It took more than three centuries, but the last Salem “witch” has been officially pardoned.
Massachusetts lawmakers on Thursday formally exonerated Elizabeth Johnson Jr, clearing her name 329 years after she was wrongly convicted of witchcraft in 1693 and sentenced to death at the height of the Salem witch trials.
Johnson was never executed, but neither was she officially pardoned like others wrongly accused of witchcraft.
Lawmakers agreed to reconsider her case last year after a curious eighth-grade civics class at North Andover middle school took up her cause and researched the legislative steps needed to clear her name.
“They spent most of the year working on getting this set for the legislature – actually writing a bill, writing letters to legislators, creating presentations, doing all the research, looking at the actual testimony of Elizabeth Johnson, learning more about the Salem witch trials,” said North Andover teacher Carrie LaPierre whose students took on the research project.
“It became quite extensive for these kids,” she added. The students then sent their research to state senator Diana DiZoglio, a Democrat from Methuen.
Subsequent legislation introduced by DiZoglio was tacked onto a budget bill and approved.
“We will never be able to change what happened to victims like Elizabeth but at the very least can set the record straight,” DiZoglio said.
LaPierre echoed DiZoglio’s words, saying: “Passing this legislation will be incredibly impactful on their understanding of how important it is to stand up for people who cannot advocate for themselves and how strong of a voice they actually have.”
Johnson is the last accused witch to be cleared, according to Witches of Massachusetts Bay, a group devoted to the history and lore of the 17th-century witch-hunts. Not much is known about her, aside from the fact that she lived in an area that is now part of North Andover and never married nor had kids.
“For 300 years, Elizabeth Johnson Jr was without a voice, her story lost to the passages of time,” said state senator Joan Lovely, of Salem.
Twenty people from Salem and neighboring towns were killed and hundreds of others accused during a frenzy of Puritan injustice that began in 1692, stoked by superstition, fear of disease and strangers, scapegoating and petty jealousies. Nineteen were hanged, and one man was crushed to death by rocks.
Johnson was 22 when she was caught up in the hysteria of the witch trials and sentenced to hang. That never happened: then governor William Phips threw out her punishment as the magnitude of the gross miscarriages of justice in Salem sank in.
In the more than three centuries that have ensued, dozens of suspects officially were cleared, including Johnson’s own mother, the daughter of a minister whose conviction eventually was reversed.
But for some reason, Johnson’s name wasn’t included in various legislative attempts to set the record straight. Because she wasn’t among those whose convictions were formally set aside, hers still technically stood.
In 1712, Johnson submitted an exoneration petition to a Massachusetts court but her request was never heard. In 1957, Johnson was yet again excluded from a legislative resolution that exonerated one more person and referred to “certain other persons”.
Nearly 45 year later, when then governor Jane Swift added the names of five more individuals to the resolution, Johnson’s name was not included.
“Elizabeth’s story and struggle continue to greatly resonate today,” DiZoglio said. “While we’ve come a long way since the horrors of the witch trials, women today still all too often find their rights challenged and concerns dismissed.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report