Eighth grade students lead efforts to pardon wrongly convicted ‘witch’

BOSTON (AP) – More than three centuries after a Massachusetts woman was wrongly convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to death, she is finally on the verge of being exonerated – thanks to a curious eighth-grade civics class year.

State Senator Diana DiZoglio, a Democrat from Methuen, introduced legislation to clear the name of Elizabeth Johnson Jr., who was sentenced in 1693 at the height of the Salem witch trials but was never executed.

DiZoglio says she was inspired by detectives carried out by a group of 13 and 14-year-old teens at North Andover Middle School. The students of civics teacher Carrie LaPierre thoroughly studied Johnson and the steps that should be taken to ensure she is formally pardoned.

“It’s important that we work to correct the story,” DiZoglio said Wednesday. “We can never change what happened to these victims, but at the very least we can set the record straight.”

If lawmakers approve the measure, Johnson will be the last accused witch to be exonerated, according to Witches of Massachusetts Bay, a group devoted to the history and traditions of 17th-century witch hunts.

Twenty people from Salem and neighboring towns were killed and hundreds more charged in a frenzy of Puritan injustice that began in 1692, fueled by superstition, fear of disease and of strangers, goats emissaries and petty jealousies. Nineteen were hanged and one man was crushed to death by stones.

Over the next 328 years, dozens of suspects were formally cleared, including Johnson’s own mother, the daughter of a minister whose conviction was ultimately overturned. But for some reason Johnson’s name has not been included in various legislative attempts to set the record straight.

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Johnson was 22 when she was caught in the witch-trial hysteria and sentenced to hang. It never happened: Then-Gov. William Phips rejected his punishment as the scale of the glaring miscarriages of justice at Salem sank.

But because she wasn’t one of those whose beliefs were officially overturned, hers still technically stands.

“It showed how superstitious people were still after the witch trials,” said Artem Likhanov, 14, an aspiring freshman who participated in the school project. “It’s not like after the end people don’t believe in witches anymore. They still thought she was a witch and they wouldn’t exonerate her.

DiZoglio’s bill would change legislation from 1957, amended in 2001, to include Johnson among others who were pardoned after being wrongly accused and convicted of witchcraft.

“Why Elizabeth was not exonerated is unclear, but no action has ever been taken on her behalf by the General Assembly or the courts,” DiZoglio said. “Perhaps because she was neither a wife nor a mother, she was not considered worthy of bleaching. And because she has never had children, there is no group of descendants acting on her behalf.

In 2017, authorities unveiled a semi-circular stone memorial inscribed with the names of those hanged at a site in Salem known as the Proctor’s Ledge. It was funded in part by donations from the descendants of those accused of being wizards.

LaPierre, the teacher, said some of her students were initially ambivalent about the effort to exonerate Johnson because they launched him ahead of the 2020 presidential election and at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic was raging .

“Part of the conversation was, ‘Why are we doing this? She is dead. Are there not more important things going on in the world? She said. “But they came to the idea that it’s important that somehow we can do this one thing.”

By William J. Kole / The Associated Press

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