BOSTON – It took more than three centuries, but the last Salem “witch” who wasn’t was officially pardoned.
Massachusetts lawmakers officially exonerated Elizabeth Johnson Jr. on Thursday, clearing her name, 329 years after she was 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 formally pardoned like others wrongly accused of witchcraft.
Lawmakers last year agreed to reconsider her case after a strange eighth-grade civics class at North Andover Middle School took their case and researched the legislative steps needed to clear her name.
Subsequent legislation introduced by state senator Diana DiZoglio, a Methuen Democrat, was annexed to a budget bill and approved.
“We’ll never be able to change what happened to victims like Elizabeth, but at least we can set the record straight,” DiZoglio said.
In a statement, North Andover teacher Carrie LaPierre, whose students campaigned for the legislation, commended the youth for tackling “the long-overlooked issue of justice for this wrongly convicted woman.”
“Passing this law will have an incredible impact on their understanding of the importance of standing up for people who can’t stand up for themselves and how powerful a voice they actually have,” she said.
According to Witches of Massachusetts Bay, a group devoted to the history and lore of 17th-century witch hunts, Johnson is the last accused witch to be acquitted.
“Elizabeth Johnson Jr. was without a voice for 300 years, and her story was lost over time,” said Salem State Senator Joan Lovely.
Twenty people from Salem and neighboring towns were killed and hundreds more charged during a frenzy of Puritan injustice that began in 1692, fueled by superstitions, fear of disease and strangers, scapegoats and petty jealousies. Nineteen were hanged and one man was stoned to death.
Johnson was 22 when she was gripped by the hysteria of the witch trials and sentenced to death by hanging. That never happened: Then-Gov. William Phips threw out her sentence as the scale of gross miscarriages of justice sunk in Salem.
In the more than three centuries that followed, dozens of suspects were officially acquitted, including Johnson’s own mother, the daughter of a minister whose conviction was eventually overturned.
But for some reason, Johnson’s name has not been included in various legislative attempts to set the record straight. Since she was not among those whose convictions were formally overturned, hers technically still stood. Unlike others who have been wrongly accused, Johnson never had children and therefore had no descendants to act on her behalf.
“Elizabeth’s story and struggle resonates today,” said DiZoglio. “While we have come a long way since the horrors of the witch trials, all too often today women are challenged to have their rights questioned and their worries dropped.”
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