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.
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.