More than three centuries after being tarnished by the hysteria of the Salem witch trials, a Massachusetts woman convicted of witchcraft could finally receive a pardon from the state because of the lobbying efforts of an unlikely constituency: an eighth-grade civics class.
The woman, Elizabeth Johnson Jr., who lived in what is now North Andover, Massachusetts, was one of 28 members of her extended family who faced allegations of witchcraft in 1692, according to historians. She was born around 1670 and may have been mentally disabled.
She was sentenced to death in 1693 after she confessed to being a witch, only to be granted a reprieve by the governor of Massachusetts at the time. She died in 1747, at the age of about 77.
But in contrast with a vast majority of other people who were wrongfully convicted and carried the stigma associated with the witch trials long after their deaths, Johnson had no known descendants to try to clear her name.
That is why a group of middle school students from North Andover decided last year to take up her cause, pressing their state senator to introduce legislation that they helped craft and that would exonerate Johnson, who never married and had no children.
“To right a wrong, it’s worth doing,” Carrie LaPierre, the teacher of the eighth-grade civics class at North Andover Middle School, said Thursday.
As part of their civics education, LaPierre said, the students are taught about acceptance.
“It’s something we talk a lot about: identity and stereotypes and respecting people who are different than you,” she said.
At least 172 people from Salem and surrounding towns, which include what is now North Andover, were accused of witchcraft in 1692 as part of a Puritanical inquisition that was rooted in paranoia and xenophobia, according to historians.
Among them was Johnson’s mother, whose first name was also Elizabeth; several of her aunts; and her grandfather, who was a minister, said Emerson W. Baker, a history professor at Salem State University in Massachusetts and the author of the book “A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience.”
“In the 17th century, it’s before the age of science,” Baker said in an interview Thursday. “When things go wrong, you look for someone to blame.”
Elizabeth Johnson Jr.’s grandfather had once described her as “simplish” at best, according to Baker. “So that certainly might have singled her out as someone who might be different.”
About 35% of the people who were formally charged with witchcraft confessed and avoided execution, he said, adding that the ones who were put to death were those who had maintained their innocence or refused to cooperate.
“Frankly, being accused of witchcraft in 1692 would have been a stain worse than murder,” Baker said.
In the 1700s, some of those who were convicted of witchcraft successfully petitioned to have their convictions overturned. During the 1950s, Massachusetts passed a law that had been intended to exonerate the remaining people who were found guilty of witchcraft, but it failed to include all of their names. Another effort to deliver justice in 2001 excluded Elizabeth Johnson Jr., who historians said was declared legally dead when she was convicted in 1693.
“She was the only person who was convicted during that process who was never exonerated,” state Sen. Diana DiZoglio, a Democrat whose district includes North Andover, said Thursday.
DiZoglio said that she had been working with LaPierre’s class on civics projects when the students enlisted her in the exoneration effort. In March, a bill that she introduced to clear Johnson’s name was referred to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, and it received a hearing last month.
“There has been no active group of descendants advocating on her behalf, and these students chose to pick up that mantle,” she said. Still, DiZoglio added, she is optimistic that the effort will eventually be successful.
LaPierre said that her students had learned how the legislative process works — and how it could be a grind. The wait is nothing new, though, especially for Elizabeth Johnson Jr.
“This,” LaPierre said, “isn’t going to happen overnight.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.