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Woman Pardoned More than 300 Years After Witchcraft Trial

FILE - Karla Hailer, a fifth-grade teacher from Scituate, Massachusetts takes a video on July 19, 2017, where a memorial stands at the site where women were executed as witches. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia, File)
Woman Pardoned More than 300 Years After Witchcraft Trial
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After more than 300 years, a woman who was found guilty of using witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts has been pardoned.

Witchcraft is traditionally described by some people as using supernatural powers often involving evil spirits. Some people might define modern-day witchcraft differently.

On May 26, Massachusetts state lawmakers officially cleared Elizabeth Johnson Jr. In 1693, Johnson was found guilty of witchcraft and sentenced to death. Her trial was part of the famous Salem Witch Trials which started in 1692 when Massachusetts was a colony of Britain.

Johnson was never executed. But unlike other people who were accused of witchcraft, she was never officially pardoned.

Last year, lawmakers agreed to reconsider her case after an eighth-grade class at a Massachusetts middle school took up her cause. Students at North Andover Middle School researched the legislative steps needed to clear Johnson’s name.

In a statement, their teacher, Carrie LaPierre, praised her students for taking on “the long-overlooked issue of justice for this wrongly convicted woman.”

The teacher added that passing this legislation will show the students the importance of helping someone who cannot help themselves. The experience, she said, also can teach the students that they have a strong voice. (Here, the word “voice” means having the right to express a wish, choice, or opinion.)

State Senator Diana DiZoglio introduced the legislation which was then added to a budget bill and approved. DiZoglio said, “We will never be able to change what happened to victims like Elizabeth but at the very least [we]can set the record straight.”

A group called Witches of Massachusetts Bay told the Associated Press that Johnson is the last accused witch to be cleared. The group’s goal is to study and record the history and stories of the “witch hunts” that took place in that state.

Massachusetts State Senator Joan Lovely said, “For 300 years, Elizabeth Johnson Jr. was without a voice, her story lost to the passages of time.”

Twenty people from Salem and neighboring towns were executed and many others were accused of witchcraft during the incident which began in 1692. Historians say that people who accused others of being witches did so for many reasons. These included superstition, fear of disease and strangers and jealousy.

Nineteen people were hanged, and one man was crushed to death with rocks.

Johnson was 22 when she was caught up in the witchcraft accusations. She was put on trial and sentenced to hang. But the colony’s Governor William Phips threw out her punishment as the injustice of the trials became clear.

Over more than 300 years, many suspects were officially cleared, including Johnson’s mother.

But for some reason, Elizabeth Johnson’s name was not included in the legislative attempts to correct the record. Unlike others who were wrongly accused, Johnson never had children who could have cleared her name.

DiZoglio said, “Elizabeth’s story and struggle continue to greatly resonate today.” She added, “While we’ve come a long way since the horrors of the witch trials, women today still all too often find their rights challenged and concerns dismissed.”

I’m Anna Matteo.

William J. Kole reported this story from Boston, Massachusetts for the Associated Press. Anna Matteo adapted it for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

convict –v. to find someone guilty of a crime

superstition –n. a belief that is based on a fear of the unknown or that certain things bring good or bad luck

jealousy –n. a strong feeling of wanting to have something that belongs to someone else

resonate –v. to have a special meaning or importance for some people

horror –n. an experience or thing that causes great fear or dread

challenge –v. to question whether a person should have or do something