Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Grace Sherwood--Witch of Pungo

Like many women charged with being witches during the seventeenth century, Grace Sherwood was a nonconformist. Said to have been strikingly attractive, she fully admitted to being a healer, herbalist, and a midwife. She owned prime waterfront property in Virginia and wore trousers when she planted crops.

Her troubles began in February 1698. A neighbor by the name of Richard Capps had apparently spread the word that Grace was a witch. With her husband's help, she sued Capps for slander. An agreement was believed to have been worked out as the suit was dismissed one month later.

Six months later, Grace again faced accusations of witchcraft. John Gisburne (a constable of Princess Anne county) and his wife Jane claimed that Grace had "...bewitched their piggs to death and bewitched their Cotton." At the same time, Elizabeth Barnes vowed that Grace had come to her during the night and rode her. She went on to say, "...[Grace] went out of the key hole or crack of the door like a black Catt."

Once again, Grace and her husband sued for defamation of character. The jury found for the defendants, and the Sherwoods were left to pay the court costs.

James Sherwood died in 1701, leaving Grace with a small estate. In 1706, she got into a fight with a neighbor by the name of Elizabeth Hill. Grace ended up suing Elizabeth and her husband Luke for assault and battery. The justices awarded her twenty shillings in damages.

The judgment was a small portion of what Grace had sued for, but the Hills brought accusations of witchcraft, saying that Grace had bewitched Elizabeth. In March, a jury of women searched Grace Sherwood with these findings, "two things like titts wth Severall other Spotts." The forewoman of the jury happened to be Elizabeth Barnes, the same woman who had been involved in a slander suit a few years earlier.

As a result, Grace's case went to the General Court and Attorney General. The charges were returned to the county level with the suggestion that a jury of women again search Grace as well as her house. The jury refused to appear.

In July, the county wished to settle the affair once and for all, and the justices ordered the sheriff to try her by ducking. Later in the month, Grace was lead from her cell where a crowd gathered, chanting, "Duck the witch!" She was stripped to her shift, then tied crossbound with the thumb of her left hand to the big toe of her right foot, and her left thumb to her right big toe. From a boat, she was lowered in a pond, where she floated and was found guilty. Brought to shore, she was searched by a jury of woman. Again, they discovered the two suspicious moles.

Grace was taken into custody. After her release in 1714, she paid the back taxes on her property. Apparently afterward, she lived a quiet life. A will was found dated 1733 and probated in 1740, where she died at the age of 80. On July 10, 2006, 300 years after Grace's ducking, she was pardoned by the 70th Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, Timothy M. Kaine.

Kim Murphy

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