Not long after the conclusion of the Salem witch trials, residents of colonial Massachusetts began to reckon with the terrible miscarriages of justice that had taken place within their towns: Between 1692 and 1693, more than 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft in Salem Village and its surrounding communities; 20 people were executed.
In 1697, Samuel Sewall, one of the trials’ judges, expressed guilt for participating in the proceedings. In 1702, the General Court of Massachusetts declared the trials unlawful. The colony passed a bill overturning the witchcraft convictions, mentioning 22 individuals by name, in 1711. Centuries later, in a 1957 resolution (later amended in 2001), Massachusetts exonerated additional victims.
But through it all, one woman remained unacknowledged, her legacy still tarnished by false allegations: Elizabeth Johnson Jr. Now, Johnson’s name has been cleared, finally bringing justice to the last conviction of the Salem witch trials, reports the New York Times’ Vimal Patel.
The exoneration was inside a state budget signed by Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker last week—329 years after Johnson was found guilty of witchcraft. This official pardon marks the successful conclusion of a lobbying campaign by an unexpected group of advocates: Carrie LaPierre, a Massachusetts teacher, and her eighth-grade civics class.
LaPierre first learned about Johnson in 2019. She presented the case to her class at North Andover Middle School, which subsequently embarked on an extended project to research Johnson’s story and petition lawmakers 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,” LaPierre told the Boston Globe’s Andrew Brinker last year. “It became quite extensive for these kids.”
The students presented their work to State Senator Diana DiZoglio, who joined the exoneration effort, adding an amendment to the recent budget bill that received approval.
“These students have set an incredible example of the power of advocacy, and speaking up for others who don’t have a voice,” DiZoglio tells the Times.
The trials were motivated, in part, by xenophobia. Many of the victims were women, who were some of “society’s most marginal members,” as literature scholar Bridget Marshall wrote in the Conversation in 2019. Among those accused of witchcraft were an enslaved woman, a woman experiencing homelessness and a woman known for arguing publicly with her husband.
Johnson lived in Andover, Massachusetts, which saw more arrests than any other town during the Salem witch trials, historian Richard Hite told the Globe. She may have had a disability—her grandfather described her as “simplish”—which in turn may have made her an easy target for the allegations that swept through Puritan villages in Massachusetts.
Johnson was 22 when she was accused of practicing the “Devil’s magic” in 1692. Twenty-eight members of her extended family faced similar allegations, including her mother, several of her aunts and her grandfather. Johnson confessed to her purported “crimes” and was sentenced to death, only to be granted a reprieve by Massachusetts’ governor. When she died in 1747, she was 77.
Why did Johnson slip through the cracks in both historic and modern efforts to exonerate victims of the trials? Historians aren’t sure. The fact that her mother, who was also convicted, had the same name may have led to “administrative confusion,” per the Times. Johnson also did not have any known descendents who might advocate on her behalf.
Fortunately, she does have a band of middle school supporters, who doggedly took up her case.
“It’s been such a huge project,” LaPierre tells the Times. “We called her E.J.J., all the kids and I. She just became one of our world, in a sense.”