Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Ducking the Witch...Grace Sherwood's trial by water

Statue of Grace Sherwood by Robert Cunningham
(photo courtesy of Wikipedia)
Having spent my formative years in the City of Virginia Beach, Virginia, the words “witch duck” were ubiquitous and, pretty much, taken for granted: Witchduck Road, Witchduck Point, Witchduck Post Office, etc. You might wonder if Virginia Beach is the home of some kind of spell-casting duck or if it is a city where witches frequently duck in or are in danger of bumping their hats against low hanging branches. In fact, Virginia Beach was the scene of the eighteenth century witch trial of one Grace White Sherwood and a ducking into the river was part of the proceedings .

Grace White Sherwood was born in 1660, in what was then called Princess Anne County and is now called the Pungo area of Virginia Beach, to John and Susan White. When Grace married respectable, small-time farmer James Sherwood in 1680, Grace’s father gave them fifty acres of land and when he died a year later, the remainder of his one hundred forty-five acres. Grace became a widow in 1701 and never remarried. Contemporary accounts described Grace as tall, attractive, and with a good sense of humor. It was also noted she often wore men’s trousers when working on her farm. She was a mid-wife and a grower of medicinal herbs that she used in the healing of both people and animals.


Such a combination of qualities, which sound quite benign and positive to our twenty-first
Magic Scene, 1741, by Andrea Locatelli
century eyes, may have been the core of jealousy and ill-will which assailed Mrs. Sherwood and sent her to court a dozen times between 1697 and 1706. Some of these court cases were for accusations of Grace’s witchcraft and others were her own suits for slander against her accusers. The cries of witchcraft blamed her for actions such as bewitching farm animals and crops to die and for bewitching a woman to miscarry her baby. One woman, Elizabeth Barnes, accused Grace of entering her bedroom one night in the form of a black cat, scratching and attacking her then departing through a keyhole. 

Although these varied accusations were dismissed or declared inconclusive, the courts of Virginia apparently grew tired of it all and considered Grace Sherwood a nuisance. In 1706 they allowed her to be tried for witchcraft by means of being examined by a jury of “ancient and wise women” to determine if she had marks on her body indicative of the Devil’s brand. These women, led by Elizabeth Barnes herself, did indeed decide Grace had two markings unlike any found on themselves or any other woman they knew. This opened the door for the final trial by water.

The Three Witches from Shakespeare's Macbeth, 1775, by Daniel Gardner
Illustration from A Popular History of the United States by William Cullen Bryant
On July 10, 1706, Grace Sherwood was taken to 
Lynnhaven Parish Church, set upon a stool, and ordered to ask forgiveness for her witchcraft. Her reply was, “I be not a witch, I be a healer.” The unrepentant “witch” was taken down a road (now called Witchduck Road) to the shores of the Lynnhaven River where five women searched her naked body for any devices she may have had to free herself, then covered her with a sack. Her right thumb was bound to her left big toe and her left thumb was bound to her right big toe. Thus bound, six justices rowed the bound woman out two-hundred yards into the river and threw her overboard. The idea was not to drown her but just to test her. The thought was, if she floated she was considered a witch and if she sank, she was innocent. Grace was apparently quite buoyant and floated on the surface. Then to give her the benefit of the doubt, the Sheriff of Princess Anne County tested her a second time by tying a thirteen-pound Bible around her neck and casting her overboard once more. This time she did sink but was able to free herself and swim to the surface. Aha! Proof-positive: Guilty!

Intersection of Witchduck RD and Sherwood LA
(Photo courtesy of WikiMedia Commons)
Grace was sentenced to about seven years in prison and served out her time in a jail adjacent to Lynnhaven Parish Church. In 1714, she paid back-taxes on her land which Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood then helped her secure back from the County of Princess Anne. Grace Sherwood lived out the rest of her days in relative peace and quiet before dying at the age of eighty. 

Tales cropped up after her death including a story that the Devil came down the chimney and claimed Grace’s body before her sons could bury her. There were also claims of unnatural storms and lingering black cats. Soon, men were killing any cat they ran across in the county. This may have led to the
"Black cat (2901924188)" by mwanasimba from La Réunion (WikiMedia commons) 
infestation of rats and mice recorded in Princess Anne County in 1743. Grace’s body (assuming the Devil didn’t actually carry it away) is buried in an unmarked grave beneath a group of trees in a field near the intersection of present-day Pungo Ferry Road and Princess Anne Road. Local residents of present-day Virginia Beach say a strange moving light can be seen each July over the water where Grace was tried.

July 10, 2006, on the three-hundredth anniversary of Grace’s infamous trial by ducking,
Official Congressional Portrait of Tim Kaine
 (Governor, Senator, and Witch Pardoner)
Virginia Governor Tim Kaine granted her an official pardon. A statue of her holding a basket of rosemary and a raccoon by her side is visible from Independence Boulevard near the current Sentara Bayside Hospital and not too distant from her place of trial. This commemorative statue by sculptor Robert Cunningham was unveiled on April 21, 2007.

So…next time you happen to be in Virginia Beach, riding down Witchduck Road or visiting a friend living on Witchduck Point, give a nod to the lady who endured so much during one of Virginia’s less gracious moments.

Have a good week, dear Reader. Thanks for stopping by...Y'all come back now! 


Kate 

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