Students Seek Posthumous Pardon for Witch Convicted at Salem Trials

massachusetts may soon correct centuries-old wrongful conviction

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

A civics class is leading the charge to pardon a 17th-century witch. A state senator says she was inspired by a group of eighth graders to overturn the wrongful conviction of Massachusetts resident Elizabeth Johnson, Jr., in 1693. Church disunity led to Middle Ages witch hunts.

Silhouette of Christian Church with sunset in background
In the 1690s, Puritan ministers were concerned the practice of witchcraft in New England was a threat to their own authority. Photo By alecsps / Shutterstock

A group of 13- and 14-year-olds in Massachusetts thoroughly researched the legal proceedings of a convicted Salem witch. Their efforts were so impressive that an elected official has introduced legislation to add the name of Elizabeth Johnson, Jr., to a list of wrongfully convicted witches during the hysteria that gripped Massachusetts in the 1690s. Johnson’s sentence was never carried out, as judges realized the error of their ways, but her conviction has stood for nearly 330 years.

The fear that led to the witch hunts in Europe and the United States in the Middle Ages built slowly. In her video series Renaissance: The Transformation of the West, Dr. Jennifer McNabb, Professor of History and the Chair of the Department of History at Western Illinois University, explained how it started with a fractured church.

But Can They Find My Car Keys?

“[The Middle Ages] was a time that saw the rise of popular heresies, for example: Lollards and Hussites threatened the church in England and Central Europe,” Dr. McNabb said. “And false Christians—Jews and Muslims who feigned conversion to evade expulsion or to secure political or economic advantage—were believed to lurk in various corners of the continent.

“The disunity exposed by heretics and other enemies of the faith coincided with a perceived decline in the church’s spiritual vigor and its leadership.”

With trouble brewing within the church, the rise of those claiming to practice healing magic couldn’t have been worse. Practitioners of “white magic,” as benevolent magic is known, were average individuals who purported to be able to find lost things, brew love potions, and heal the sick. They were believed in and respected by their neighbors.

“The last thing the church needed, really, was a group of respected healers and helpers believed to be able to manipulate supernatural forces,” Dr. McNabb said. “Such abilities would seem to supplant the clergy’s own authority to interpret the will of God. The line between magic and miracle was a pretty blurry one.”

Soon, a clergyman published the Malleus Maleficarum, a Catholic treatise on magic that declared both helpful and harmful magic to be the product of the devil and a crime of heresy.

On the Hunt

In treatises of demonology, the church increasingly built up the conflict between church and witchcraft as an epic battle for the souls of humanity. It’s little wonder, then, that in the 15th century, inquisitors were charged with the task of identifying and punishing witches. According to Dr. McNabb, trials began in the Swiss cantons and Germanic lands.

“The coming of the Reformation in the early 16th century slowed the tide of prosecutions, in no small part because the cracking of the Christian consensus presented its own raft of pressing concerns,” she said. “But witchcraft trials would rise again in frequency after mid-century and continue for a hundred years and more in many European lands before subsiding as a cause of official concern in the later 17th century.”

However, the rise of the nation-state occurred around this time as well. Rulers and lawmakers took cues from the church and saw witchcraft as detrimental to their own goals of consolidating power. Just as witchcraft had given Catholics and Protestants excuses to attack each other, laws against witchcraft took shape.

From there, all it took was a group of otherwise regular people with a distrust or dislike of one another—of which there are plenty to be found in any community—to point fingers and make accusations. Salem learned this all too well.

And at long last, one of its final victims may officially have her name cleared.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily