? She’s dead. Are not more important things happening in the world? “, He said. “But they came up with the idea that it’s important that we can somehow do this one thing.”