Woman condemned as witch in 1693 to be pardoned thanks to 8th-graders

Woman convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to death 328 years ago is on the verge of formal pardoned thanks to class of eighth-graders

  • Elizabeth Johnson Jr was condemned in 1693 during the Salem Witch Trials 
  • The trials saw 19 people executed and hundreds more accused
  • Dozens had their convictions thrown out, but Johnson was never pardoned 
  • Senator Diana DiZoglio wrote a bill that would see Johnson formally exonerated
  • ‘It is important that we work to correct history,’ she said
  • The 13 and 14 year-olds from North Andover Middle School, MA, spent most of the school year researching to encourage the senator to draw up the bill

A woman convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to death more than three centuries ago is on the verge of being formally pardoned thanks to a class of eighth-graders. 

State Senator Diana DiZoglio, a Democrat from Methuen, has introduced legislation to clear the name of Elizabeth Johnson Jr., who was condemned in 1693 at the height of the Salem Witch Trials but never executed.

DiZoglio’s action was inspired by a group of eigth-graders at North Andover Middle School in Massachusetts.

The work of the 13 and 14-year-olds was so meticulous that it warranted the introduction of legislation to pardon the woman.

‘It is important that we work to correct history,’ said DiZoglio.

‘We will never be able to change what happened to these victims, but at the very least, we can set the record straight.’

Elizabeth Johnson Jr., who was condemned in 1693 at the height of the Salem Witch Trials but never executed (File image: artist depiction of Salem Witch Trials)

The work of the 13 and 14-year-olds from North Andover Middle School, MA, was so meticulous that a state senator was inspired to introduction of legislation to pardon the woman

Civics teacher Carrie LaPierre’s students painstakingly researched Johnson and the steps that would need to be taken to make sure she was formally pardoned. 

‘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,’ said LaPierre.

DiZoglio is sponsoring Senate Bill 1016, which would see Johnson added to the list of peopled formally exonerated 328 years after she was condemned. 

If lawmakers approve the measure, Johnson will be 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.

Johnson, then aged 22, was one of dozens sentenced to death in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, during which 19 were hanged and hundreds of others accused.

But while dozens of suspects had their convictions thrown out and were officially cleared, including Johnson’s own mother, Johnson’s name wasn’t included in various legislative attempts to set the record straight.  

‘Why Elizabeth was not exonerated is unclear but no action was ever taken on her behalf by the General Assembly or the courts,’ DiZoglio said. 

‘Possibly because she was neither a wife nor a mother, she was not considered worthy of having her name cleared. And because she never had children, there is no group of descendants acting on her behalf.’

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.

File photograph: Karla Hailer, a fifth-grade teacher from Massachusetts, shoots a video where a memorial stands at the site in Salem where five women were hanged as witches in 1693

In 2017, officials unveiled a semi-circular stone wall memorial inscribed with the names of people hanged at a site in Salem known as Proctor´s Ledge. It was funded in part by donations from descendants of those accused of being witches.

LaPierre said some of her students initially were ambivalent about the effort to exonerate Johnson because they launched it before the 2020 presidential election and at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic was raging.

‘Some of the conversation was, ‘why are we doing this? She´s dead. Isn´t there more important stuff going on in the world?” she said. 

‘But they came around to the idea that it’s important that in some small way we could do this one thing.’

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