More and more, countries across the world are taking the necessary steps to pardon individuals who were accused of witchcraft in the 16th and 17th centuries. Catalonia posthumously pardoned 700 accused witches in January 2022, and later this year lawmakers in Massachusetts cleared the last victim of the Salem witch trials – with the help of a middle school class.
Elizabeth Johnson Jr. is considered by many historians to be the last victim of the Salem witch trials to be pardoned. Born in North Andover, Massachusetts in 1670, she was just 22 years old when she was accused of being a witch, along with her aunts, grandfather and mother.
While it’s unknown why Johnson was accused of witchcraft, Emerson W. Baker, a history professor at Salem State University, said she was “simplish at best,” meaning she was singled out “as someone who might be different.”
Johnson pleaded guilty to the charges against her and was sentenced to hanging, but was saved from death by William Phips. The then-governor threw out her punishment as those in Salem began to question the logic behind the accusations. Following this, she went on to live a long life, dying at the age of 77.
Johnson’s conviction occurred during the height of the Salem witch trials, which took place between 1692-93. During this time, hundreds of individuals, primarily women, were accused of witchcraft. Of that total, 20 were killed, 19 by hanging.
In the centuries since, the majority of those convicted have been pardoned, including Johnson’s own mother. While her name was included on a petition presented to a Massachusetts court in 1712, her case wasn’t heard, and, in 1957, her name was excluded from a legislative resolution that exonerated one other individual and made mention of “certain other persons.”
Some 45 years after that, Johnson was, again, omitted from legislation that would clear her name, this time by then-Governor Jane Swift.
Elizabeth Johnson Jr. was convicted during the #SalemWitchTrials in 1693. Perhaps because she had no descendants to advocate on her behalf, she was never exonerated. I proudly cosponsored @DianaDiZoglio’s amendment 842 so justice may finally be granted to Elizabeth Johnson Jr.
— Cynthia Creem (@cindycreem) May 26, 2022
One reason put forth as to why it’s taken so long for Johnson to be pardoned is that she never married or had any children, meaning there was no one to fight for her name – that is, until an eighth grade civics class took up her case in 2021. The class at North Andover Middle School convinced their teacher, Carrie LaPierre, to let them research the case, after which they took their findings to Democratic State Senator Diana DiZoglio.
Speaking with the Boston Globe, LaPierre applauded her students’ efforts, saying, “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. It became quite extensive for these kids.”
The bill was tacked onto a budget bill and approved on May 26, 2022, making Johnson the last victim of the Salem witch trials to be pardoned – 329 years after her conviction.
While the Salem witch trials are the best-known example of anti-witchcraft hysteria, Europe was also the location of a number of convictions – and even more deaths. Between 1500 and 1660, it’s believed up to 80,000 individuals suspected of witchcraft were put to death across the continent.