Va woman seeks to clear Witch of Pungo

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Va. woman seeks to clear Witch of Pungo

VIRGINIA BEACH (AP) — Grace Sherwood was a healer, a midwife and a widowed mother of three sons. Her neighbors thought she also was a witch who ruined crops, killed livestock and conjured storms.

On July 10, 1706, the 46-year-old woman was tied up and "ducked" — dropped into a river — in what is now Virginia Beach. The theory behind the test was that if she sank, she was innocent, although she would also likely drown. She floated — proof she was guilty because the pure water cast out her evil spirit, according to popular belief at the time.

Three hundred years later, a modern-day resident of this resort city has asked the governor to exonerate Sherwood, Virginia's only convicted witch to be tried by water. Belinda Nash, 59, also is raising money to erect a bronze statue of Sherwood and trying to find a place to put it.

"I would like to see her name cleared because I don't believe she was a witch," said Nash, who has an affinity for Sherwood in part because Nash's reputation for having things she wishes for come true have earned her the nickname "Samantha the Witch."

"Otherwise, I'd be ducked (too)," she added with a smile in an interview at the Ferry Plantation House, a historic home where she volunteers as director and, dressed in costume, tells visitors about "poor Grace."

The courthouse where part of Sherwood's witchcraft trial took place was located on the old Ferry farm property, Nash said. Nearby is the Western Branch of the Lynnhaven River, where Sherwood was ducked at a site now known as Witchduck Point. Nash hopes Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine will decide whether to vindicate Sherwood's name by the 300th anniversary of the ducking, which Nash and a small group will commemorate with a re-enactment, as they do yearly, her daughter playing Sherwood. Nash's request was being reviewed, said Kaine's spokesman, Kevin Hall.

"I must say it is odd to be considering a request like this for an individual who's been dead almost 300 years," Hall said.

Virginia never had a witch craze like that in Massachusetts, where 19 colonists were hanged for witchcraft in Salem Town in 1692. Records survive of 15 witchcraft cases in the Virginia colony in the 1600s, with most ending in acquittals, said Frances Pollard, director of library services at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond. A copy of the transcript of Sherwood's trial was among the first items donated to the society, founded in 1831.

No one was executed for witchcraft in Virginia, although Katherine Grady was hanged in 1654 aboard an English ship bound for Virginia when passengers blamed her for causing a storm, Pollard said. The latest Virginia witchcraft case was in 1802 in Brooke County, now part of West Virginia. A couple accused a woman of being a witch and the court ruled that was slander. That was a frequent result in such cases, with people fined for bringing false charges, Pollard said.

"It was pretty clear that Virginia early on tried to discourage these charges being brought of witchcraft because they were so troublesome," Pollard said.

Sherwood seems to be the only accused witch tried by water in Virginia, let alone convicted, Pollard said. Sherwood lived in what today is the rural Pungo neighborhood and she is known as "The Witch of Pungo," the name of a children's book by Louisa Venable Kyle. Her story also is told in "Cry Witch," a courtroom drama at Colonial Williamsburg, the recreated 18th-century capital of Virginia. Nash has been researching Sherwood for more than 20 years, since she moved from Canada to Virginia Beach and wanted to find out the story behind the name of Witchduck Road, near her home. She also goes to schools and portrays Sherwood.

Sherwood was a tall, good-looking and unconventional woman who grew herbs for medicine, owned prime waterfront property and wore trousers — taboo for women at that time — when she planted crops. Nash thinks her neighbors were jealous and made up witchcraft tales to get rid of Sherwood, perhaps to take her land.

"Grace just knew too much," she said.

Sherwood actually went to court a dozen times, either to fight witchcraft charges or to sue her accusers for slander, Nash said. In her final case, she was tried for causing a woman to miscarry. The court had "ancient and knowing women" search Sherwood's body for marks of the devil, Nash said. They found two suspicious moles. Sherwood then consented to be tried by water. She was led from jail and taken by boat 200 yards out in the river. A crowd gathered, chanting "Duck the witch!"

The skies were clear, but Sherwood warned the onlookers, "Before this day be through, you will all get a worse ducking than I," Nash said. Sherwood was tied crossbound — her right thumb to her left big toe and her left thumb to her right big toe — and tossed into the water at 10 a.m. She untied herself and swam to the surface. As she was pulled out of the water, a downpour started, Nash said. What happened next to Sherwood is unclear. Some court records may have been lost to fire.

Records do show that in 1714 she paid back taxes on her property. She may have languished in jail until then and been freed when excitement about witches had passed, Nash said. She moved back to her home and lived quietly until she died at about 80.

Nash had hoped to dedicate the statue on the 300th anniversary, but it will not be ready in time. She has raised about a third of the $92,000 cost, and is waiting to hear whether the city will permit her to put the statue by a school near where the old courthouse stood. The statue will be of a woman with a raccoon by her feet to represent Sherwood's love of animals, Nash said. The woman also carries a basket of rosemary. Legend has it that she sailed to England in an eggshell to gather rosemary and introduce it back home.

Respond in at least one paragraph for each question:

  • How were witchcraft accusations different in Virginia? Compare and contrast these accusations in Virginia and in Massachusetts.

  • Why would one want to clear their ancestor’s name, even though they have been dead for many years? Do you believe this is a worthwhile task, or should they just let the past stay in the past? Explain.

  • Why was Grace Sherwood singled out as a possible witch? In what way did she not conform to expectations of that time period?

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