8th Graders Convince State Senator to Introduce Pardon for Last Salem Witch Trials Victim

The curiosity of eighth-graders convinced a Massachusetts state senator to introduce a legislative pardon for the last victim accused of being a witch during the Salem Witch Trials in 1693, the Associated Press reported.

Democratic State Senator Diana DiZoglio, of Methuen, introduced legislation to pardon Elizabeth Johnson Jr. who was 22 when she was wrongly convicted of being a witch and sentenced to hang.

However, she was never executed. DiZoglio said she was inspired by students in an eighth-grade civics class at North Andover Middle School. Teacher Carrie LaPierre and the students extensively researched Johnson and how she could be pardoned for her conviction that was never formally cleared.

"It is important that we work to correct history," said DiZoglio on Wednesday. "We will never be able to change what happened to these victims, but at the very least, we can set the record straight."

It has been 328 years since the Salem Witch Trials took place when twenty people were killed and hundreds of others were wrongly accused of practicing witchcraft in the hysteria that started in 1692. One man died by being crushed to death with rocks and the others accused were hung.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Woman Dressed as a Witch in Salem
Eight grade students in Massachusetts convinced a state senator to introduce a pardon for the last victim accused of being a witch during the Salem Witch Trials. In this photo, a woman dressed as a witch stands next to the Bewitched statue of Elizabeth Victoria Montgomery on Halloween in Salem, Massachusetts on October 31, 2020. Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images

More than three centuries after Johnson was wrongly convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to death, she's finally on the verge of being exonerated.

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

The Salem Witch Trials occurred due to a frenzy of Puritan injustice, stoked by superstition, fear of disease and strangers, scapegoating and petty jealousies.

In the 328 years that have ensued, dozens of suspects officially were cleared, including Johnson's own mother, the daughter of a minister whose conviction eventually was reversed. But for some reason, Johnson's name wasn't included in various legislative attempts to set the record straight.

Gov. William Phips threw out Johnson's punishment as the magnitude of the gross miscarriages of justice in Salem sank in.

But because she wasn't among those whose convictions were formally set aside, hers still technically stands.

"Why Elizabeth was not exonerated is unclear but no action was ever taken on her behalf by the General Assembly or the courts," DiZoglio said. "Possibly because she was neither a wife nor a mother, she was not considered worthy of having her name cleared. And because she never had children, there is no group of descendants acting on her behalf."

Her bill would tweak 1957 legislation, amended in 2001, to include Johnson among others who were pardoned after being wrongly accused and convicted of witchcraft.

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

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

"Some of the conversation was, 'Why are we doing this? She's dead. Isn't there more important stuff going on in the world?'" she said. "But they came around to the idea that it's important that in some small way we could do this one thing."

Salem, Massachusetts Memorial
In this July 19, 2017, file photograph, Karla Hailer, a fifth-grade teacher from Scituate, Mass., shoots a video where a memorial stands at the site in Salem, Mass., where five women were hanged as witches more than 325 years earlier. Stephan Savoia/AP Photo

Editor's pick

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts