Over the last three centuries, they’ve been exonerated. John Proctor. Ann Foster. Alice Parker. But even as the Salem Witch Trials became synonymous with cultural hysteria and paranoia, one woman has never been pardoned: Elizabeth Johnson Jr.
A bill introduced in the Massachusetts Legislature earlier this year would finally clear her name, 328 years after she was convicted of practicing witchcraft.
“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,” said Emerson Baker, a history professor at Salem State.
Johnson, who was 22 when she was sentenced to death, was one of the dozens of residents swept up in the frenzy of the trials, during which 19 people from Salem and neighboring towns were hanged and hundreds of others accused.
But over the ensuing centuries, those who were convicted or put to death were pardoned. All except Johnson.
“We don’t know why, but in all of the efforts to pardon the women convicted of witchcraft, Elizabeth was never included,” said Baker. “In the eyes of the law, her conviction still technically stands.”
Her plight is known only to the most assiduous of historians. But the original authors of the current resolution that would clear Johnson’s name are a group of 13- and 14-year-olds.
Carrie LaPierre’s eighth-grade history classes at North Andover Middle School researched Johnson for a civic engagement project for the better part of a school year, after LaPierre caught wind of the case in 2019 and became hooked.
“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,” said LaPierre. “It became quite extensive for these kids.”
Her classes sent their work to state Senator Diana DiZoglio’s office in mid-December, and the bill was submitted to the Legislature in February and later sent to committee.
The final product, Senate Bill 1016, would add Johnson to the list of residents condemned in the witch trials and exonerated by the state.
“Like every state, Massachusetts has its dark chapters, and the witch hunt of 1692 is one of them,” DiZoglio, who represents several towns on the North Shore and in Merrimack Valley, including North Andover, said in an interview. “We’ll never be able to change what happened to these victims, but at the very least, we can set the record straight.”
Very little is known about Johnson, who lived in a corner of Andover that is now part of North Andover.
“She was a young woman who lived in Andover. Never married and never had children,” said Baker. “We’re not even totally sure when she died.”
Johnson’s extended family was the epicenter of the trials in Andover. Accusations of witchcraft in the town spiraled out of control shortly after the fervor took hold in Salem. By the time the hysteria subsided, 45 people in Andover alone had been arrested. In Johnson’s family, 28 members, including her mother, Elizabeth Johnson Sr., were accused.
“More people were arrested in Andover than any other town, including Salem Village,” said Richard Hite, a historian who has studied the trials in Andover extensively.
Johnson was never executed. Convicted in 1693, toward the end of the trials, her punishment was thrown out by then-governor William Phips.
In 1711, more than 20 people were officially pardoned for their alleged crimes by the state. But not Johnson.
Why she was never pardoned is not clear. She petitioned a Massachusetts court for exoneration in 1712, but the request was never heard. She was excluded from a legislative resolution in 1957 that cleared one person and vaguely referred to “certain other persons.” Governor Jane Swift added five more names to that resolution in 2001, but again, not Johnson.
“I’m a bit disappointed that we missed a person,” said Swift in an interview. “What has always resonated with me is that these are some of the earliest historical examples in the US of women being vilified for acting outside of their accepted role.”
On July 27, the Judiciary Committee heard testimony on the bill that would exonerate Johnson. And now, as she has for centuries, Johnson waits.
“It really was a great lesson in the legislative process. It takes a long time,” LaPierre said. “We’re waiting to see what happens, and so is she.”
Andrew Brinker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewnbrinker.