WILLIAMSBURG — This month in history, a legendary woman defended herself in Virginia’s most notorious witch trial.
Grace Sherwood, or the “Witch of Pungo,” was one of a number of women in the 17th and early 18th centuries who were accused of witchcraft for various reasons.
From causing the death of livestock to possessing the ability to transform into an animal, these women faced bewildering accusations that they essentially could not do a thing about.
At the time, women could not represent themselves in court, only able to appear beside their husbands in civil cases where the woman was suing for defamation and slander.
The first time Grace would do this was in 1698 and would go on to be a part of a dozen lawsuits.
Who was Grace Sherwood?
Born Grace White, she was the daughter of a literate carpenter in what would later become Princess Anne County (modern day Virginia Beach).
In 1680, she married James Sherwood, an illiterate, poor man who did not possess any land.
John White gave his son-in-law 50 acres of land when they married, and when he passed away, White left the couple the remainder of his estate.
The Sherwoods had three sons: John, James and Richard, and the lived in the rural community of Pungo.
Grace was described as a beautiful and tall woman, and, though not literate, was quite intelligent.
She was known for wearing pants instead of dresses, and other women were threatened by her attractiveness. This is one of the many traits that historians theorize as to why some witchcraft rumors were spread in the first place.
Grace acted as a midwife and grew herbs to help heal people and animals. She was particularly known for her love of animals.
Grace and her husband were a non-conformist couple.
James never held a position of public trust, Grace wore pants and used herbs for healing, and it was not long before they would face a spread of slanderous accusations from neighbors.
In 1698, Grace was accused by a man named Richard Capps for using witchcraft to cause the death of his bull, leading Grace and James to file a defamation lawsuit against Capps.
That same year, Grace was accused by several neighbors of witchcraft and possessing supernatural powers, including turning into a black cat.
The Sherwoods again sued for defamation, but the lawsuits were dismissed. Despite the dismissal, Grace’s reputation was ruined.
When James died in 1701, Grace did not remarry. This was uncommon for widows at that time.
In 1705, Grace was involved in a dispute with her neighbors, Luke and Elizabeth Hill. Grace sued the couple, claiming that Elizabeth had beaten her, and was awarded financial damages of 20 shillings, though Grace was never able to collect on the reward.
Not wanting his wife’s reputation damaged in the community, Luke decided to take action.
In 1706, Luke petitioned the Governor of Virginia to have Grace tried for witchcraft by his Williamsburg council.
Elizabeth told the court that Grace used her witchcraft to cause her to have a miscarriage.
The Princess Anne County justices were instructed to take the case.
Grace’s property was searched for any evidence of witchcraft and her guilt or innocence was decided upon by a jury of all women.
During the physical examination, the women spotted marks on Grace’s body that they deemed unusual to how other women’s bodies looked.
Still, both the colonial authorities in Williamsburg and the Princess Anne County justices were unable to confirm that Grace was a witch.
On July 5, 1706, the justices ordered a final test: a trial by ducking.
Trial by Ducking
She was cross-bound, from her left thumb to her right toe and right thumb to her left toe, and thrown overboard.
“Ducking” was a commonly used method to declare a woman a witch. The water was blessed, thus considered consecrated. If they floated, they were proven to be a witch because the holy water was trying to expel the evil. If they sunk, then they were innocent and, if they drowned, could then be buried in holy ground.
Witnesses were shocked to see that Grace had somehow freed herself from her binds and swam to the surface. It was not a common thing for people at this time to know how to swim. However, what they failed to take into account was that Grace grew up on the waterway. Uncertain of this result, she was thrown in the water a second time. Once again, Grace came to the surface.
At that point, Princess Anne County felt they had enough evidence to have her tried and convicted of being a witch.
She was taken to jail before being transported to Williamsburg to stand criminal trial.
Though records from the Williamsburg trial have been destroyed, Grace was presumed to have been found guilty and went on to spend about seven years in prison before being released in 1714.
Virginia Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood granted her the official legal title of her property, where she spent the remainder of her life.
She was one of only five female landowners in Virginia.
She lived a quiet, peaceful life on her property until her death in 1740.
Grace Sherwood’s story has been adapted a number of times over the years.
In 1973, Louisa Kyle wrote a collection of children’s stories about the history and legend of Grace called “The Witch of Pungo.”
Colonial Williamsburg’s courtroom drama program, “Cry Witch,” has attracted audiences for years with the live telling of Grace and her trial.
A supernatural horror film, “Pungo: A Witch’s Tale,” was released in 2020.
Grace’s legacy lives on in Virginia Beach through a statue at the corner of N. Witchduck Road and Independence Blvd, near Old Donation Episcopal Church.
The statue depicts Grace with a basket of herbs and a raccoon beside her to represent her love for animals.
Witchduck Road, a major thoroughfare through Virginia Beach, is named in honor of the singular ducking that occurred there 315 years ago.
On July 10, 2006, the local legend was exonerated on the charge of witchcraft by Gov. Tim Kaine in honor of the 300th anniversary of Grace’s ducking.
As for Grace, there are no records, only rumors, as to where she was buried.
With her name cleared, Grace’s legacy forever remains an important piece of Hampton Roads.