Budget FY23- Amendment 842, Salem Witch Trials
Floor Speech

Thank you to the Senator from First Essex for filing this amendment to correct a longstanding historical wrong.

 

Thanks also to Mrs. LaPierre’s 8th grade civics students at North Andover Middle School, who brought this important issue to the Legislature’s attention and have been organizing for justice for of Elizabeth Johnson, Jr. throughout the school year.

 

As mentioned previously, the amendment before us would clear the name of Elizabeth Johnson Jr., a young woman who was convicted of witchcraft in 1693 during the Salem Witch Trials.

 

The then governor commuted Johnson’s death sentence, but he did so without overturning her conviction, which the Commonwealth never been formally repudiated.

 

Victims of the Salem Witch Trials have had their names cleared by the General Court on several occasions, including in the early 1700s, in 1957, and—most recently—in 2001. 

 

It is not known why Johnson was not included in previous legislative efforts to exonerate the victims of the Witch Trials.

 

Some people suspect that she was never exonerated because she neither married nor had children, which left her without descendants to advocate on her behalf.

 

Of course, the fact she was unmarried and childless is likely why she was targeted for accusations of witchcraft in the first place.

 

Women in 1690s Salem were expected to fill narrowly understood roles of wife, mother, and homemaker.

 

Anyone who deviated from those rigid roles was considered suspect, immoral, and dangerous—and was therefore vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft.

 

From that perspective, we can understand the Salem Witch Trials as a moral panic about how some women chose to lead their lives, and as an effort to restrict women’s autonomy and control their choices about marriage and reproduction.

 

We may no longer be convicting women of witchcraft, but it won’t be lost on anyone in this chamber that efforts to control women’s lives and bodies have persisted across the centuries to the present day.

 

Indeed, in the leaked draft of the Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade, Justice Alito cites favorably to Matthew Hale, a 17th century English jurist who not only popularized the legal notion that a husband cannot rape his wife, but who also presided over several trials in the 1660s in which women were convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to hang.

 

The settlers in Salem would go on to model their own witch trials on the ones Hale held in England.

 

I hope that today we will vote to correct a 300-year-old injustice and clear the name of Elizabeth Johnson Jr.

 

As we consider the amendment before us, I hope that we will reflect on the misogynistic notions of womanhood and female autonomy that led to Johnson’s wrongful conviction.

 

And I hope that we will also reflect on how that same misogynistic logic could lead to new injustices in the present day.