Middle-schoolers inspire bill seeking justice for 'witch' convicted in 1693

A group of Massachusetts eighth-graders learning about the Salem witch trials took up the case of Elizabeth Johnson Jr., pushing it all the way to the state legislature.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
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A scene from Arthur Miller's play The Crucible about the Salem witch trials.

Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images

In 1693, a court ordered 22-year-old Elizabeth Johnson Jr. executed. Her crime? Being a witch. 

Johnson was among some 200 people accused of witchcraft during the infamous Salem witch trials, a series of hearings and prosecutions in colonial Massachusetts that began in the spring of 1692 and lasted a little over a year. The first person convicted, Bridget Bishop, was hanged in June of that year, with at least 18 others suffering the same fate on a barren slope near Salem Village. The trials, which mostly targeted women, have long stood as a dark and tragic episode in American history. 

In 17th century New England, a witch was thought to be someone who sold their soul to the devil. Johnson escaped the gallows due to a gubernatorial pardon in 1711, but the state didn't add her to the list of those who were later officially pardoned. 

A bill introduced in the Massachusetts Senate seeking to correct that would exonerate her centuries later.  

"We don't know why, but in all of these efforts to pardon the women convicted of witchcraft but never actually put to death, Elizabeth was never included," Emerson Baker, a history professor at Salem State University, told the Boston Globe for an article about Johnson and the effort to seek posthumous justice for her and her family. "In the eyes of the law, her conviction still technically stands."

Enlarge Image

At the Salem Witch Museum, a memorial for Bridget Bishop, the first person convicted at the Salem witch trials. Bishop was hanged in June of 1692.  

Rachel Christ/Salem Witch Museum

The bill, S1016, is sponsored by Diana DiZoglio, a Democratic state senator who represents North Andover. A group of students at North Andover Middle School sent the bill to DiZoglio after spending the better part of the year researching Johnson's plight for a civics project, and DiZoglio submitted the bill to the legislature in February. 

S1016 isn't the first attempt by legislators to clear the names of those accused of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts. An approved 1957 resolution naming Ann Pudeator and "certain other persons" officially called the events of the time "shocking, and the result of a wave of popular hysterical fear of the Devil in the community."  

Little is known about Johnson, or why she has not yet made the lists of those pardoned. 

DiZoglio thinks it could be because Johnson "was neither a wife or a mother, she was not considered worthy of having her name cleared."

"[B]ecause Elizabeth was not hanged for her alleged crime, she was overlooked. Because she never had children, there is no group of descendants acting on her behalf," DiZoglio said during testimony presenting the bill. DiZoglio's office didn't immediately respond to a request for further comment. 

Remarkably, there is, however, a group of eighth-graders pushing justice for Johnson. History can't be reversed, but sometimes it can be corrected in small ways.