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Massachusetts grants absolution to its last remaining witch

After 329 years — and thanks to an eighth-grade civics class — a Salem-era woman has been officially exonerated of devil worship. 

SALEM, Massachusetts (CN) — The last remaining Massachusetts resident legally classified as a witch has been given a reprieve as part of a budget bill signed Thursday by Governor Charlie Baker. 

In 1693, Elizabeth Johnson was one of 30 people who were convicted as part of the Salem-area witch hysteria but the only one who hadn’t later been exonerated by the state Legislature, making her the last person still regarded, as far as the state legal system was concerned, as in league with Satan. 

Johnson’s cause was championed for three years by Carrie LaPierre, an eighth-grade civics teacher in North Andover where Johnson lived more than three centuries ago. LaPierre led her classes in learning about the witch trials, contacting legislators, helping draft legislation and lobbying state officials. 

“It’s a great way to do civics education, and it has nothing to do with critical race theory, so everyone feels good about it,” LaPierre explained. 

LaPierre’s first step was to engage the help of state Senator Diana DiZoglio, a second-term Democrat who represents parts of North Andover. DiZoglio became excited about the witchcraft issue even though her past legislative efforts focused less on the excesses of Puritan morality and more on mundane issues such as earned-income tax credits — although she did support legislation during the pandemic that allowed restaurants to offer cocktails-to-go. 

Even with political backing, however, LaPierre’s young charges weren’t immediately excited about the prospect of becoming activists for a supposed 17th century necromancer. 

“Are you kidding? They’re eighth graders,” La Pierre explained. “It took some of them a month to realize she’s dead. The majority view was, who cares, it doesn’t matter.”  

The students’ interest picked up as local media began to cover the crusade, even while their families remained largely indifferent. “Most of the parents just didn’t pay much attention to it,” LaPierre recalled. 

When she was sentenced to death for consorting with the Prince of Darkness, Johnson was a 22-year-old woman who apparently had significant developmental disabilities. Her grandfather called her “simplish at the best,” and Boston merchant Robert Calef, who opposed the witch prosecutions, described Johnson and fellow defendant Mary Post as “two of the most senseless and ignorant creatures that can be found.”  

“People in the 17th century were a lot less sensitive” when describing persons with mental disabilities, observed historian Richard Hite, author of "In the Shadow of Salem," a book about the witch hunt in Andover. 

Although Salem is synonymous in the public mind with witch hysteria, the city, like the witches themselves, suffers in many ways from an unfair reputation. Of the 156 people accused of witchcraft in Essex County in the northeastern corner of Massachusetts, only 12 lived in Salem. All but three towns in the county had witch accusations and the largest number — 45 — were in Andover. 

The site along the Shawsheen River in Andover where many accused witches claimed to have been baptized by the devil. Elizabeth Johnson's 13-year-old brother claimed to have been baptized here. He was acquitted at trial. (Cassandra Michael photo courtesy of Richard Hite via Courthouse News)

Salem is remembered simply because it was (and still is) the county seat, so that’s where the trials and executions were held. 

The events in Salem stand out precisely because witchcraft was generally not a big deal in the New World. There were a grand total of only 36 recorded witch executions in all of America, compared with more than 12,500 in Europe. Connecticut had 11 executions between 1647 and 1662. But the tide had turned in the Nutmeg State by 1693, the year Johnson was convicted. And when Hugh Crotia confessed that year to making a pact with the devil and practicing black magic, a Connecticut court adjudicated him an “ignoramus” and ordered him freed after he paid his jail expenses. 

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In Salem, 30 people were convicted and 19 were put to death within a four-month period. Five others died in jail, and one man, Giles Corey, was crushed to death by rocks in an effort to torture him into confessing. Johnson herself was spared death when her sentence was commuted by then-Governor William Phips. 

Although the reason for Johnson’s confession is unknown, Hite noted that accused witches in Massachusetts were generally put to death only if they professed their innocence. Those who confessed were spared so that they could provide evidence against others. 

The Andover hysteria centered largely on Mary Lacey, who accused fellow resident Martha Carrier of negotiating a deal with the devil that would allow her to become Queen of Hell. Seventeen members of Carrier’s family, including Johnson’s mother who was Carrier’s first cousin, ended up being arrested.

Once the hysteria died down, many of the convicted (or their families) petitioned to have the convictions reversed. Johnson submitted a petition in 1712 but was turned down. It’s not clear why, although the fact that she had developmental difficulties and never married or had children may have caused her to be treated as less of a priority. 

The home of Benjamin Abbot, built in 1685. Abbot was one of the people that Elizabeth Johnson confessed to "afflicting" by means of witchcraft. (Cassandra Michael photo courtesy of Richard Hite via Courthouse News)

The Massachusetts Legislature passed bills to exonerate the accused in 1957, shortly after Arthur Miller’s play "The Crucible" dramatized the Salem trials, and again in 2001, although the bills focused primarily on people who were put to death. Johnson was once again overlooked and remained the last person in the state guilty of witchcraft in the eyes of the law. 

Johnson is believed to have died in 1747 and been buried in an unmarked grave in the Old Burying Ground in North Andover. 

Film producer Cassandra Hesseltine, a descendant of Martha Carrier, is working with director Annika Hylmö on a documentary about Johnson’s exoneration. The project set to be called "The Last Witch" grew out of a discussion the pair had when they met in a women’s restroom at the Sundance Film Festival. 

Ceremonial laws — those that don’t have a practical effect — are frequently taken up by school civics classes, and as many as 200 state laws have been passed as a result of schoolchildren, according to Kevin Underhill, the author of "The Emergency Sasquatch Ordinance," a book about obscure laws. 

A litigator at Shook, Hardy & Bacon in San Francisco who blogs regularly on the topic, Underhill said the witch bill is better than most such efforts that tend, for example, to name an official state dinosaur. 

“A bill or resolution can still send an important message even if it’s not binding legislation or is a couple of centuries late,” he said. “This one might help in a small way to remind people that it’s better to make decisions based on evidence as opposed to just believing what Goody Putnam posted about witches on Ye Facebooke.” 

Although some may believe that legislatures have better things to do with their time, “we shouldn’t exaggerate the amount of time and effort that lawmakers actually spend on this stuff,” Underhill said. He noted that Florida legislators approved a bill to make porpoises the official state saltwater mammal because they didn’t bother looking up the fact that porpoises are a different species from dolphins and aren’t native to Florida. 

Laws without substantive effect do have their critics. Congressman Ron Paul, a Texas Republican, was notorious for opposing such legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives, often casting the lone “no” vote on measures to commend organ donors, endorse free and fair elections overseas, or express condolences to earthquake victims. 

If nothing else, the exoneration effort in Massachusetts shines light on the fact that it was nearby Andover, not Salem, that was the real epicenter of the hysteria. 

Salem gets the attention in part because it has found it profitable to embrace its witch history. The city actively lures tourists with a “witch house,” a witch museum and a statue of Elizabeth Montgomery, the star of the 1960s TV show “Bewitched.” Police cars have a witch logo, a public elementary school is known as Witchcraft Heights and the high school athletic teams are called the Witches. And each year the city has an extremely elaborate Halloween celebration. 

The tombstone of Ephraim Foster (1657-1746), the Andover constable who arrested Elizabeth Johnson for witchcraft. (Cassandra Michael photo courtesy of Richard Hite via Courthouse News)

By contrast, Andover downplays its spooky backstory. The town is best known today as the home of prestigious Phillips Academy, the country’s oldest prep school that is the alma mater of both Presidents Bush. 

Interest in the Salem witch hysteria has endured in part because it can be used as a metaphor for continuing political debates. "The Crucible" was widely interpreted as a parable about McCarthyism, and in our own day Robert Mueller felt compelled to testify to Congress that his investigation of Russian election collusion “was not a witch hunt.” 

The effort to grant Johnson clemency also highlights the historical mistreatment of socially marginal people and those with intellectual challenges.  

Exonerating Johnson “was not deemed necessary in the past because she was not a wife or a mother” and had disabilities, said DiZoglio, the state senator, who also noted the “parallels today to people who don’t look or sound like us or have characteristics that might make people value them as worthy and important.” 

Three centuries later, DiZoglio added, Johnson’s cause is relevant because “we see folks targeted all the time for political purposes or agendas."

“Women’s rights are under attack,” DiZoglio said. "Reproductive rights are under attack.” 

Hesseltine, the film producer, emphasized meanwhile that it’s “very easy for somebody who doesn’t have familial ties to be forgotten."

"Single women without kids might end up homeless or have to fight harder to get jobs," she said. "A lot of people end up forgotten in mental hospitals or accused of a crime.” 

LaPierre was more reticent to draw contemporary parallels in her classroom. “Current events are not a safe area because people might start talking about Trump,” she noted. 

No class celebration of the bill-signing has been planned because the students are on summer vacation, “and they don’t care as much,” La Pierre said. “Maybe in 10 years it will sink in.” 

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