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Virginia Governor Pardons Witch

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. – 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’d also likely drown.

She floated – apparently proof she was guilty because the pure water cast out her evil spirit. After being hauled out and jailed, she lived quietly until her death at 80, Virginia’s only person tried by water for witchcraft and convicted.

That changed Monday – the 300th anniversary of the ducking – after a little magic from the governor. VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (July 11) – 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’d also likely drown.

She floated – apparently proof she was guilty because the pure water cast out her evil spirit. After being hauled out and jailed, she lived quietly until her death at 80, Virginia’s only person tried by water for witchcraft and convicted.

That changed Monday – the 300th anniversary of the ducking – after a little magic from the governor. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine [pictured] made the conviction disappear – poof! – by granting an informal pardon just before a re-enactment of Sherwood’s being dropped into the Lynnhaven River.

“With 300 years of hindsight, we all certainly can agree that trial by water is an injustice,” Kaine wrote. “We also can celebrate the fact that a woman’s equality is constitutionally protected today, and women have the freedom to pursue their hopes and dreams.”

Kaine spokesman Kevin Hall said the exoneration was “a gesture of goodwill” for local resident Belinda Nash, 59, who has been researching Sherwood for years and asked for the governor to exonerate the woman.

Nash said she hopes Kaine’s action will now help her erect a bronze statue of Sherwood, a picture of which she unveiled Monday.

“Every time it seemed that people said, ‘We don’t want a statue of a witch,”‘ said Nash, who has raised about a third of the $92,000 cost. “Well, now she is no longer a statue of a witch.”

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. The latest Virginia witchcraft case was in 1802 in Brooke County, now part of West Virginia.

No one was executed for witchcraft in Virginia, although Katherine Grady was hanged in 1654 aboard a ship bound for Virginia when passengers blamed her for causing a storm, Pollard said.

Sherwood lived in what today is the rural Pungo neighborhood and she’s 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.

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. A search of Sherwood’s body for marks of the devil uncovered two suspicious moles.

Sherwood then consented to be tried by water.

Records 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.

Monday’s re-enactment ceremony was attended by about 60 people and took place in front of the Ferry Plantation House, a historic home where Nash volunteers as director and, dressed in costume, tells visitors about Sherwood.

Nash’s daughter, Danielle Sheets, was tied cross-bound, her thumbs to her toes, and placed in a small boat, just as Sherwood would have been.

“I be not a witch. I be a healer,” Sheets shouted, in character. “Before this day be through, ye will all get a worse ducking than I.”

made the conviction disappear – poof! – by granting an informal pardon just before a re-enactment of Sherwood’s being dropped into the Lynnhaven River.

“With 300 years of hindsight, we all certainly can agree that trial by water is an injustice,” Kaine wrote. “We also can celebrate the fact that a woman’s equality is constitutionally protected today, and women have the freedom to pursue their hopes and dreams.”

Kaine spokesman Kevin Hall said the exoneration was “a gesture of goodwill” for local resident Belinda Nash, 59, who has been researching Sherwood for years and asked for the governor to exonerate the woman.

Nash said she hopes Kaine’s action will now help her erect a bronze statue of Sherwood, a picture of which she unveiled Monday.

“Every time it seemed that people said, ‘We don’t want a statue of a witch,”‘ said Nash, who has raised about a third of the $92,000 cost. “Well, now she is no longer a statue of a witch.”

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. The latest Virginia witchcraft case was in 1802 in Brooke County, now part of West Virginia.

No one was executed for witchcraft in Virginia, although Katherine Grady was hanged in 1654 aboard a ship bound for Virginia when passengers blamed her for causing a storm, Pollard said.

Sherwood lived in what today is the rural Pungo neighborhood and she’s 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.

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. A search of Sherwood’s body for marks of the devil uncovered two suspicious moles.

Sherwood then consented to be tried by water.

Records 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.

Monday’s re-enactment ceremony was attended by about 60 people and took place in front of the Ferry Plantation House, a historic home where Nash volunteers as director and, dressed in costume, tells visitors about Sherwood.

Nash’s daughter, Danielle Sheets, was tied cross-bound, her thumbs to her toes, and placed in a small boat, just as Sherwood would have been.

“I be not a witch. I be a healer,” Sheets shouted, in character. “Before this day be through, ye will all get a worse ducking than I.”

 

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