The Witch of Pungo

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.

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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.

Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled GNU Free Documentation License.

Witches' Well

Edinburgh, Scotland is a place steeped in wonderful, rich history. Unfortunately, like most cities that have been prominent for hundreds of years this means Edinburgh is also steeped in blood. Seriously, they even preserved a blood stain (David Rizzio, a personal secretary of Mary Queen of Scots, was stabbed 56 times in front of her…and Holyroodhouse, where it happened, displays it). Anyway, back to this story. Today, I want to talk about the Witches’ Well. The Witches’ Well is a cast iron, small fountain and plaque that honors the Scottish women burned at the stake between the 15th and 18th centuries.

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So many “witches” were burned that there is a plaque apologizing for the horrific events. It isn’t a huge plaque, most people’s eyes usually go right to the castle, but it is an important one. Actually, it didn't begin as a plaque...it used to be a drinking fountain!

But why is it there? In the 16th century more women were murdered at this exact spot than anywhere else in Scotland. Like many witch trials, these people were denied a proper trial or any escape from a fate that had been decided for them long before they had a chance to defend themselves.

Why were so many witches murdered here, at this specific spot during the 16th century? Well, we can partly thank King James VI for that. James really liked being right in a fashionable way. Some sources credit his desire to become an expert in any topical issue of the time – including witchcraft. In fact, before 1590 he barely mentions witchcraft. But, in 1590 specifically…something happened. 300 witches were accused of gathering together to plan the murder of James. James was known to have the specific fear of a violent orhorrible death so, when news of witches acting against him made its way to the castle James, for lack of a more precise term, freaked out. He even wrote an entire book about the subject, called “Daemononlogie”. The purpose of this short book was to express his views on the subject and engage with the witchcraft going on in Europe in an intellectual manner.

Thanks to James, the promise of political gain, and a touch of hysteria between 1603 and 1625, there were about twenty witch trials a year in Scotland,  and 450 in total. At least half of these trials ended in a guilty verdict and the defendants were executed.

The small plaque, usually filled with flowers, features an image of witches’ heads entangled by a snake. It also includes a lot of interesting symbolism, such asthe Goddess Hygeia, Foxglove plant, an image of the head of Aesculapius (the God of Medicine), It was erected in 1894, after witchcraft trials finally waned.  There are also the Roman numerals equivalent to 1479 and 1722, which represent the height of witch hysteria in Scotland.  There is also an accompanying trough, which displays flora roots, the left pnae has an evil eye accompanied by frowning eyes and nose, and the right side depicts a pair of hands holding a bowl with the  ‘hands of’ written above the bowl and ‘healing’ written below.

The plaque was added to in 1912 to include the following inscription:

This Fountain Designed By John Duncan RSA

Is Near The Site On Which Many Witches Were

Burned At The Stake. The Wicked Head And Serene

Head Signify That Some Used Their Exceptional

Knowledge For Evil Purposes While Others Were

Misunderstood And Wished Their Kind Nothing

But Good. The Serpent Has The Dual Significance

Of Evil And Of Wisdom. The Foxglove Spray Further

Emphasises The Dual Purpose Of Many Common Objects.

For hundreds of years Scotland fell to its own pandemic of witch-hunting that was, at one point, supported by their king. Neighbor turned against neighbor. People began to mistrust because of their fear of witches and their fear of being accused. Husbands lost wives, parents lost children, children lost mothers, friends lost friends. Although small, this monument to the horrific history commemorates decades and decades of terror.


Suspected witches kneeling before King James VI; Daemonologie (1597). It is liscensed under public domain. 

The SPANISH Witch Trials

As AL's resident (and self-proclaimed) Witch expert and fanatic, I wanted to bring to your attention another view of the Witch Trials. In the 17th century specifically, there was a huge spike in Witch Trials around the world (although this spike would is merely one jump in the timeline of Witch Trials through history). However, most of the ones stories we hear from that time, especially in America, are of the Salem Witch trials, or Witch Trials in the U.K. and Ireland. But, during this time period, there were Witch Trials going on around the world. Keep reading for a little taste of the Spanish Witch Trials - but, be forewarned, there might be more to come!

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Like I said above, these specific Spanish Witch Trials took place during the 17th century, but were by no means the only Witch Trials to take place in the country's history. They are known as the Basque Witch Trials and the actual trial specifically began in January of 1609, but it was after 2+ years of serious Witch hunting.

Similarly to other Witch Trials during this time period, and throughout history, they were motivated for religious reasons. These trials were specifically to cater to attacking those who still performed 'Pagan' rituals, especially herbalists, healers, and mid-wives. It is important to note that these sorts of people also had special standing and respect in the community, and thus power, that the new government did not like and that threatened Catholicism. This is one of the main reasons these groups of people were so heavily persecuted. Muslims, Jews, and Protestants were also among the accused. 

The Basque word for Witch was "Sorginak", which was also the word for female attendents of the Goddess Mari held a Witches' Sabbath every Friday, these gatherings were called akelarre. Here it was said that Mari and her consort, Sugaar, met in caves to create storms and wreak havoc. More specifically, some of these people had been tried for practicing Witchcraft at Olabidea or Infernuko erreka, which translates to “Hell’s stream.” 

Sorginaks, in particular, share some common Witchlore that will be familiar to many. For example, they could shape-shift into cats and it was said that they specifically bothered Catholic women. More unique to Sorginak's was the fact that they practiced most of their magic in caves, particularly the Zugarramurdi cave.

During this time, roughly 7,000 people in the area were accused of Witchcraft. Of these 7,000, a few thousand were deemed guilty in the initial trial, or remained suspects, and continued on to harsher review. The first phase of these trials ended in 1610, when 31 of the accused people were sentenced. Roughly a dozen of the accused were burnt at the stake. However, it is important to note a fair amount of people succumbed to the torture, which is how many confessions were received, and died without being "properly" tried.

One other interesting thing to note about these trials was the thread of skepticism that moved throughout the trial process and proceedings. The recordings of the trial took up almost 11,000 pages, and it was clear that each of these cases were looked at with a high level of scrutiny. One judge in particular, who was the youngest of the 3 judges and more 'liberal' judge, named Salazar. About the trials in general he believed he had found no substantive proof of witchcraft on his travels, or in the light of pursuing many of the confessions.  This, obviously, did not bode well for Salazar. The two other judges, Alonso Becerra y Holquin and Juan del Valle Alvarado, unsurprisingly  accused Salazar as being in league with the Devil. However, Salazar stayed true to his belief that not only were many of the accused not Witches, but that Witches didn't exist at all and that no one should be further prosecuted. 

This was elevated to the Central Office of the Inquisition, and many in the main office seemed to agree with the younger judge as well. This is likely why, although the huge number of the accused, only about a dozen people were put to death.

The above picture was taken by Flickr user Urko Dorronsoro and is one one of the Witch caves in Basque. It is liscensed under creative commons.