Last Salem “witch” cleared 329 years after conviction

Elizabeth Johnson Jr., convicted of witchcraft in Salem in 1693, has been officially exonerated by the Massachusetts Senate, the last Salem conviction to be reversed. The reversal was the handiwork of an eighth-grade civics class in North Andover middle school. Starting in 2020, students under the guidance of teacher Carrie LaPierre researched Elizabeth Johnson’s case and undertook the legal process to secure a formal pardon for her.

The frenzy of paranoia, delusion and religious fervor that saw hundreds of people accused of consorting with Satan and 20 of them executed began in January 1692 with a sick girl whose doctor could not heal her. He declared her bewitched instead. That sparked a raging brushfire of accusations, trials and 19 hangings. One accused witch, 71-year-old Giles Corey, refused to plead and stood mute in court to keep his estate from being confiscated and his family left destitute. He never made it to trial. He was pressed to death by heavy stones, an illegal punishment.

Just 22 years old when she was accused of witchcraft in August of 1692,  Elizabeth Johnson was manipulated into a false confession. (Accused witches who “confessed” often had their lives spared in exchange for snitching on other witches.) She told the magistrates she had renounced Christ and been rebaptized by the Devil, largely under the coercive influence of Martha Carrier, described by the Puritan Reverend Cotton Mather as the “Queen of Hell.”  (Martha Carrier was hanged for a witch on August 19, 1692.) Elizabeth confessed she had scratched her mark on the demonic Bible, consorted with Satan in the form of a black cat and “afflicted” several people by pinching them or effigies (“poppets”) she’d made of them.

She was imprisoned for six months, finally coming to trial in January 1693. Despite her confession, she still pled not guilty, but a jury of her peers convicted her on both counts of her indictment: convenanting with the Devil and witchcraft. She was sentenced to death by hanging, but managed to dodge the noose just long enough for the mass hysteria to subside. She and the two others convicted with her were reprieved by order of Massachusetts Bay Governor William Phips.

She wasn’t exonerated, however. Even as the colony repented of the rush to accusation, use of spectral (ie, dream) evidence and general all-around bullshittery of the judicial response, everyone else, dead or living, would eventually be legally cleared of wrongdoing but her. In 1710, Elizabeth’s brother Francis petitioned on her behalf for Reversal of Attainder and for restitution of the moneys he spent provisioning her during her six months in jail. In 1711, Elizabeth herself petitioned for Reversal of Attainder, pointing out that she had been inexplicably left off the list of 22 people named in the legislation overturning the witchcraft convictions.

Her petition went nowhere. When she died in 1747 at the age of 77, she still had a felony witchcraft conviction on her jacket. She was buried in an unmarked grave in the Old Burying Ground in North Andover. Elizabeth Johnson Jr. continued to fall through the cracks centuries after her death. She was not named in a 1957 bill passed by the Massachusetts legislature exonerating more of the accused and convicted witches. That law was amended in 2001, and again Elizabeth Johnson Jr. was left off the list.

It’s not clear why she kept getting overlooked. It might have been simply administrative error. Her mother, Elizabeth Johnson Sr., was also swept up in the madness. She was accused and brought to trial on witchcraft charges on January 6, 1693. She pled not guilty and was acquitted. Authorities could well have overlooked the convicted Junior because she had the same name as the acquitted Senior. There may also have been social prejudices at play: Elizabeth never married or had children, and according to her grandfather, among others, she was “simplish at the best.” With no husband or children to advocate for her and limited cognitive abilities, she was in a highly ignorable category.

2 thoughts on “Last Salem “witch” cleared 329 years after conviction

  1. At least some of the Early Modern folks involved soon realized the true nature of what obviously got a bit out of hand, and –these days you never know– it certainly would be a mistake to reinstate, what already has been proven to be wrong.

    To give an example, Friedrich Spee’s (1591 – 1635) principal work “Cautio Criminalis” –first printed in 1631– is a passionate plea on behalf of those accused of witchcraft based on his own experiences. Spee was himself present as a Jesuit confessor during sessions of torture and executions.

    “If the reader will allow me to say something here, I CONFESS that I myself have accompanied several women to their deaths in various places over the years and I am now so certain of their innocence that I feel there’s no effort that would not be worth my undertaking to try to reveal this truth.”

    🌿️ :hattip:

    PS: The “Cautio Criminalis” contains 51 “doubts” (Latin: dubia). Amongst his conclusions were:

    (Dubium 17) That the accused should be provided a lawyer and a legal defense, the enormity of the crime making this all the more important.

    (Dubium 20) That most prisoners will confess to anything under torture in order to stop the pain.

    (Dubium 25) Condemning the accused for not confessing under torture (i.e. having employed the so-called ‘sorcery of silence’) is absurd.

    (Dubium 27) That torture does not produce truth, since those who wish to stop their own suffering can stop it with lies. In torture everything is full of uncertainty and darkness […] an innocent man must suffer the surest tortures for an uncertain crime.

    (Dubium 28) What is the evidence of those who immediately believe the confessions extracted under torture to be true? The force of pain enforces even what is considered a sin, such as lying and bringing others into disrepute. Those who once have begun to testify against themselves under torture, admit later after the torture everything that is demanded of them, so that they are not accused of inconstancy. […] And the criminal judges then believe these antics and reinforce themselves in their actions. […]

    (Dubium 29) Must torture, which is so dangerous, be abolished? – I answer: Either torture must be abolished altogether or it must be redesigned in such a way that it does not endanger innocent people with moral certainty. […] One must not play with human blood, and our heads are not balls to be tossed about. If before the court of eternity an account has to be given for every idle word, what about the responsibility for the shed human blood? […]

    (Dubium 31) Documents the barbarous cruelty, and sexual assaults on women, brought on by the practice of strip- searching and fully shaving every part of prisoner’s body prior to the first session of torture.

    (Dubium 44) That accusations against alleged accomplices stemming from torture were of little value: either the tortured person was innocent, in which case she had no accomplices, or she was really in league with the Devil, in which case her denunciations could not be trusted either.

  2. It has always been my understanding that pressing was not the punishment, but an authorized and legal form of torture to force a prisoner to plead guilty or not guilty in court. Because Giles Corey refused to plead he ended up dying as a result of the pressing.

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