Witch lore in the United States is often eclipsed by the infamous Salem Witch Trials. However, there are plenty of interesting stories scattered throughout the United States. One of the most surprising trials took place in Virginia. In 1706, at 10am the townspeople that found her guilty tied Grace Sherwood's thumbs to her big toes, cross-bound, and dropped her into the western branch of the Lynnhaven River near what is now known as Witchduck Point.
It all began in 1698. This is when the first accusation was laid against young Grace Sherwood. She was accused of bewitching a neighbor's crop to fail. Allegations continued to roll in for almost a decade. According to Harper's Magazine "She was a shy, secretive maid, and her neighbors told envious stories of her."
Soon, gossip began to fly. And one tale in particular became the inciting event behind the growing fear of the supposed witch. "[Grace] has crossed the Atlantic to the Mediterranean in an egg-shell, had been pleased with the odor of the rosemary growing on its shores and on her return from this voyage in an open boat had brought some plants for which set out around her cottage." It was because of this lovely little tale that explained why Princess Anne, the town in which Grace lived, was covered with Rosemary. While the townspeople agreed that the rosemary was nice, it was decided that her voyage was "uncanny." They decided that it was "plain that Grace Sherwood was a witch, and ought to be punished."
Despite being a married woman well-liked by the community, she was still accused of witchcraft. The accusations, besides ruining crops, began to mount. For example, John Gisburne claimed she had bewitched his hogs and cotton. She and her husband, James, tried to sue these attackers for slander but lost each time.
One of the accusations, from the actual court documents, reads: "Luke Hill and wife. Against them in December, 1705, Grace Sherwood had brought action for assault and battery, claiming 50 of damages and receiving twenty shillings. What this affray may have had to do with the charge of witch-craft does not appear." It seems people began piling on accusations to the point where they were barely related to witchcraft at all.
At 10am on July 10th, 1706 Grace Sherwood went to trial at the second Princess Anne County Courthouse. It was deemed that she was guilty and that she would be tested by the traditional trial by water.
Trial by water, also known as ducking, consists of being tied cross-bound and dropped into water above her head. If she sunk, she would drown but be innocent and would even be buried on consecrated ground. However, if she floated it was proof that she was a witch.
Grace, surprisingly, floated and survived the ducking. After this, she was retrieved from the water and put in the local jail. However, her survival posed a particular quandary. "There was the law, and there was the evidence. The latter proved that Grace sherwood was a witch, and the former directed that witches should be burned. but then to burn women was a thing unknown in Virginia."
She wasn't released until 1714, at which point she paid the back taxes owed on her property and returned to her farm. She had a fruitful life as a healer, midwife, and friend to all children and animals. She died in the autumn of 1740 at the age of 80, leaving behind three sons.
Today, her memory is honored. 300 years after the incident. Timothy M. Kaine, the governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia pardoned her. In fact, Grace Sherwood is known today as the only deceased person in Virginia to be exonerated. Additionally, in 2007 a stature of Grace Sherwood was unveiled on the lawn at Bayside Hospital. She is within "two tenths of a mile of the old second Princess Anne Courthouse of 1706, the court that tried Grace."
The above image is of Asheville Bridge Creek, known as Muddy Creek when Grace Sherwood lived on its banks. Asheville Bridge Creek on a foggy winter morning. 27 December 2015, Foggy winter morning, by Lago Mar.
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