Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Grace Sherwood: The Witch of Pungo


More than 300 years ago, a series of strange events struck old Princess Anne County, Va. farmers.

Cotton plants withered. Cows' milk dried up. Husbands' eyes wandered from their wives.

Who was to blame? According to the local women, Grace Sherwood.

The farmer's wife knew a little too much about herbs, was a little too pretty and wore clothing that was a little too tight, according to local historians. So they accused her of witchcraft.

A judge ordered Sherwood to be tried by ducking. So on July 10, 1706, with her thumbs tied to her big toes, Sherwood was ducked in the Lynnhaven River.

The street leading to her ducking spot now carries her legend as Witchduck Road.

"It's named after Grace Sherwood's ducking," said local historian Deni Norred, who co- wrote "Ghosts, Witches and Weird Tales of Virginia Beach." "She was the first person tried by water in Virginia for witchcraft."

Sherwood escaped her bonds and swam to safety, which the court considered proof of her devilish dealings. The day's wisdom dictated that an innocent woman would have sunk, Norred said.

Sherwood served several years in jail before returning to her three sons. She lived to be nearly 80 and died at her farm in Pungo around 1740.

Witchduck Road isn't the only landmark named after Sherwood or her trial. There's also Witch Duck Bay, Witch Duck Point, Witch Point Trail and Sherwood Lane.

Eight years ago, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine exonerated Sherwood. A bronze statue at Sentara Bayside Hospital, located on the corner of Independence Boulevard and North Witchduck Road, honors her legend.

But according to local stories, that legend isn't quite over. Some say Sherwood returns to visit her ducking spot every July and can be seen as a spot of light dancing on Witch Duck Bay.

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Grace Sherwood's Story

Early court records tell the tale of Grace Sherwood, who was tried in 1706 as Virginia Beach's first witch. Unfortunately, there are no existing images of Grace. Her story is perhaps the most fascinating of the folklore in the history of Tidewater. Witchcraft was a very serious and real thing to the colonists. The cult was believed to be a threat to the Christian Church, and everyone during the early 1700's was on the lookout for witches, who could be recognized by so-called unusual or mysterious behaviors.

Grace lived her entire life in the Pungo area of Virginia Beach (named for Indian chief Machiopungo), and married James Sherwood with whom she had three sons. She was said to be strikingly attractive, string-willed, and a non-conformist by nature. These traits were resented by her neighbors, who began spreading rumors about her witch-like behavior. She was accused of blighting gardens, causing livestock to die, and influencing the weather.

After eight years of constant slander and bickering by her neighbors, Grace was formally charged with suspicions of witchcraft. A jury of women were ordered to search her body for suspicious or unusual markings, thought to be brands of the devil himself, and naturally the jury found, "marks not like theirs or like those of any other women." However, neither the local court nor the Attorney General in Williamsburg, would pass judgment on declaring her a witch. It was finally decided that Grace, "by her own consent, be tried in the water by Ducking, (dunking)." Water was considered to be the purest element and the theory was that it would reject anything of an evil nature. Based on this theory, the accused was tied up and thrown into the water. If the person drowned, he was declared innocent of witchcraft; if he could stay afloat until he could free himself, he was declared a witch.

On July 10, 1706, Grace was marched from the jail (which located near the present day site of Old Donation Church) down the dirt road (now Witch Duck Road) to the Lynnhaven River. This portion of the river has since been named Witch Duck Bay in memory of the occasion. This being a big event, hoards of people from all over the colony flocked to the scene as news of the Ducking had spread throughout the Commonwealth.

Grace Sherwood was tied crossbound with the thumb of her right hand to the big toe of her left foot, and the thumb of her left hand to the big toe of her right foot, and thrown into the water. As predicted by her accusers, Grace managed to stay afloat until she could free herself and swim to shore. She was jailed and awaiting trial for witchcraft for nearly eight years, when the charges against her were dropped due to the softening of her accusers hearts, and she was set free. She moved back to her Pungo home and lived there until her death at the age of 80.

Many stories have been told and retold over the years about this most remarkable woman. One of the many tall tales that have been handed down from generation to generation has to do with the day of her ducking. When they led Grace Sherwood through the crowd that had turned out to see her put into the water she told them, "All right, all of you po' white trash, you've worn out your shoes traipsin' here to see me ducked, but before you'll get back home again you are goin' to get the duckin' of your life." When they put Grace into the water the sky was as bright blue as a bird's wing, but immediately afterward it grew pitch black, the thunder rolled and the lightning flashed all across the heavens. The terrified people started for home, only to be washed off the roads and into the ditches by a regular cloudburst. - madblood.net / hamptonroads.com / virginiabeachhistory.org

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ca. 1660 - Grace White is born to John White, a carpenter, and his wife, Susan. Though the exact location of her birth is unknown, it is likely in the Virginia Beach area.

ca. 1680 - Grace White marries James Sherwood, a farmer. They will have three sons: John, James, and Richard. John White, Grace's father, gives his son-in-law fifty acres of land.

May 11, 1681 - The will of John White, father of Grace Sherwood, is proved. White leaves all of his land to his son-in-law James Sherwood.

1698 - James and Grace Sherwood sue John and Jane Gisburne and Anthony and Elizabeth Barnes for defamation and slander. The Sherwoods allege that both couples accused Grace Sherwood of practicing witchcraft.

September 1701 - By this time, James Sherwood has died. His wife, Grace, never remarries.

December 12, 1705 - Grace Sherwood sues Luke and Elizabeth Hill for assault and battery. Sherwood wins the case and is awarded twenty pounds sterling.

January 1706 - Luke Hill formally charges Grace Sherwood with witchcraft.

March 1706 - In response to Luke Hill's charge of witchcraft against Grace Sherwood, the Princess Anne County Court impanels a jury of women, including Elizabeth Barnes, to search Sherwood's body for witch's marks. The jury finds two marks, and Sherwood is ordered to jail to await trial.

July 10, 1706 - Grace Sherwood undergoes a water test to determine whether she is guilty of the charge of witchcraft. Sherwood floats, indicating her guilt, and once ashore is examined for witch's marks. A jury of women finds two marks. Sherwood is imprisoned and ordered to undergo another trial. It is unclear whether the second trial ever occurred.

September 1, 1708 - Grace Sherwood pays a debt of 600 pounds of tobacco to another colonist.

1714 - Grace Sherwood petitions the secretary of the colony for restoration of her property to her. He grants her the 144 acres that the Sherwoods inherited from Grace's father, John White, in 1681.

October 1, 1740 - Grace Sherwood's will is proved. Her son John Sherwood is the executor of her will and inherits most of her land and her belongings.

1973 - Louisa Venable Kyle publishes a children's book, The Witch of Pungo. Her short story of the same name revives Grace Sherwood's popularity in southeastern Virginia.

July 10, 2006 - Three hundred years after Grace Sherwood was found guilty of witchcraft by water trial, Governor Timothy Kaine pardons her. During an annual reenactment of Sherwood's trial, Virginia Beach mayor Meyera E. Oberndorf declares July 10 to be celebrated henceforth as Grace Sherwood Day.

2007 - A bronze statue of Grace Sherwood, sculpted by Robert G. Cunningham, is placed in front of Sentara Bayside Hospital in Virginia Beach. - encyclopediavirginia.org

Witchcraft Myths in American Culture

Mysteries and Legends of Virginia: True Stories of the Unsolved and Unexplained (Myths and Mysteries Series)

The Witch of Pungo and other historical stories of the early colonies

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