Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Witchcraft and colonial courts: CW historian to host discussion on folklore and law

The Herb Garden at Old Donation Episcopal Church, Virginia Beach, Virginia, USA, showing the memorial stone to Grace Sherwood. The stone was dedicated July 10, 2014. (PumpkinSky/Creative Commons)
The memorial stone to Grace Sherwood, who was called the Witch of Pungo. She is the last person known to have been convicted of witchcraft in Virginia. (PumpkinSky/Creative Commons)

With Halloween next week, Colonial Williamsburg is offering a window into what witchcraft looked like in Colonial Virginia.

Historian Carson Hudson is the author of the book “These Detestable Slaves of the Devil,” and will be explaining the practice of witchcraft— and the beliefs of ordinary citizens— in 17th and 18th-century Virginia in the Hennage Auditorium at the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg Wednesday at 4:30 p.m.

Copies of Hudson’s book will be available after the discussion. Colonial Williamsburg will also be hosting the discussion on Halloween at 11:30 a.m.

Hudson said he hopes to inform attendees, shatter misconceptions and “lay down facts” he uncovered through his investigations into Colonial Era witchcraft.

“Witchcraft is a difficult subject to talk about because people have this idea it’s is like Salem, Massachusetts and they’re hanging people left and right,” Hudson said.

Instead, Hudson said there were no judicial executions of witches in Virginia, although a mob did murder one woman accused of witchcraft.

In fact, many of the court cases Hudson studied stemmed from false allegations of the practice of witchcraft— those who had been falsely accused sued their accusers of defamation.

(Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg)

“Here in Virginia they took it very seriously,” Hudson said. “If you accuse somebody of being a witch and you can’t prove it, boy you’re in trouble.”

While citizens in Virginia shared many of the same beliefs as those in New England regarding witches, colonial judges were more critical of accusations of witchcraft than those in Salem, Hudson said.

Hudson said there were two dozen court cases stemming from witchcraft allegations in 17th and 18th century Virginia, and he studied the relevant court and county records to write his book on the history of Virginia witchcraft.

The hysteria over witchcraft seen in Salem never manifested itself in Virginia.

“People have embroidered it with a lot of legends, a lot of untruths, that distorts the story of what happened 300 years ago,” Hudson said.

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