Grace Sherwood, a Virginia midwife and farmer, is the last person convicted by the state of Virginia for the crime of witchcraft. Sherwood was imprisoned in 1706 after trial by ducking, ‘proving’ her guilt. Prior to her conviction, Sherwood had been accused and stood trial on at least two previous occasions.
She was released in or around 1714 and returned to her home in Virginia, where she lived without incident until her death in 1740 at the age of 80. In 2006, following a campaign by biographer Belinda Nash, Grace White Sherwood was informally pardoned by the Governor of Virginia. Despite her name being cleared, the legend of the Witch of Pungo persists to this day.
Birth, life and death
Grace White Sherwood was born in 1660 in Virginia, to British immigrants John and Susan White. At the age of 20, Grace married local farm owner James Sherwood and the pair had three sons together. The couple inherited the White family farm from Grace’s father in 1681, and made a modest living from the land. Grace supplemented the family income by acting as a midwife for the local women, as well as providing healing services for people and for animals, using herbs she grew on the farm.
In 1701, James died and left the farm to Grace. At 41, she was a widow – and a landowner. She continued to offer her services as a midwife and a healer after her husband died, until her conviction for witchcraft, and after her release she returned to her property where she lived out the rest of her days. When Sherwood died in 1740, her estate was passed to her eldest son and the remainder of her assets split between the younger boys. The home was abandoned after the younger James Sherwood died, and slowly crumbled away for over two centuries, before a wildlife refuge project reclaimed the land in the early 2000s.
Witch trials in colonial America
The first record of a witchcraft trial in Virginia dates back to 1626, and the last recorded case of witchcraft was brought in 1802. In the 80 years before Grace Sherwood was convicted, there were 19 known witch trials in the state – though there could have been many more – and of these 19 sample cases, 18 people were acquitted of their charges.
Virginia’s history of trying witches is a long one, but the brutality and hysteria associated with Massachusetts’ witch trials never surfaced to the same extent in Virginia. The one recorded conviction before Sherwood’s resulted in a public beating and state exile for the accused man, while Sherwood herself was imprisoned for almost eight years. These punishments may be harsh – but everyone found guilty of witchcraft in Virginia lived to tell the tale, while Salem ordered 20 executions in a one year period for the same offence.
Accusations against Grace Sherwood
- Towards the end of the 17th Century and into the early 1700s, Grace Sherwood faced a number of accusations, controversies and legal complications which related to her alleged witchcraft activities:
- In 1697, Sherwood was taken to court by local farmer Richard Capps, who said that the herbal healer had used a spell to kill his bull. The case was dismissed, and Sherwood filed her own countersuit for defamation – which was settled for an undisclosed sum out of court.
- In 1698 another neighbouring farmer, John Gisburne, claimed that Sherwood had cast a spell on his livestock and his crops. Again, the case was thrown out – but this time, Grace’s defamation suit also failed and she was lumbered with the court costs as a result.
- Elizabeth Barnes mounted a case against Sherwood later that year. She told the court that Sherwood had turned herself into a cat and entered the Barnes’ home, and whipped Mrs Barnes before exiting through the keyhole. The court rejected Barnes’ claim and Sherwood’s defamation suit, leaving the Sherwoods out of pocket again.
- In 1705, Sherwood was involved in a physical altercation with Elizabeth Hill, another neighbour. In a subsequent case against the Hills for assault, Sherwood was awarded substantial damages of 20 shillings.
- At the start of 1706, Sherwood was again ordered to court to answer accusations of witchcraft – this time by Elizabeth Hill, with whom Sherwood had fought. She failed to appear and was summoned by the court to attend a month later, and at this trial she was ultimately convicted of witchcraft.
- In 1708, after her conviction, records show Grace had to pay a fine of 270 kg of tobacco to a Mr Christopher Cocke, though the reason for providing compensation is unknown.
Trial by water in 1706
Sherwood’s case is notable not just because of the eight year sentence she received after her conviction, but also as she was the only person in Virginia known to be subjected to – and convicted by – a trial by water. The history books are fond of recounting the barbaric practices used to determine if a person was a witch. ‘Ducking’, which Sherwood was tried by, involved tying up the suspect and throwing them into a body of water. If they sank, they were innocent – but usually drowned. If they floated or got free, they were guilty and faced punishment.
Two juries of women were established by the court to investigate Grace Sherwood. These juries were asked to search the accused’s home, and also to search her body, for signs she may be a witch. One of the women leading the panel was Elizabeth Barnes, who had previously claimed Sherwood turned into a cat and attacked her in her home. Upon a physical examination, the women reported seeing “two things like titts on her private parts” and “marks not like theirs or like those of any other woman” – possibly superfluous nipples or some other mole or birthmark.
The trial by water allegedly took place after Sherwood consented to it- and a delay was caused by the poor weather, as the court did not want to risk Grace’s health or anyone else’s. Crowds gathered to watch the July 10 water ordeal. Before it took place, Sherwood was given the opportunity to admit her witchcraft and ask for forgiveness. She replied “I be not a witch, I be a healer.”
Sherwood was stripped naked and searched by the local women, tied between her thumbs and toes, covered with a sack and a bible was tied around her neck, before she was thrown into the river. After fighting to free herself from her restraints, Sherwood kicked to the surface – damning herself in the process. She was sent to Lynnhaven Parish Jail where she may have spent as long as eight years, before eventually being released and reclaiming her family farm in Princess Anne County.
Legends and stories
Stories of Grace’s sorcery began when she settled into married life and made her place in the community. She is described as a tall and strikingly attractive woman, who often shunned dresses for trousers and who was not afraid of hard work on the land, where she blended herbs to create medicinal treatments. Women locally were not fond of Sherwood, as they knew she could turn the heads of their husbands. Sherwood herself was devoted to her husband until his death, and never remarried.
After Grace Sherwood died in 1740, rumours about her sorcery persisted. It was said that her sons had placed their mother’s body by the fire in their home, and she had flown away up the chimney with the embers of the fire. It was said by some that the Devil took her, leaving just a cloven footprint as a clue.
In the years after Sherwood’s death, locals continued to believe she had turned into a cat – causing mild hysteria and the killing of many black cats by superstitious residents. The records show that in 1743, Princess Anne County was infested by rats and mice – probably due to the reduction in feral cat numbers.
In 2006, three hundred years after Grace Sherwood was convicted, she was given an informal pardon by the Governor of Virginia. Since the pardon, an annual ‘ducking the witch’ event takes place every year on the banks of the river – though of course, nobody is actually cast into the river!
The story of Grace Sherwood was captured in print for the first time in 1973 when a collection of children’s stories, loosely based on historical events, was released. ‘The Witch of Pungo’ by Louisa Venable Kyle brought Sherwood’s name into recognition, and the legend has been revived since.
Local residents still say that during July, at the ‘ducking spot’ where Sherwood was tried, a light hovers over the lake. Witch Duck Lane and Witch Duck Point have been named after the trial, and statues and memorials have been placed near the hospital which pay tribute to Grace’s work as a healer and herbalist. According to local legend, the rosemary growing by Sherwood’s memorial stone was brought there by the woman herself, carried in a single eggshell from the English shores to the US.
In its final years, the ruins of the Sherwood property became a target for vandals. The centuries-old property, already crumbling from the effects of time, was burned out until just the chimneys remained. Local authorities demolished the final parts of the building for safety, and the land has been reclaimed to form part of the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge.
Grace was the last person ever to be convicted of witchcraft in Virginia, marking a turning point for the state. Though some later accusations were made against others, the cruel ducking trial was never repeated and there were no further convictions or punishments for the offence.
Lead image: artist’s impression of Grace Sherwood, as published at FerryPlantation.org