Last Salem witch is exonerated 329 years later

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It’s now official: Elizabeth Johnson Jr. was not a witch.

Until last week, the Andover, Massachusetts resident, who during the Salem witch trials confessed to having practiced witchcraft, was the only person convicted in the trials who had not yet been acquitted.

She was exonerated last Thursday, 329 years after she was convicted, in an act that was included in a $53 billion state budget signed by Governor Charlie Baker. Her acquittal was the fruit of a three-year lobbying effort by a civics teacher and her eighth-grade class, as well as a state senator who helped champion the cause.

“I’m thrilled and relieved,” said Carrie LaPierre, the teacher at North Andover High, “but disappointed that I couldn’t talk to the students about it” because they are on vacation. “It was such an important project,” she said. “The students and I called her EJJ. She’s become part of our world, in a way.”

Only the most general facts of Elizabeth Johnson’s life are known. She was 22 years old when she was charged, it is possible that she had a mental disability and had never married or had children, factors that could make a woman a target in trials, LaPierre said.

The governor of Massachusetts at the time granted Johnson a reprieve, relieving her of the death penalty, and she died in 1747 at the age of 77. But unlike others convicted in the trials, Johnson had no known descendants who might have sought to clear her name.

Past efforts to acquit people convicted of witchcraft have not included Johnson. According to historians, the omission may have been due to administrative confusion: his mother, who had the same name, was also convicted, but was acquitted earlier.

The effort to exonerate Johnson was a dream project for his eighth-grade civics class, LaPierre said. This allowed him to teach his students about research methods, including the use of primary sources; about the process by which a bill becomes law and about ways to contact state legislators.

The project also taught students about the value of persistence: after an intensive letter-writing campaign, the bill to exonerate Johnson had essentially bogged down. When students began lobbying the governor to ask for a pardon, his state senator, Diana DiZoglio, added an amendment to the budget bill, thereby injecting new life into the acquittal effort.

“These students set an impressive example of the power of advocacy and speaking for others who have no voice,” DiZoglio, a Democratic senator whose district encompasses North Andover, said in an interview.

At least 172 people from Salem and the surrounding towns, which include present-day North Andover, were accused of witchcraft in 1692 as part of a Puritan inquisition that historians say was sparked by paranoia.

Emerson Baker, professor of history at Salem State University and author of “A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience,” said there were many reasons why innocent people could plead guilty to witchcraft. Many wanted to avoid being tortured or thought they might be witches without knowing it. All this would have been the result of a pressure campaign driven by clerics and even relatives of the accused.

“At what point does she say, ‘For the good of the community, I think I better confess? I don’t think I’m a witch, but maybe I had some bad thoughts and I shouldn’t,'” Baker said. For him, it would have been a logical thought for a society in which belief in witches was widespread.

Another common reason for confessions, Baker said, was survival. By the summer of 1692 it became clear that the accused who had pleaded not guilty were brought to trial promptly, convicted and hanged, while those who pleaded guilty seemed to escape this macabre end: the 19 people executed in Salem had pleaded not guilty, none of them 55 who pleaded guilty was executed, he said.

Baker said he was pleased to see Elizabeth Johnson Jr exonerated. The accusations leveled at her and her family must have ruined her life and reputation, he explained.

“After all the Massachusetts Bay Colony government and people put Elizabeth and her family through,” he said, exonerated her is “the least we can do.”

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