Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Virginia Witch Trials


    The most famous American witch trials occurred in Salem Massachusetts from 1692-1693, but Virginia had its own witches and witch trials.  All right-minded people in the American colonies took the existence of witches for granted.  The Devil was always a real and present danger.  Despite being on constant alert and ever vigilant, Virginians did not experience the same degree of hysteria with regard to witches that gripped the Puritans of Massachusetts.  For one thing, clerical influence was much a less factor in Virginia, where the clergy rarely participated in witchcraft trials.  Unlike New England’s witch trial courts, where the accused had to prove their innocence, in Virginia, the accuser had to demonstrate the accused was guilty. Nineteen witchcraft trials were held in Virginia during the 17th century.  Most ended in the accused witch being acquitted.  In a 1656 case a man was convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to whipping and banishment.  There was no death penalty for witchcraft in Virginia.  The last witchcraft trial in Virginia took place in 1802.

   Virginia’s most famous witch, the so called “Witch of Pungo” was one Grace Sherwood, a forty-six-year old married woman from Princess Anne County.  Grace was married to James Sherwood, a planter. The couple had three sons: John, James, and Richard.  The family lived in Pungo (today part of Virginia Beach).  Grace Sherwood was a strong woman, a healer and herbalist, and someone with an affinity for nature and animals.  She did not suffer fools easily.  Here, at that time, was a sure formula for trouble with the neighbors.  And trouble she got. 

   In early 1697, Richard Capps accused Grace of casting a spell that caused the death of his bull.  The court found insufficient evidence of witchcraft and the charge was dismissed.  The Sherwoods sued Capps for slander.  This case also went nowhere.  The following year, John Gisburne accused Grace of casting a spell on his pigs and cotton crop.  This resulted in another case of insufficient evidence, and another failed defamation suit on the part of the Sherwoods.  The year 1698 was a busy one for Grace Sherwood.  Having beaten back the accusations of John Gisburne, later in the year she was accused by Elizabeth Barnes of having assumed the shape of a black cat.  As a demonic cat, Grace was accused of having entered the Barnes’ home in the night, where she proceeded to jump over the bed and whip Elizabeth Barnes.  The witch then left through the keyhole.  Not surprisingly, this resulted in another case dismissed, and another failed defamation suit on the part of the Sherwoods.

   Things remained quiet for a number of years, until in 1705 Grace Sherwood was involved in a fight with her neighbor Elizabeth Hill.  Sherwood sued Hill and her husband for assault and battery and was awarded monetary compensation in December 1705.  This ruling by the court did nothing to calm tempers.  On January 3, 1706, Elizabeth Hill accused Grace Sherwood of witchcraft, of having used her satanic powers to cause a miscarriage. In March 1706 the court ordered Sherwood’s house to be searched for waxen or baked figures that might indicate she was a witch.  No luck here, the search produced nothing.  The court next authorized a jury of twelve women to look for marks of the devil on Grace Sherwood’s body. The forewoman of this jury was the same Elizabeth Barnes who had previously accused Sherwood of witchcraft.  This group discovered marks of the Devil, oddly enough.

   Despite this overwhelming evidence, authorities remained reluctant to declare Grace Sherwood a witch.  Authorities in Williamsburg, the colonial capital, considered the charge against Sherwood too vague and ordered the local court to examine the case in greater depth.

   By July, Grace Sherwood was worn out with travelling from her farm to court and thus consented when the court offered her a trial by ducking.  The procedure here would involve binding Grace and throwing her into the river; if she sank, she was innocent, but if she floated, she was clearly a witch. 

   Grace Sherwood’s protestation that, “I be not a witch, I be a healer,” fell on deaf ears.  People had come in from all over the colony to watch the spectacle.  The crowd began to chant, “Duck the witch.”  A spot on the Lynnhaven River, now known as Witchduck Point, was chosen for the test.  Grace Sherwood was securely bound, rowed out into the river, and thrown from the boat.  She rose to the surface.  Proof positive that she was a witch.  The court, with an over-abundance of judicial caution, decided to give Grace a second chance to demonstrate her innocence.  The sheriff was ordered to tie a thirteen-pound Bible around her neck. Grace was rowed back to the middle of the river and thrown from the boat.  Weighted down by the Bible, she sank, but somehow managed to untie herself and return to the surface.  She was definitely a witch, if there ever was one.

   Grace Sherwood was convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to imprisonment. Freed from prison by 1714, Grace returned to her home and lived peacefully until her death in 1740. Some neighbors said the Devil took her body.  Others pointed to the increase in unnatural storms and loitering black cats after her death.  Locals killed every cat they could find, which then lead to an infestation of rats in 1743. 

   Grace Sherwood lies in an unmarked grave in a field near the intersection of Pungo Ferry Road and Princess Anne Road in Virginia Beach.  To this day, local residents tell of a mysterious moving light that appears each July over the spot where Sherwood was thrown into the water.  Is it possible that this is the restless spirit of Grace Sherwood?  Perhaps, but not everyone is convinced that Grace Sherwood was a witch.  The Governor of Virginia granted her a pardon on July 10, 2006.  Additionally, a statue of Grace Sherwood was erected on Independence Boulevard in Virginia Beach. Grace is shown alongside a raccoon, representing her love of animals, and carrying a basket containing garlic and rosemary, in recognition of her knowledge of herbal healing.