“What interests me is why men think of women as witches. It’s because they’re so fascinating and exasperating, so other” – John Updike
When we talk about the witchcraft hysteria of the late 17th Century in Colonial America, we generally think of the Salem Witch Trials, the spasm of judicial insanity between February 1692 and May 1693 in Massachusetts that resulted in the execution of twenty people under suspicion of practicing the dark arts. This puritanical frenzy is what we commonly associate with the concept of a “witch trial” i.e. rampant paranoia, cascading accusations, a rush to judgement, enhanced interrogation techniques, and a whole lot of dubiously justifiable hanging and burning, mirroring the inquisitorial witch craze sweeping across Europe from roughly the 15th-18th Centuries. While the fervor in 17th Century New England was analogous to its European parent, other colonies seemed less inclined to get on board with the prosecution of sorcerers. A fine example of reticence to the point of inaction can be found in 17th Century Virginia and the half-hearted persecution of Grace White Sherwood, traditionally dubbed “the Witch of Pungo”, the last woman convicted of witchcraft in Virginia (and among the few formal trials of a suspected witch in Virginia).
Grace was born in 1660 in Pungo, Virginia (near modern Virginia Beach), the daughter of John and Susan White. John was a Scottish Carpenter and farmer. Susan was English by birth. In April 1680, the reputedly attractive and charming Grace married small-landowner James Sherwood and they lived together on a 195 acre farm inherited from Grace’s father. The couple had three sons: John, James, and Richard, and eked out a relatively meager existence, not substantially different from most of their neighbors. Grace grew her own herbs that she used to heal people and animals, and acted as the local midwife, which seemed less peculiar to most than the fact that she wore trousers instead of a dress while working the farm. Those early Virginian colonists were slaves to fashion. Grace inherited James’ property when he died in 1701 and never remarried.
The first accusation of witchcraft against Grace was in 1697, when a Richard Capps alleged that she had used a spell to cause the death of his bull. The Virginia court declined to hear the charge, presumably as evidence was non-existent and a fairly ambivalent attitude. James and Grace Sherwood immediately counter-sued February 1697 for defamation, duly documented in the court records of Princess Anne County, stating “James Sherwood and Grace his wife Suing Richard Capps in an action of Defamation, Damages fifty pounds sterling, and the Defendant failing to appear, and the Sheriff to take security, order is granted the Said Sherwood and the Sheriff for it shall appear due unless he produce him next Court, attachment granted ye sheriff” (James, 1895, p92). It seems that the Sherwoods more or less smoothed things over with Capps as a March 1697 entry in the record concludes, “The difference between James Sherwood and Grace his wife (plaintiffs), and Richard Capps (Defendant) being ended by the parties, is ordered to be Dismissed” (James, 1895, p92). It all seems reasonably congenial. No accused were burned, no accusers got turned into a toad, and the court shut the books on the whole thing hoping it would go away.
Sadly, Grace Sherwood’s troubles were just beginning. In 1698, neighbor John Gisburne accused her of enchanting his pigs and cotton crop. Personally I believe “enchanted pig” should be a euphemism for bacon, but the Oxford English Dictionary won’t return my calls. I mean, I respect the restraining order, so the least they can do is not mark my emails as spam. At any rate, the courts again declined to hear a witchcraft case and took no action. And again, the Sherwoods brought suit for defamation against Gisburne, recorded in the Spetember 1698 Princess Anne County court notes. “James Sherwood and Grace his wife suing John Gisburne and Jane his wife in an action of Slander setting forth by his petition that the Defendants had wronged, defamed and abused the said Grace in her good name and reputation saying that she is a Witch and bewitched their pigs to death and bewitched their cotton” (William and Mary, 1894, p97). A jury dismissed the defamation suit as well. Colonial Virginia courts just weren’t interested in hearing about witchcraft. Obviously access to quality tobacco has a mellowing effect.
Unfortunately, Grace would up in court yet again in 1698 when Elizabeth Barnes accused her of assault while shapeshifted. The court was yet again unimpressed, dismissed the case, and the Sherwoods yet again tried a defamation lawsuit “against Anthony Barnes and Elizabeth, his wife, for slander, on the ground that the said Elizabeth had maliciously charged that the said Grace ‘had come to her one night and ridden her and went out of the key hole like a black cat’. Damages of 100 pounds sterling were asked, to which the defendants pled not guilty” (Stewart, 1909, p41). The suit was dismissed, and at this point, the court was getting a little tired of the pattern of suit and counter-suit and ordered the Sherwoods to pay the court costs of the defendants. Clearly, they did not want to try anyone as a witch. After three accusations of witchcraft in Salem you probably would have been looking up at the business end of a hangman’s noose or feeling your feet get a little toasty as they stoked the pyre. Not so much in Virginia.
The straw that finally broke the camel’s back happened in 1705. Sherwood had an ongoing fight with her neighbor Elizabeth Hill, filing a successful suit against Hill and her husband for assault and battery for which Grace was awarded twenty pounds sterling. In January 1706, the Hills accused Grace of witchcraft relating to Elizabeth Hill’s miscarriage. By February, the court, clearly tired of this nuisance, ordered Grace Sherwood to stand trial. In March 1706, Princess Anne County justices empaneled two juries (entirely comprised of women), the first jury ordered to search her house for sorcerous accouterments and the second to examine her body for “witchmarks”. Both juries initially refused, until Elizabeth Barnes (who had formerly accused Grace of witchcraft) took on the role of forewoman and unsurprisingly found indications of the “devil’s brand” on the body of Sherwood with the dubious statement that “”We of the Jury have Searcheth Grace Sherwood and have found two things like teats with several spots” (Chitwood, 1905, p87). Neither the authorities in Williamsburg or the local court in Pungo considered the charges or findings anything but vague, refused to declare her a witch, and the local court was instructed to re-examine the case. In May 1706 the Sheriff of Princess Anne County took Grace into custody, and the magistrates proposed a “trial by ducking” (drop her in the water, if she floats she’s a witch, if she drowns she’s not – an existentially satisfying result, although not especially practical).
The ducking itself took place in July 1706, after several postponements due to weather (the court actually seemed concerned that the heavy rains might adversely affect Grace’s health). On the day, they tied her up and threw her in the Lynnhaven River. She floated, as human bodies often do, at which time they tied a thirteen pound bible around her neck. Understandably, she sank. Not wanting to drown, she managed to free herself and float to the surface. This didn’t seem especially conclusive. She was jailed pending further proceedings. At this point the courts seemed to have shrugged their shoulders, and held her in jail for the next few years, but sometime around 1714 she was released, paid back-taxes on her farm where she lived to the ripe old age of 80, passing away in 1740.
The attitude of Virginia authorities seems to have been less related to fear and more to irritation at having to deal with the issue at all. Virginia clergy were fairly disinterested and barely participated. Compared to their counterparts in Puritan New England, the Virginians were positively laid back. This was no doubt also due to settlement patterns – New Englanders tended to settle in compact towns and felt stronger community pressure, whereas the Virginia colonies were primarily farms scattered over large areas in the 17th Century. As far as historians can tell, in the entire 17th Century there were a total of 19 witch accusations in Virginia, and all but one ended in acquittal. The sole convicted witch was simply banished in 1656. The similarly hesitated in ever officially declaring Grace Sherwood a witch, and just seem to have kept her in jail until it all blew over.
While it was never clear that Grace was anything more than a healer who kept getting accused of being a witch, there appears to be some curious post-mortem evidence. “One of the strangest legends concerning Grace is said to have taken place at her death in 1740. As she lay ill during a fierce storm, Grace asked her sons to move her from her bed and place her feet into the warm ashes of the fireplace. During the night a tremendous gust of wind came down the chimney, scattering embers everywhere. When Grace’s sons looked in on her, they discovered that she had disappeared. All that remained of their mother was the imprint of a cloven hoof in the ashes” (VBPL, 2006, p30).
Chitwood, Oliver Perry, 1874-. Justice In Colonial Virginia. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins press, 1905.
James, Edward W. d. 1906. The Lower Norfolk County Virginia Antiquary v2. Baltimore: The Friedenwald Co., printers, 1895.
College of William and Mary. William And Mary College Quarterly Historical Magazine v3. Williamsburg, Va.: William and Mary College, 1894.
Stewart, Robert Armistead, 1877-1950. Knights of the Golden Horseshoe: And Other Lays. Richmond, Va.: The Evans Press, Inc., 1909.
Virginia Beach Public Library. Beach : A History of Virginia Beach, Virginia. Virgina Beach, VA: VB Public Library, 2006.