Over three centuries ago, Elizabeth Johnson Jr. was accused of witchcraft. Swept up in the hysteria of the Salem witch trials, the 22-year-old Andover woman was accused of partaking in the “Devil’s magic.” She pled guilty to the charges, saying she’d signed the Devil’s book and had used voodoo-like dolls to afflict others, and was ultimately sentenced to death. Researchers today believe she had been singled out because she was different: Called “simplish” by her family members, she may have had a disability. But while Massachusetts’ then-governor cleared her death sentence, allowing Johnson to live to 77, no one ever cleared her name.
This summer, 329 years later, Johnson was finally exonerated, thanks to the efforts of a North Andover middle school civics class and their teacher, Carrie LaPierre. Because of their work, Johnson’s case was the last conviction from the Salem witch trials to be pardoned.
LaPierre learned of Johnson’s story through a local author Richard Hite, who identified “EJJ” — as LaPierre and her students would come to know her — as having fallen through the cracks of history. Little is known about her life: One of 28 members of the Johnson family accused of witchcraft in Andover, she never married or had children who could defend her legacy. Like many of the women accused of witchcraft at the time, she was vulnerable and viewed as an outsider. And while her mother, Elizabeth Johnson Sr., was eventually pardoned, EJJ’s case had been overlooked for centuries, likely the result of a mix-up due to their shared name. That’s where LaPierre came in.
LaPierre, who has been teaching in the North Andover school district for more than 20 years, saw the exoneration of EJJ as a “dream project” for her eighth-grade civics class. It had all the building blocks: primary sources, historical research, the detailed nuances of how a bill becomes a law.
But when she explained her plan to her 13- and 14-year-old students in the fall of 2020, she was met with blank stares. “Nobody cared,” she says now with a laugh. The students had only a passing understanding of the witch trials, but, as they started researching, they became transfixed.
“The whole discussion we had was that she was sort of an outsider, she was different,” LaPierre says. “In eighth grade, most kids feel like an ‘other.’ I think that helps it resonate.”
Over the course of the 2020-2021 school year, LaPierre’s students began reviewing firsthand documents and reading the trial transcripts. They visited nearby Puritan cemeteries and gave presentations on EJJ’s plight. They drafted a bill to have EJJ’s name cleared and wrote letters seeking support from local politicians. State Senator Diana DiZoglio signed on, and submitted it to the Legislature. But when the bill was sent to committee, the class feared EJJ might again be forgotten.
That first class moved up to high school, and so in the fall of 2021, LaPierre started up again with a new set of eighth-graders, who took on the lobbying effort with zeal. They bombarded Governor Charlie Baker with postcards. They made calls throughout Beacon Hill to get legislators on board, nervously reading the script they’d prepared and celebrating whenever they got a human on the phone. “It was coming up with ways of how to be annoying, essentially, so that they would want to pass it,” says Neve Thomas, one of LaPierre’s students.
Over time, the students came to learn more about the “witches” and themselves. “We were kind of shocked about how young [some of the accused] were and how everyone was just pointing the finger at each other,” says Lucas Ioakim.
“If they were even a little different, they were just a witch,” says another student, Lilah Hermann, who eventually discovered through the project she was related to Sarah Good, one of the three original women in Salem charged with witchcraft. (While Hermann says the project changed her perspective, she wasn’t overly impressed with the coincidence: “I was like, I’m related to a witch . . . OK, cool.”)
Good insisted she was innocent and was executed for her “crimes” in 1692. Seeing her fate, other accused witches chose to plead guilty in the hopes of sparing their lives. Researchers believe that EJJ may have done the same.
Finally, after a year of lobbying, DiZoglio ended up adding EJJ’s pardon as an amendment to the $53 billion state budget. The exoneration officially went through in July. The class, and LaPierre, were thrilled.
“Obviously we can’t fix what happened to her but we can try to fix her reputation,” Hermann says.
“It gave us a different perspective on how people were treated,” says her classmate Addison Coyne.
“And it taught us to speak up for ourselves, too,” Ioakim says.
LaPierre isn’t sure how she’ll top this project, but she’s hoping that future civics classes can work to get a statue in North Andover memorializing EJJ and others who were falsely accused. “The biggest piece, for me, is to leave a legacy in town, and for these kids to leave a legacy,” LaPierre says. “That’s so important, that they helped somebody who nobody helped.”
Janelle Nanos can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.