Near where I grew up, there’s a street called Witchduck Road. It’s called that because there was a “witch” and she had to be “ducked” to find her guilty. Grace Sherwood was tried, and convicted, of witchcraft in Colonial Virginia. Really, she was just a tough lady trying to make it work in a man’s world.
Grace Sherwood was born in 1660, the daughter of a farmer, and in 1680 she married another farmer named James Sherwood and had three sons. They lived, and farmed, in Pungo. The Sherwoods had much better luck than their neighbors several seasons in a row, partly because Grace was very intelligent and knew a great deal about botany and the weather. They were also left a valuable parcel of waterfront land by Grace’s father. After a series of petty conflicts with neighbors over the same things neighbors always fight about, people in the area started to blame any misfortunes they had on Grace, claiming she was practicing witchcraft to kill their livestock and ruin their crops.
In 1697, a farmer named Richard Capp started spreading rumors that Grace had cast a spell to kill his bull. Grace and her husband sued him for defamation of character, and it was settled out of court. Two other neighbors spread similar stories, and James Sherwood unsuccessfully attempted legal action against both of them, which only furthur turned the community against the Sherwoods. Grace was deeply disliked for a variety of reasons, mainly that she was unusually outspoken and independent for a woman of that time period. Because of her knowledge of herbs and growing patterns, she managed to avoid the pitfalls of many other local farmers, and that made them more convinced she was a witch and that she was causing all of their problems. According to some accounts, she was also of mixed-race descent, though not enough is known about her background or appearance to back this up, though it would certainly do a lot to explain why so many were immediately suspicious of her.
It was claimed that Grace regularly transformed herself into a black cat to cause mischief and communicate with Satan. Her worst enemies were Luke and Elizabeth Hill. The Hills claimed to have witnessed Grace practicing witchcraft, and had a strong personal vendetta against her. James Sherwood had sued Luke Hill, possibly over the Hills making accusations against Grace or possibly over an unrelated matter. Many of the relevant records have not survived. The legal matter, whatever it was, seemed to have caused a strong mutual hatred between the two couples.
James died in 1701, and Grace took over running the family farm. She didn’t remarry, or invite a male relative to come and take over, and had inherited a large sum of money along with her land and livestock. Grace was often seen working in men’s clothing, and she ran the business exactly as a man of the era would. But her worst offence, and the one that made it easiest to charge her with witchcraft, was her use of herbal medicine. Without her husband to defend her, the accusations against Grace were spread further and talked about more openly. In 1704, she got into a physical confrontation with Elizabeth Hill and sued the Hills for assault. Grace won, and was awarded fifty pounds sterling, which the Hills apparently tried to get out of paying.
The Hills were furious at her, and plotted their revenge. They brought a charge of witchcraft against her, claiming she had cast a spell on Elizabeth. On February 6, 1706 a warrant was issued for her arrest. Grace was brought before a judge, and a group of women were assigned to look over her body for the marks of a witch. They found several marks which they believed were signs of witchcraft. Or you know, they could have been birthmarks or moles, but whatever. It didn’t help that one of the women on the jury looking for marks was apparently one of the women who had been sued by James Sherwood. The judge apparently didn’t care all that much, and despite finding “evidence” on her body that Grace was a witch, nothing was done about it.
Luke Hill wasn’t going to let that stand, so he contacted the Virginia Attorney General in the capital of Williamsburg. The courts in Williamsburg were not interesting in handling the case, and referred him back to the Princess Anne County courts. Though the Princess Anne County court didn’t really want to try Grace either, Luke kept pressing the matter to both the Attorney General and the county judge. Formal charges were filed in Princess Anne County in the name of the Crown on April 16. A series of hearings were held, where the Hills continued to press their case that Grace was a witch. The Hills probably knew that, even if they lost, the trial would still make Grace miserable by forcing her to make the sixteen-mile journey from her home in Pungo to the county courthouse time and time again. It was decided that the only way to find out for sure if she was a witch or not was to test her by water. Grace agreed to the test, probably because she thought something worse might be in store for her if she didn’t.
It was believed that because water is pure, and witches are not, if you put a witch in water she’ll float while a pure Godly non-witch would sink. And probably drown, though the authorities in Williamsburg apparently told the county sheriff to try and make sure Grace didn’t die. Grace’s thumbs were tied to her big toes and a thirteen pound bible was around her neck, so it’s still the opinion of many historians that she very well could have drowned. But she didn’t drown. Grace was dropped into the Lynnhaven River on July 10, 1706, and she floated. By some accounts she even was able to untie herself and swim to shore. According to legend the sky turned black and erupted into an epic storm the moment Grace’s body touched the water.
Grace was found guilty. She was imprisoned for seven years and nine months. Much of her property was taken by the county, and when Grace was released she was had to sue the county to get most of it back. She was actually quite lucky to get off that easily; nineteen people had been hanged for witchcraft fourteen years earlier in Salem, Massachusetts.
It was hard for a woman in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Because Grace managed to be successful, and run a prosperous business when odds were stacked against her, it meant she was someone to be distrusted. A woman who is too successful must be doing something wrong, especially if she’s tough or outspoken or makes enemies in the process. Grace Sherwood became a legendary figure in Southeast Virginia. She was probably still being gossiped about when she died in 1740, at age eighty, which was quite a long life for a woman in her time and place.
For quite over a century after her death, the mythology about her supported the idea of her being a witch. There were stories of her controlling the weather, of causing pregnant women to miscarry, and that she could transport herself to England at will. It was even believed that rosemary was first brought to Virginia by Grace, after she magically sailed across the ocean in only a few hours.
A statue of Grace Sherwood now stands near the courthouse where she was tried, and the place on the river where she was tested. The church I attend, Old Donation Episcopal Church, is at the location where the courthouse (and jail) once stood. In 2006, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine officially pardoned Grace Sherwood. She wasn’t a witch.