Elizabeth Johnson Jr. was your typical 17th-century woman who got caught up in the Puritanical panic of the time, accused of witchcraft, and sentenced to be hanged. While she managed to avoid actually being hanged, she continued to live (and later died) with the title of “witch.” As of Thursday, Johnson is an exonerated woman—free of the scarlet W that has preceded her name for nearly half a millennium. All it took was a bunch of middle schoolers and 329 years. Better late than never?
To backtrack a bit, Johnson was born in North Andover, Massachusetts, in 1670. By 1692, when she was 22, she was accused of witchcraft along with her mother, aunts, and grandfather. It’s unclear why, but her grandfather allegedly described her as “simplish at best,” according to Emerson W. Baker, a history professor at Salem State University who spoke about the trials to the New York Times. “So that certainly might have singled her out as someone who might be different,” Baker said. “Frankly, being accused of witchcraft in 1692 would have been a stain worse than murder.”
In the event you forgot your U.S. history, the Salem Witch Trials took place between 1692 and 1693. After a string of unfortunate events, a power struggle between the town’s two leading families, and general 17th-century religious superstition, the Puritan villagers concluded all this mayhem had to be the devil’s doing. Then, a local reverend’s daughter and niece were caught having temper tantrums and said it was because three random women did it to them. Hysteria and paranoia ensured. Hundreds were accused of witchcraft and 20 were killed, 19 of them hanged.
Johnson was sentenced to hang after she pled guilty. (The women who died were typically the ones who pleaded innocence.) She was eventually saved by then-Gov. William Phips, who threw out her punishment as the insanity of the accusations started to become clear. She went on to live for many decades, dying in 1747 at age 77.
In the centuries since, she became the only “witch” whose name was never officially cleared. Why? The best answer historians can seem to provide is because she never married and never had children—essentially leaving her without any descendants to fight for exoneration on her behalf. Which damn, there’s no rest for the wicked but there’s truly (and eternally) no rest for women who decide not to have children.
However, in 2021 a nice group of children at a middle school in North Andover, Massachusetts recognized this injustice and worked to right it. The eighth-grade civics class researched her case and took all the steps necessary to get a bill in front of lawmakers. On May 26, the legislation was officially approved, and Johnson’s name became the last of the Salem Witch Trials to be cleared. Proving that society is capable of believing women... even if it takes literal centuries.