Salem’s latest witch has been exonerated, thanks to an eighth-grade teacher and her students

Elizabeth Johnson Jr., a woman convicted of witchcraft during the Salem witch trials in the 1690s, was finally exonerated last week after years of petitions by Massachusetts teacher Carrie LaPierre and her civics students eighth grade. The justice came in the form of a brief addition to the 2023 state budget.
Johnson was accused of witchcraft in 1692 along with over 200 other women and men in Salem. Of those convicted, 19 were hanged and four others died in prison. Johnson was also due to be executed, but was later spared.

And yet, during Johnson’s lifetime and in the centuries that followed, his name was never truly erased. It wasn’t until Carrie LaPierre, an eighth-grade civics teacher at North Andover Middle School, stumbled across her story and implicated her students in her case that Massachusetts lawmakers noticed.

North Andover, a town in northeastern Massachusetts, is only about 40 minutes from Salem. But until she read a book about local witches by historian Richard Hite, LaPierre said she had no idea how the Salem witch trials affected the area. of North Andover – and it was in these pages that she learned of Johnson’s existence.

While many other convicted witches were exonerated, many of them posthumously, the late Johnson – or “EJJ”, as LaPierre and his students called him – had “somehow been overlooked while all the other convicted witches had been exonerated over the years”. LaPierre told CNN in an email.

Details of Johnson’s life are slim, but her family was a major target of the Salem witch trials, driven by hysteria, Puritan rule, and inter-family feuds. She was one of 28 family members accused of witchcraft in 1692, according to the Boston Globe.
Johnson made a compelling confession during court questioning: She said another woman, Martha Carrier, “convinced her to be a witch” and that Carrier told her she “should be saved if she wanted to be a witch,” according to a 1692 document digitized by the University of Virginia’s Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive.

Some of the details of her story were sordid and mortifying to Salem residents: Johnson said the devil appeared to her “like two black cats,” and she named several other people in Salem who she said were involved in the witchcraft. She also showed her knuckles, where it looked like other “witches” had “sucked” her, according to the 1692 examination paper.

For her “crimes”, Johnson was sentenced to death at age 22, as the Boston Globe reported last year, but was granted a reprieve by the then-governor (whose wife had also been charged with witchcraft).
In 1711, after state officials realized they had little evidence to convict and execute or imprison women (and some men) for witchcraft, they exonerated many of those who had been convicted or even hanged, including John Proctor, later one of the protagonists of Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible”.
Johnson’s name, however, was omitted from this list. So in 1712 she asked Salem to be included in the actwhich provided for restitution to the families of the accused.
In the letter, she asked “May the Honorable Court please grant me something in consideration of my charges on account of my long term of imprisonment, which will happily be recognized as a great favour.”

Why, exactly, Johnson was left out is unclear. But LaPierre decided, after contacting the North Andover Historical Society, LaPierre that taking on the case of a long-dead “witch” and clearing her name might be an engaging project for his students – a real-life application of the civic education in action.

Johnson is the latest Salem witch to be exonerated

So eighth-graders at LaPierre set out to exonerate EJJ, petitioning the Massachusetts legislature in hopes that a lawmaker would introduce a bill to clear his name. Finally, after three years and “many disappointments,” a state senator heard them — Diana DiZoglio sponsored an amendment to the state budget this year to add Johnson’s name to an existing resolution that exonerated other “witches” by name.
Some of the women who were hanged during the Salem witch trials have been commemorated.

All of that petitioning and bureaucratic navigation has been instructive for her eighth-grade classes, but LaPierre said “the long-term lessons are probably more important: standing up for justice, standing up for those who can’t do it on their own, recognize that their voice has power. in the community and in the world, and understand that perseverance is necessary to achieve their goals.”

The amendment adds Johnson’s name to a 1957 resolution that exonerated several people convicted of witchcraft – and so, ultimately, Johnson’s wish for absolution was granted.

But LaPierre’s work continues: she will have to find a new project for her eighth graders now that Johnson’s case is closed. This year, she leaves it up to her students to determine the problems that concern them and the steps they will take to solve them.

Whatever her students choose to tackle this year, witches are likely left out: Johnson is the latest woman convicted in the Salem trials to be exonerated. And with that, LaPierre and his class ended a chapter of history that began centuries ago.


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