Last week, she was still a witch. It is only since this Thursday, July 28 that the name ofElizabeth Johnson Jr. was cleared, in Salem, Massachusetts (USA). She had been sentenced to death in 1693, after being convicted of witchcraft in a trial that accused her, along with 20 other members of her family. They had finally all escaped the ultimate sentence, by obtaining a reprieve. But his locker had never been emptied.
It wasn’t until 326 years later, in 2019, that someone looked into his case. This vigilante is Carrie LaPierre, a school teacher. With his class of college students and the help of the senator Diana DiZogliothey managed to officially record his innocence, as related by the New York Times. “I am very happy and relieved, breathes Carrie LaPierre, but also disappointed not to be able to share this with the children, because they are on summer vacation. The professor explains that being able to participate in the acquittal of Elizabeth Johnson Jr. was a dream project for her. This allowed him to transmit to his students the value of persistence but also the functioning of the legal system.
Why had she pleaded guilty?
Elizabeth’s story is very little known. The young woman was 22 when she was sentenced. Carrie LaPierre assumes that she potentially suffered from mental disorders. She never married and had no children. Two more than enough reasons to suspect a woman of witchcraft at that time.
At her trial, she pleaded guilty, although completely innocent. Emerson W. Baker, professor of history at the University of Salem explains this phenomenon. Some people were afraid of being tortured during an interrogation and therefore preferred to denounce themselves immediately, to escape it. Others sincerely thought they were witches without meaning to. By dint of living in a society that constantly drums that witches abound, the message ends up invading people’s minds. “Maybe Elizabeth thought, ‘I don’t think I’m a witch, but I may have had some bad thoughts that I shouldn’t have had,’ speculates Professor Baker.
Life saved but reputation ruined
The last reason people plead guilty is simply to survive. In 1692, the population began to realize that those who pleaded innocence were hanged very quickly, while a reprieve could be granted to the assumed culprits. In Salem, the 19 people who claimed their innocence this year were immediately executed, unlike the 55 who pleaded guilty, who escaped imminent death.
After their conviction, the governor of Massachusetts granted a reprieve to Elizabeth and her family. She therefore lived until 1747 and died at the age of 77. But Professor Baker specifies that the fact remains that the accusations have most certainly completely ruined the reputation and therefore the daily life of Elizabeth and her family. For him, “this acquittal is the least we can do”.
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The last Salem witch exonerated… 329 years after her conviction
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