Massachusetts Schoolchildren Saw Goody Johnson ... Wait, No, They're Calling For Her Pardon
In 1692 and 1693, mass hysteria gripped colonial Massachusetts. More than 200 people, mostly women, were accused of witchcraft. Thirty were convicted. Twenty were
executed murdered by the government.
Elizabeth Johnson Jr. was 22 when she was among those convicted of being in league with the devil and sentenced to death. She was never executed, but her conviction for being a witch remains on the books in Massachusetts.
More than 300 years later, an eighth-grade civics class and a state senator are trying to do right by Johnson and finally get her an official exoneration. Of the 30 people convicted of witchcraft, Johnson is the only one the state of Massachusetts still legally classifies as a convicted felon and a witch.
Because, yes. That's still a thing. In 2021.
Students at North Andover Middle School, where Johnson lived, are spearheading the effort to clear her name. Carrie LaPierre, who teaches eighth-grade civics, found out about Johnson's case in 2019 and incorporated it into her class. Her students researched Johnson and the Salem trials, and, from there, their civics education became hands-on.
"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," said LaPierre. "It became quite extensive for these kids."
The students submitted their research to state Senator Diana DiZoglio in December. In February, DiZoglio introduced Bill S.1016 to the legislature, where it was assigned to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary. Now, the students — and Johnson, who, by now, is hopefully ruling the spirit underworld — wait.
"It really was a great lesson in the legislative process. It takes a long time," LaPierre said. "We're waiting to see what happens, and so is she."
No one really knows why Johnson was never officially pardoned, but clearing her name is a long time coming. As people started to realize just how much they had fucked up, Governor William Phips commuted Johnson's sentence before she could be executed — but her conviction remained on the books. Massachusetts officially pardoned 22 so-called "witches" in 1711, but, for whatever reason, Johnson and several others weren't included in the list. Johnson petitioned Massachusetts courts for exoneration in 1712 but never got a hearing.
The attempts to officially pardon Johnson continued into the 20th and 21st centuries. In 1957, six more were pardoned. In 2001, Governor Jane Swift signed legislation officially granting clemency to five others who had been convicted.
At least in 2001, it seems the omission of Johnson was inadvertent. Swift said she was "a bit disappointed that we missed a person," adding that, "What has always resonated with me is that these are some of the earliest historical examples in the US of women being vilified for acting outside of their accepted role."
Indeed, failure to live up to patriarchal notions of womanhood may be the reason Johnson's conviction is still on the books. As Senator DiZoglio notes,
"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."
"It is important that we work to correct history," DiZoglio said. "We will never be able to change what happened to these victims, but at the very least, we can set the record straight."
I'm just waiting for some Republicans to jump in and oppose the pardon because they think witchcraft — or being an unmarried woman with no children — should still be a capital crime.
Follow Jamie on Twitter!