Last conviction in Salem Witch Trials acquitted 329 years later

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Elizabeth Johnson Jr. is – officially – not a witch.

Until last week, the woman from Andover, Massachusetts, who was known to practice witchcraft during the Salem witch trials, was the only remaining person convicted during the trials whose name had not been cleared.

Although she was sentenced to death in 1693, she was granted a reprieve and avoided the death penalty.

The exemption came on Thursday, 329 years after her conviction, tucked into a $53 billion state budget signed by Governor Charlie Baker. It was the product of a three-year lobbying effort by a civics teacher and her eighth-grade class, along with a state senator who helped defend the case.

“I’m excited and relieved,” North Andover Middle School teacher Carrie LaPierre said in an interview on Saturday, “but also disappointed that I haven’t been able to talk to the kids about it,” as they are in the summer. . vacation. “It has been such a huge project,” Ms LaPierre added. “We called her EJJ, all the kids and I. She just became one of our world in a way.”

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Only the broad outlines of Mrs. Johnson’s life are known. She was 22 years old when charged, may have had a mental disability, and had never married or had children, which were factors that could make a woman a target in the lawsuits, Ms. LaPierre said.

The then governor of Massachusetts granted Mrs. Johnson a reprieve from death, and she died in 1747 at the age of 77. But unlike others convicted at the trials, Ms. Johnson had no known descendants who could fight to purge her. name. Earlier attempts to exonerate people convicted of witchcraft had overlooked Ms. Johnson, perhaps because of administrative confusion, historians said: Her mother, who had the same name, had also been convicted, but was previously acquitted.

The attempt to clear Ms. Johnson’s name was a dream project for the eighth grade citizenship class, Ms. LaPierre said. It enabled her to teach students about research methods, including the use of primary sources; the process by which a bill becomes law; and ways to contact state legislators. The project also taught students the value of persistence: After an intense letter-writing campaign, the bill to exonerate Ms. Johnson was essentially dead. While the students focused their efforts on lobbying the governor for a pardon, their senator, Diana DiZoglio, added an amendment to the budget bill, reviving the attempted waiver.

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“These students have set an incredible example of the power of advocacy and standing up for others who have no voice,” said Ms. DiZoglio, a Democrat whose district includes North Andover, in an interview.

According to historians, at least 172 people from Salem and surrounding towns, including present-day North Andover, were accused of witchcraft in 1692 as part of a Puritans inquisition rooted in paranoia.

Emerson W. 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 would confess to witchcraft. Many wanted to avoid being tortured, or even believed they might be a witch and just didn’t know it, the result of a campaign of pressure by religious pastors and even relatives.

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‘At what point does she say,’ asked Mr. Baker, ‘In the interest of the community I must probably confess? I don’t think I’m a witch, but maybe I had some bad thoughts and shouldn’t have had them.’” It would have been a logical thought process for a society that widely believed in the existence of witches, he said. .

Another common reason for confessions, said Professor Baker, was to survive. In the summer of 1692, it became apparent that those who pleaded not guilty were swiftly tried, convicted and hanged, while those who pleaded guilty seemed to escape that horrific fate: All 19 people executed in Salem had pleaded innocent, while not one of 55 known to be executed, he said.

Professor Baker said he was glad Mrs Johnson’s name had been cleared. The charges against her and her family must have ruined their lives and reputations, he said.

“For all the governments and people of Massachusetts Bay, Elizabeth and her family have dragged through it,” he said, exonerating her is “the least we can do.”

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