Group of history buff and descendants of Salem ‘witches’ make fresh push to clear the names of all those accused of witchcraft
- An eighth-grade civics class led the efforts to clear name of Elizabeth Johnson Jr., the last woman accused of witchcraft in Salem
- A group known as the Massachusetts Witch-Hunt Justice Project now aims to clear the names of all the alleged ‘witches,’ including those who survived
Clearing a name – three centuries later.
More than 300 years after the conclusion of the Salem Witch Trials, a class of middle-schoolers has helped clear the name of the last woman legally classified as a witch.
The path to exonerating Elizabeth Johnson Jr.’s began as a class project, but ended up taking three years and the help of two filmmakers whose documentary, The Last Witch, captured their quest.
Another group called the Massachusetts Witch-Hunt Justice Project, comprised of history buffs and the descendants of ‘witches,’ has also pushed for the state of Massachusetts to take accountability and clear the name of those tried.
Both groups have proposed legislation to exonerate the hundreds of people accused in the 1690s – and while some efforts were successful, the fight for justice remains an uphill battle.
‘It struck us that this bill, which should have been fairly easy to sign off on, wasn’t. Just to clear a woman’s name,’ The Last Witch director Annika Hylmö told Ms. Magazine.
A group of children learn about the history of the Salem witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts
The witch hunt craze in the 1600s saw more than 200 people accused in Salem alone. Twenty of those people – mostly women – were executed
Elizabeth Johnson was one of more than 200 people accused of witchcraft during the trials in Salem. She was found guilty in 1693 after admitting another woman had persuaded her to become a witch.
However, Johnson was viewed with suspicion from the start, as an unwed and childless woman with a mental disability.
With no descendants to clear her name, Johnson’s conviction remained in place until the eighth-grade civics class from North Andover Middle School came to her aid.
Under the guidance of their teacher, Carrie LaPierre, and State Auditor Dianne DiZoglio, the students worked to draft a bill that ultimately stalled in the state’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary.
After years of persistent lobbying, they were eventually able to add legislation exonerating Johnson as part of an amendment to a state budget – and it passed.
‘Before they worked on this project,’ Hylmö said, ‘they never thought they had any voice in government at all. There was a real shift in mindset that occurred.’
The trials began in colonial Massachusetts in the early 1690s, when two young girls began experiencing ‘fits’
Massachusetts has undertaken an effort to clear the names of those accused of witchcraft and acknowledge the dark period in the state’s history
Dawn Green, producer of The Last Witch (pictured), says people have the ‘responsibility’ to take action when they sense injustice
Despite its history, the city of Salem has become a popular tourist spot for trick-or-treaters to flock in October
Salem is home to the nations second-oldest graveyard, where the body of Judge John Hathorne rests. Hathorne presided over the 1692 witch trials in the city
The trials began in colonial Massachusetts in the early 1690s and were presided over by Judge John Hathorne. They led to the deaths of 20 of the 200 people accused of practicing the devil’s magic.
As far back as medieval times, many religions including Christianity taught that the devil could give people known as ‘witches’ the power to harm others in return for their loyalty.
Tens of thousands of supposed witches were executed in Europe between the 1300s and late 1600s.
The craze reached American soil in January 1692, when a nine-year-old and eleven-year-old began having ‘fits’ where they screamed, threw things and contorted their bodies into strange positions. A local doctor blamed the supernatural.
As more and more people – mostly women – were accused, some claimed that the devil visited them personally and commanded them to do his bidding. The trials even allowed ‘spectral evidence’ in which people could testify that the accused harmed them in a dream.
In the years following the trials, some judges and accusers publicly admitted wrongdoing. On January 14, 1697, Massachusetts’ General Court ordered a day of fasting and soul-searching to commemorate those lives lost.
The trials were declared unlawful in 1702. Nine years later, the colony passed a bill restoring the rights and good names of many of the accused, as well as giving hundreds of dollars in restitution to their heirs.
In 1711, colonial authorities pardoned some of the accused and compensated their families. But it wasn’t until 1957 that Massachusetts formally apologized for the events of 1692, clearing all women but Johnson for reasons unknown.
In July 2022, Johnson, the last convicted ‘witch,’ officially had her name cleared.
‘It’s important that we correct the injustices of the past,’ Massachusetts Witch-Hunt Justice Project leader Josh Hutchinson said. ‘We’d like an apology for all of the accused or indicted or arrested.’
The city of Salem unveiled a memorial for the victims (pictured) in 2017
In the years after the trials, several people including judge Samuel Sewall (pictured: Sewall’s grave site) issued public confessions and pled for forgiveness
Pictured: the memorial to Wilmot Redd, one of 20 killed during the witch trials
The group also led a similar effort in Connecticut, home of the first person executed for witchcraft in the American colonies.
In May, state senators voted to absolve 12 women and men convicted of witchcraft and apologize for the ‘miscarriage of justice.’
Other states have worked to acknowledge this dark period in history. In Pownal, Vermont, a dedication ceremony was held last month for a historical marker recognizing the survivor of the state’s only recorded witch trial.
The ceremony included a witches’ walk, in which people dressed as witches walked across a bridge to the marker site along the Hoosic River.
In 2017, Salem marked its own dark history when it unveiled a memorial for the victims, 325 years to the day when five women were hanged at a site known as Proctor’s Ledge.
In 2022, lawmakers officially exonerated Johnson, 329 years after she was convicted and sentenced to death – and none of it would have been possible without the tireless advocacy of a band of middle schoolers.
‘There is a sense of hope and encouragement in this story, and the idea that you have the ability to take action,’ Hymlö said.
Producer Dawn Green added: ‘In fact, you’ve probably got the responsibility to.’
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