Students Spearhead Pardon Petition For Salem ‘Witch’

An eighth-grade civics lesson may have saved the life of a Massachusetts woman who was falsely accused of witchcraft and put to death more than three centuries ago.

Elizabeth Johnson Jr., the son of one of the Salem Witch Trials accused in 1693 but never hanged, has been cleared of all charges by state senator Diana DiZoglio of Methuen.

DiZoglio credits a group of 13- and 14-year-olds from North Andover Middle School for inspiring her own investigation. Johnson’s pardon process was meticulously investigated by the pupils of Carrie LaPierre, a civics instructor in the area of government.

As DiZoglio put it on Wednesday: “It’s important that we correct history. “We will never be able to change what happened to these victims, but at the very least, we can set the record straight.”

Johnson will be the last suspected witch to be exonerated if it is passed by legislators, according to the organization dedicated to the history and legend of the 17th century’s witch hunts, Witches of Massachusetts Bay.

A frenzied period of Puritan injustice that started in 1692, fueled by superstition, dread of sickness and outsiders, scapegoating and petty jealousies, resulted in the deaths of twenty individuals and the false imprisonment of hundreds more. 19 were hung and one was crushed to death by boulders.

As time passed, several suspects were exonerated or exonerated, including Johnson’s mother, the daughter of an excommunicated clergyman, whose conviction was later overturned. For whatever reason, Johnson’s name was omitted from a number of legislative efforts to correct the record.

A frenzy of the witch hunts led to Johnson being put to death while she was only 22 years old. As the enormity of Salem’s egregious injustices dawned on the governor at the time, William Phips, she was never sentenced to death.  But since she wasn’t one of the others who had their convictions officially quashed, hers is still valid.

For high school student Artem Likhanov, 14, the project “showed how superstitious people were after the witch trials,” he remarked. “It’s not like after it ended people didn’t believe in witches anymore. They still thought she was a witch and they wouldn’t exonerate her.”

DiZoglio’s measure would alter 1957 law, which was revised in 2001, to include Johnson among those who were pardoned after being wrongfully charged and convicted of witchcraft.  “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.”

For the first time, a stone wall containing the names of those who were hung at Salem’s Proctor’s Ledge was erected in 2017 by authorities. There were contributions from the descendants of people who had been charged with witchcraft.

Initially several of LaPierre’s students were skeptical of the campaign to exonerate Johnson since it was undertaken before to the 2020 presidential election and at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic was raging. ‘Why are we doing this?’ was a common theme in some of the discussion.” Now she’s gone. “Isn’t there anything more significant going on in the world?” she said. It was only after a lot of discussion and debate that they realized the importance of this one issue.

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