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Massachusetts’ last convicted witch might finally see justice, and she has the heroic efforts of a bunch of dedicated 13- and 14-year-old middle-schoolers to thank.
More than three centuries ago, Elizabeth Johnson Jr., a young woman living in what’s now North Andover, found herself swept up in her region’s intense and infamous hysteria over the Devil’s magic, which she was convicted of practicing during the Salem witch trials of the late 1600s. Twenty-eight members of Johnson’s family, including her mother, were also accused, according to the Boston Globe, while a total of 45 residents of Andover were arrested for such crimes—even more than Salem, according to the Boston Globe.
Perhaps that’s why it fell to students at North Andover Middle School to rectify what happened to Johnson, and not any classroom of Salem’s, so many years later. Or maybe it’s just that Carrie LaPierre, an eighth-grade civics teacher at the school, was pretty good at getting kids invested in the project, which culminated in state Sen. Diana DiZoglio introducing a bill to exonerate Johnson earlier this year.
If the legislative effort succeeds, Johnson will be the last person to have her witchcraft charges repealed, according to the Witches of Massachusetts Bay.
“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, looking at the actual testimony of Elizabeth Johnson, learning more about the Salem Witch Trials,” LaPierre told the Boston Globe of her students. “It became quite extensive for these kids.”
Though Johnson was originally sentenced to death for her “offense,” the punishment was later vacated. (Others weren’t so lucky: 20 people were put to death during the witch hunts, according to the Associated Press.) Still, Johnson died in 1747 with her name still sullied by accusations of witchcraft, according to the New York Times. That’s despite the fact that at least 20 people had been pardoned for similar crimes by that point, according to the Boston Globe.
“If we think that this woman was wrongly accused and convicted of witchcraft, then it seems to me it’s the least thing that the Legislature and the governor could do to try to make her and her family whole,” Emerson Baker, a history professor at Salem State, told the Boston Globe.
Not much is known about Johnson, the Boston Globe reported, although it’s clear she was overlooked for justice multiple times. She petitioned for exoneration before her death, according to the Boston Globe, but her claim was never heard. She was then left out of a legislative resolution in 1957 that cleared one person of witchcraft, the Globe reported, and left out again when the resolution was updated to include five others in 2001.
“It is important that we work to correct history,” DiZoglio told the Associated Press, noting that Johnson also had no children to advocate on her behalf. “We will never be able to change what happened to these victims, but at the very least, we can set the record straight.”