More than three centuries after being tarnished by the hysteria of the Salem witch trials, a Massachusetts woman convicted of witchcraft was finally able to be pardoned by the state for the lobbying efforts of an unlikely constituency: an eighth-grade citizenship 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 witchcraft charges in 1692, according to historians. She was born about 1670 and may have been mentally retarded.
She was sentenced to death in 1693 after confessing to being a witch, but was repealed by the Massachusetts governor at the time. She died in 1747, aged about 77.
But unlike a vast majority of other people who were wrongly 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’s why a group of high school students from North Andover decided to take their case last year and pressured their state senator to pass legislation they helped draft that would exonerate Johnson, who was never married. and had no children.
“To right a wrong, it’s worth doing,” Carrie LaPierre, the eighth grade social studies teacher at North Andover Middle School, said Thursday.
As part of their citizenship education, Ms. LaPierre said, the students are taught about acceptance.
“It’s something we talk about a lot: identity and stereotypes and respecting people who are different from you,” she said.
According to historians, in 1692 at least 172 people from Salem and surrounding towns, including present-day North Andover, were accused of witchcraft as part of a Puritan Inquisition rooted in paranoia and xenophobia.
Among them was Johnson’s mother, whose first name was also Elizabeth; some 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 is before the age of science,” Professor Baker said in an interview on Thursday. “When something goes wrong, you find someone to blame.”
Elizabeth’s grandfather had once described her as “simple,” according to Professor Baker. “So that certainly could have picked her as someone who could be different.”
About 35 percent of people formally accused of witchcraft confessed and avoided execution, he said, adding that those who were put to death were those who maintained their innocence or refused to cooperate.
“Frankly, an accusation of witchcraft in 1692 would have been a worse slur than murder,” said Professor Baker.
In the 18th century, some of those convicted of witchcraft successfully petitioned to have their convictions reversed. In the 1950s, Massachusetts passed a law intended to exonerate the remaining people found guilty of witchcraft, but which did not include all of their names. Another attempt to bring justice in 2001 closed Elizabeth Johnson Jr. who, according to historians, was declared legally dead when she was convicted in 1693.
“She was the only person convicted at that trial and never acquitted,” Senator Diana DiZoglio, a Democrat in the North Andover district, said Thursday.
Ms. DiZoglio said she had been working with Ms. LaPierre’s class on citizenship projects when the students enlisted her in the liberation campaign. In March, a bill she introduced to clear Johnson’s name was referred to the Judiciary Joint Committee and was heard last month.
“There is no active group of descendants advocating on her behalf, and these students chose to pick up that mantle,” she said. Still, Ms. DiZoglio added, she is optimistic that the effort will eventually succeed.
Ms. LaPierre said her students had learned how the legislative process works — and how it can be a drag. However, the wait is nothing new, especially for Elizabeth Johnson Jr.
“This,” said Mrs. LaPierre, “will not happen overnight.”