Lucas Ioakim: A year ago from this week, that's the official exoneration of Elizabeth Johnson Jr.
Host, Dinah Cardin: Were there times you guys talked about what that must have been like, must have felt like to be in her shoes?
Lucas: Yeah, we talked about that a lot how all those people must have felt so alone. But it was…(fade out)
Dinah: You are overhearing a conversation I had with Lucas, who is now a high school student in North Andover. When he was in middle school, his civics class petitioned the Massachusetts legislature to clear the name of the last victim of the Salem witch trials more than three centuries after the tragic events of 1692. This story and many others are part of the latest exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum that features original objects from one of the most notorious chapters in our nation’s history: the Salem witch trials. You’ll hear more from Lucas in a bit.
Dinah: Welcome to the PEMcast, conversations and stories for the culturally curious. I’m your host, Dinah Cardin. Today, we will take a deep dive to understand and get to know several storied objects from our fall exhibition The Salem Witch Trials: Restoring Justice.
Dan Lipcan: And that subtitle gives you a clue to a different kind of angle we're taking this time.
Dinah: This is Dan Lipcan, the Ann C. Pingree Director of PEM’s Phillips Library.
Dan: It's been 330 years since 1692 and frankly, the harm and the trauma can never fully be healed. People were murdered. One of the things that we've attempted to do in this exhibition is to look at the actions taken between 1692 and today through this lens of restorative justice.
Dinah: In the last few years, Dan has helped curate several exhibitions of PEM’s Salem witch trial materials. He oversaw the collection of authentic Salem witch trial documents, belonging to the Supreme Judicial Court archives and cared for here at the museum’s library since 1980. We recently returned these documents to the state of Massachusetts court system following a significant renovation of their archival facilities. Now, here’s Dan to set the scene of our newest exhibition, The Salem Witch Trials: Restoring Justice.
Dan: Salem area residents knew, in the course of the trials, that they were not fair, they were not just, and some actions actually were taken during the height of the trials to try to counteract those injustices. We also look at the aftermath and how the community reacted, how victims and family members tried to petition for restitution for exoneration so that the reputations and records of the accused would be cleared. The hope is that we can encourage folks to model our actions on those concepts of compassion, on tenacity, shared responsibility to be inspired to honor the victims of 1692 and to continue to persevere in the face of injustices that we might encounter today. To a certain extent, the work will never be done, but we have to remain optimistic, and keep trying, and keep working to try to attain the ideals of what we are supposed to be living up to as a country.
Dinah: Let’s look at a few of the objects owned by the accusers and accused here in 17th century Salem.
Paula Richter: In the 17th century, a sundial was something that you found in more affluent homes. They helped people organize their lives and how they spent their time.
Dinah: This is Paula Richter, longtime curator at PEM, who has worked on several exhibitions about the Witch Trials.
Paula: Puritans also had philosophical views about time. In the Puritan world, they thought about making the best use of your time, how to use your time effectively and productively.
Dinah: The sundial is gorgeous. It’s stamped with stars, something sort of mystical that you mind find in a Salem shop today.
Paula: It also, however, was a reminder of mortality to make the best use of your remaining time however long your life might be. There were these two threads of thinking related to time in addition to just keeping track of the hours so to speak.
Dinah: Who knew the Puritans would understand my wrist tattoo, which says, "Time"?
Paula: Oh, (laughs) Oh.
Dinah: It's the same meaning.
Paula: It's a brass sundial that was owned by John and Elizabeth Proctor who both were accused during the Salem witch trials. The Proctors were prosperous farmers and they lived to the west of Salem Town in an area that was part of Salem Village. It's now part of Peabody, Massachusetts not far from Salem. The Proctors rented a large piece of property for agricultural production. They also ran a tavern. They had a license to sell alcoholic beverages and serve food as taverns did in the 17th century. The couple likely enjoyed some affluence because they had multiple revenue streams. This sundial descended in the Proctor family and came into the museum's collection just after 1900. It has the date inscribed on it, so 1644 was when it was made. It was likely made in London. And it's covered with a variety of design motifs. There's a pinwheel underneath the part of the sundial that would cast a shadow on the numbers on the face of the sundial. It has Roman numerals that mark the hours. The Proctors’ stories are really quite gripping in a lot of ways. John Proctor petitioned on his own behalf but also on behalf of others who were being falsely accused during the Salem witch trials. He wrote to Boston ministers. He asked them to intervene. Many people came to the defense of the Proctors. Their neighbors, other family members came forward at great risk to themselves to say that they could not imagine that this couple could have been accused of witchcraft. There was a Boston merchant named Robert Califf, who shortly after the trials ended authored a book in which he gathered up a lot of information. Robert Califf recorded that John Proctor pleaded for a little respite of time, but it was not granted.
Dinah: So, he asked them to wait just a little longer, see what happens and instead, they went ahead and executed?
Paula: That's correct, shortly after that. He used another interesting phrase. He said that John Proctor was not fit to die. Fit, at the time meant ready. He was not ready to die. Proctor did spend some time trying to get his affairs pulled together as much as he could prior to his execution. That is also very clear in some of these accounts from 1692. The fact that the one object we have from him is also related to time, I think is very compelling, very potent.
Dinah: What happened to his wife, Elizabeth?
Paula: She was also tried. She was convicted. She was granted a reprieve because she was expecting a baby, she was pregnant. The Puritans did not want to have a pregnant woman executed. They thought that was morally inexcusable and they did not do that. Elizabeth remained in jail. In January, she gave birth to a baby, a son. She named him after John Proctor. Then she did survive and was released from jail in the early summer of 1693.
Dinah: This is one of the saddest stories I've heard us tell.
Paula: It is very sad. How compelling some of these stories are I think is what really makes us want to reflect today on the injustices of 1692. What it meant then and how we can still learn about these stories and different things going on, even to the present.
Dinah: Now, you will go underground with us. To museum storage. Listen as Paula unpacks this next object, shortly before it was brought to the gallery for the exhibition.
[Sound of rustling paper]
Paula: Removing layers of packing materials.
Dinah: It’s a 17th century hand-sewn textile. This looks quite old and delicate.
Paula: Yes. This is another textile treasure in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum. The museum does have a fairly large collection of historic samplers in needlework done primarily by women. It was part of the formal curriculum for how young women were educated in the 17th, 18th, into the 19th century, and even into the early 20th century. Many school girls and young women would make some kind of sampler, which are typically embroidered with needle and thread on a piece of cloth. They often include the alphabet. They did teach a level of literacy by learning your ABCs as people still do today. It also taught them some level of a more artistic kind of training in that, if the students advance beyond just stitching letters and numbers, they might go on and make more elaborate works that might have a variety of more ornamental designs. This sampler, which was created by Mary Hollingsworth. As an adult, she married Philip English and Philip and Mary English were both accused of witchcraft in 1692. This gives us a glimpse into her earlier life. She was the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Her mother owned and ran a tavern in Salem. This is quite a beautiful sampler in the late Elizabethan tradition of embroidery. It has a number of rows of different types of motifs. all done in things like cross stitch and a variety of other stitches. There are a number of recognizable plants or flowers. These are strawberries with green leaves beside it and then a variety of other types of flowers. It gives us a sense that this was a young woman, who was being trained to live a more genteel lifestyle. These types of flowers and particularly the letters were used in inventorying household linens that women would continue to manage throughout their lives you would put initials or names on all your household linens like sheets, pillowcases, towels. This were all relatively expensive in the 17th century.
Dinah: Just to learn how to monogram their own things?
Paula: Exactly. Monogramming is the last vestige of that practice. And, just like In the 17th century, a lot of the monogramming is still done, when people are getting ready for special events like weddings or starting a household together. Mary Hollingsworth signed her sampler, I'll point it out to you, it’s on the very bottom. When she got down to W, X, Y, and Z on the left side of the bottom row, then she began her name and then she ran out of space at the end of the line. She dropped the last two letters of Hollingsworth onto a lower line.
Dinah: There is the T H. That's something I would do there at the bottom though. Just didn't think that through completely.
Paula: It's evidence that she essentially signed this with her needle and thread
Dinah: How does this set these ladies apart in terms of learning to read?
Paula: Across the board in society, the puritans had a much higher level of literacy than in Europe at the time because everyone needed to be able to read the Bible. So, a lot of puritan women may have been able to read and some did have extra education at the time that would have enabled them to write.
Paula: Her story and Philip English's story is a little different from some of the other people. They both were accused during the Salem witch trials, even though they were probably one of the most wealthy couples in Salem at the time. Philip, he was born off the coast of France on the Isle of Jersey, which was actually a British Isle. When he came to Salem in the 1670s, he actually was employed by the Hollingsworth family. That's probably where Mary met him. The couple married. Philip went on to be a wealthy merchant. He owned ships. He owned wharfs. They eventually built a house in the 1680s here in Salem. They may have been quite surprised, but their wealth offered them no protection in 1692 from the accusation of witchcraft. Perhaps, their affluence had been a source of jealousy or may have made them targeted. Philip was also becoming more involved in local politics, which were quite contentious at the time. We don't know exactly why they were accused of witchcraft, but they both were. Mary was put in jail first and Philip a few weeks after. But then the jails by the late spring of 1692 were already overflowing. And so, the English’s were sent to Boston, and they remained there awaiting trial. They were aided by friends and potentially even some ministers in Boston. They fled to the colony of New York until after the trials ended. However, while they were away, all of their vast property was seized, and that happened to anyone who was accused of witchcraft in 1692. The local sheriff came and emptied their home. Philip English petitioned the court and the colony of Massachusetts to reclaim his property and receive restitution, and to clear his name and his wife's name, really For the rest of his life. After submitting petition after petition, he got some compensation in the early 17 teens, 1711, and '12 when they began to do that. But it was such a small proportion of the amount of property that he lost. He continued, and in 1718, he got his final payment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Dinah: We’re continuing this theme of waiting a very long time for restitution. How about when what was stolen was your reputation? As the people of Salem started coming to their senses after these tragic events, a woman named Elizabeth Johnson Jr. was pardoned, along with a few others. But she was not formerly exonerated, meaning she was not fully absolved from the crime of witchcraft. Until just last year. Dan Lipcan tells this story.
Dan: In front of us we have the petition of Elizabeth Johnson, Jr that she wrote to the Massachsueetts legislature. This is a document from 1712. Elizabeth Johnson Jr., was the granddaughter of the Reverend Francis Dane Sr. who was one of the few courageous voices of resistance during the trials. During her examinations in August, she confessed to signing the devil's book, to attending witches' meetings to afflicting several people. She was probably among the many who, by that summer, realized that confessing to these crimes was the path to liberty and to freedom because those who confessed typically were eventually released from prison, those that resisted were the ones who were executed. A grand jury found Elizabeth guilty in mid January of 1693, mainly based on that confession. But the next month, she was pardoned by the governor. Despite that, she was never formally exonerated by the legislation.
Dinah: I asked Dan why things in Salem have moved so slowly. Why restoring justice has taken so long.
Dan: Initially, I think there was a lot of shame in the community. I think there was confusion about, how do we deal with this? How do we restore our reputations? How do we face each other as community members? These processes take a very, very long time. At the end of the exhibition here, we have a list of restorative actions that have been taken from 1692 all the way through 2022. Over 300 years of people saying, "Hold on. Here's another instance of damage that we need to act to repair." In some ways, the healing will never be complete.
Dinah: Next to the petition from Elizabeth Johnson Jr. is a copy of an act that formally cleared her of the crime of witchcraft.
Dan: In the 2021 to 2022 cycle of the Massachusetts Legislature, a middle school class in North Andover had recognized that Elizabeth Johnson Jr. of Andover had never been formally exonerated. And so, they acted with their local representative. We're talking about 330 years later after the trials, so it's still happening.
Lucas: We called her EJJ. It made it more like she was not just a historical figure, like she was a real person.
Dinah: This is Lucas, now going into his sophomore year after working on the project to exonerate Elizabeth Johnson Jr.
Lucas: She lived in North Andover, close to the main town. She was about 22 when she was accused of being a witch, and she was described to be simplish as best by her grandfather, which probably means she had a mental disability, and that's why they accused her of being a witch. Half of her family was also accused of being witches.
Lucas: Ms. LaPierre introduced it to us at the beginning of the year as our civics action project. Our class was the second class to do this project. The first class, they're going into their junior year of high school now. They created a bill that they sent to the state legislature. Our class's job was to get that bill further throughout the process. But unfortunately, that bill did not make it any further, so we had to find new methods to exonerate her. First, we were trying to get the governor to pardon her in one easy step. We were calling the office of the governor. We were writing letters to him, but we didn't get anywhere. Then, Senator DiZoglio decided to add Elizabeth Johnson Jr. to the state budget bill, which means if the state budget bill got passed, then so would she get exonerated. We had to then call the offices of the House of Representatives in Massachusetts to get them to keep her in their version of the state budget.
Dinah: When the governor signed this legislation in 2022, exonerating EJJ, the news went round the world, making global headlines. The students and their teacher did interviews for radio and TV stations from around the US, Canada, the UK and here they are on the Kelly Clarkson show.
[Clip from show]
Dinah: What do you think are the lessons that people should be thinking about that came out of the Salem witch trials?
Lucas: First of all, don't judge a book by its cover, because a lot of people were just judging based on how people fit in society, and that's why they were being accused. And also, to speak up for people who don't have their own voices, because Elizabeth Johnson Jr. had no voice. She was a woman in Massachusetts in the 1600s. She had no power at all, and now, we were able to speak up for her.
Carrie LaPierre: They now know how to approach people in the government, and if they have something they're passionate about, what steps they can take to pursue it.
Dinah: I asked teacher Carrie LaPierre what she thinks is the most important thing the students learned.
Carrie: The biggest lesson, I think, is about bullying and treating people different poorly and ostracizing them. That's a comfortable message, in a sense, for eighth graders to understand. Some of them were even able to connect it to how women are treated in the world today as they were then, what are the parallels? There were some exciting conversations. I'm so proud that they stuck with it as long as they did and that they were successful, that they can see that their actions had mattered in the long run.
Dinah: The Salem Witch Trials Restoring Justice is on view September 2 until November 26, 2023. For a more complete tour of objects in our collection that belonged to the accusers and accused, find our Witch Trials Walk at pem.org. In addition to furnishings and household items, you’ll hear about 19th century Witch City souvenirs. And the 90-minute self-guided walk takes you to key sites around downtown Salem. Hungry for more witch trials related content? Go back and listen to our other witch trial related episodes of the PEMcast at pem.org. This episode was produced by me, Dinah Cardin, and edited and mixed by Erika Sutter. The PEMcast is generously supported by the George S. Parker Fund.