Grace Sherwood - Witchcraze! Persecution of Witches

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Grace Sherwood
Witchcraze! Persecution of Witches

Although New England is most closely associated with witchcraft trials, they occurred elsewhere in the colonies too. The most famous American witch trial not occurring in New England was the case of Grace Sherwood of Virginia, in 1689.

When accused of witchcraft, not filing suit for slander was tantamount to confessing guilt. James Sherwood, a carpenter, and his wife Grace brought suits for slander and defamation against two different neighboring families. Two charges were filed, £100 requested per count, roughly equivalent to $2,000 dollars today. One neighbor had accused Grace of using witchcraft to blight their small cotton crop; the other claimed that Grace had appeared at their farm in the form of a black cat, in which shape she jumped on Elizabeth Barnes, whipped her, and drove her “like a horse,” finally departing through the keyhole not the door.

Both charges of slander and defamation were dismissed; the Sherwoods were fined court costs including those incurred by the entertainment of nine witnesses over four days.

In 1704, Grace, now widowed, reappeared in court charging that another neighbor, Elizabeth Hill, had beaten her. Hill did not deny the charges, claiming she was acting in self-defense as Grace had bewitched her. Grace was awarded £1 in damages but Hill and her husband then charged her with witchcraft in court.

On March 7, 1706, a jury of women was directed to physically search Grace for witches’ marks. The forewoman of this jury was Elizabeth Barnes who, years earlier, had been the woman to claim Grace had ridden her in the form of a black cat. Perhaps not surprisingly, several witch marks were quickly found; Grace was convicted of witchcraft.

There was no precedent for witchcraft trials in Virginia. Grace Sherwood was the first conviction. There were various debates as to who had jurisdiction with no one overly eager to assume responsibility. The Attorney General of the Virginia Colony announced that accusations against Grace had been too vague. Her case was turned over to the Sheriff of Princess Anne County, who ordered Grace’s home searched for evidence and Grace to be subjected to a water ordeal: a witch ducking. Grace was formally ducked in a local lake on July 10, 1706; she managed to stay afloat, which was considered a sure sign of witchcraft. Had she sunk like a stone and drowned, she might have been judged innocent. (The spot where she was thrown into the water is still called Witch Duck Point.)

Grace was brought back to shore; once again she was bodily searched by five elderly women. Grace was ordered to be chained and imprisoned, awaiting further trial. There are no records indicating this trial was ever held. In 1740, her three sons presented the court with their mother’s will and proof of her demise. Her estate included 145 acres of land inherited by her eldest son.