April 14, 2008

Grace Sherwood The Witch of Pungo Virginia

I have had a fasination with witches since I was a small child. I first heard about Grace Sherwood as a teenager. I attended high school not far from where her home stood. I remember a group of us kids riding out to the old house when it was still standing. It was an eerie feeling. I put my thoughts of Grace on the back burner for years, until my own children came along. Once again her name came to mind. After all she is a local legend. When my oldest was young I bought a book entitled The Witch of Pungo. It told the story of Grace along with other local history. My kids grew up hearing about her. I never forgot her. I have gone down the road where she was dunked in the river many times.

Here is her story.

Grace Sherwood was the wife of James Sherwood and the mother to three sons. She was said to be strikingly attractive, strong-willed, and a non-conformist by nature. These traits were resented by her neighbors, who began spreading rumors about her witch-like behavior. Being a very tall woman, she was threatening to many. She wore men’s pants and did not wear dresses.
She was accused of bewitching a neighbor's crop in 1698. Allegations grew over time until the Princess Anne County government charged her with 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 Sherwood, was marched from the jail (which is located near the present day site of the local Old Donation Church) down the dirt road (now the every day traveled Witchduck Road), tied and cast into the Lynnhaven River. This portion of the river has since been named Witch Duck Bay in memory of the occasion. 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. After she reached the shore she told the on lookers."Before this day be through, you will all get a worse ducking than I!". A torrential thunderstorm rolled in after Sherwood was pulled from the water. She was jailed and awaited 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. After her release, Grace paid the back taxes on her property in 1714, returned to her farm, and worked the land until her death at age 80 in the autumn of 1740. Her husband had died in 1701, so her children had been sent away to live with relatives. Grace Sherwood, Virginia's only convicted witch tried by water.

On Saturday, April 21, 2007 After 300 years to the hour, at 10 a.m., Grace Sherwood was exonerated by Governor Timothy Kaine.

Grace Sherwood is known today, 300 years belated, as the only deceased person in Virginia to be exonerated.

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