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Old women talk about old things: history, myth, magic and their
checkered pasts, about what changes and what does not.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Witch Trials of Virginia

In North America, most people think of Salem when witch trials are mentioned, but Virginia has the dubious honor of holding the first such trial on the continent. Thirteen women and two men are known to have been tried for the crime. Thanks to the Civil War, many records were likely lost, but most of those accused were found not guilty and often turned the tables on the accuser by successfully suing for defamation of character.

In September 1626, Joan Wright was the first person in Virginia to have been tried for being a witch. Goody Wright was most likely a cunning woman. Because few in the seventeenth century could afford physicians and those who could often didn't trust them, cunning folk were popular healers for the masses. Joan engaged in foretelling the future and was a midwife. Also, she was left handed, which further helped her accusers to place blame on her being in league with the devil.

On at least three occasions, Joan prophesied that certain individuals would bury their spouses, which indeed came to pass. In another case, she attended the birth of Lieutenant Giles Allington's wife. Due to Joan's left handedness, Allington's wife distrusted her and a second midwife also assisted.

After the delivery, the woman grew sore in the breast (most likely an infection) and was bedridden for weeks. Soon after, the lieutenant himself fell sick as did the child. Goody Wright was accused of witchcraft for these incidents and several others. The record is unclear as to what punishment, if any, she might have received, or even if she was found guilty. However, she was fined one hundred pounds of tobacco for an unspecified act.

Katherine Grady has the unfortunate distinction of being the only person executed in the colony for the offense. In 1654, she was en route from England to Virginia when a violent storm hit. Such disturbances were often associated with witchcraft. Of the passengers, Kath Grady, an elderly woman, apparently best fit the description of a sorceress. Detailed accounts either went unrecorded or were lost, but the captain hung the woman during the storm. Although technically she hadn't arrived on Virginia's shores, the case fell under its jurisdiction, where the captain reported upon reaching the Jamestown port.

Reverend David Lindsay emigrated from Scotland, a country with many witch trials, and accused William Harding of witchcraft in 1656. Harding was sentenced with thirteen lashes of the whip and ordered to leave the county. The records fail to reveal why he had been found guilty.

Other cases included the usual bewitching of horses, cows, and chickens. Some women were inspected for witch marks on their bodies, but only one other case had any serious accusations. The most famous witch in Virginia's history is Grace Sherwood. Like many women charged with being witches during the seventeenth century, she was a nonconformist. Said to have been strikingly attractive, she fully admitted to being a healer, herbalist, and a midwife. She owned prime waterfront property and wore trousers when she planted crops.

Her troubles began in February 1698. A neighbor, Richard Capps, had spread gossip that Grace was a witch. With her husband's help, she sued Capps for slander. An agreement was likely worked out as the suit was dismissed soon after.

Six months later, Grace again faced accusations. John Gisburne (a constable of Princess Anne county) and his wife Jane claimed that Grace had "...bewitched their piggs to death and bewitched their Cotton." At the same time, Elizabeth Barnes vowed that Grace had come to her during the night and rode her. She went onto say, "...[Grace] went out of the key hole or crack of the door like a black Catt."

Once again, Grace and her husband sued for defamation of character. The jury found for the defendants, and the Sherwoods were left to pay the court costs.

James Sherwood died in 1701, leaving Grace with a small estate. In 1706, she got into a fight with a neighbor by the name of Elizabeth Hill. Grace ended up suing Elizabeth and her husband Luke for assault and battery. The justices awarded her twenty shillings in damages.

The judgment was a small portion of what Grace had sued for, but the Hills brought accusations of witchcraft, saying that Grace had bewitched Elizabeth. In March, a jury of women searched Grace Sherwood with these findings, "two things like titts wth Severall other Spotts." The forewoman of the jury happened to be Elizabeth Barnes, the same woman who had been involved in a slander suit a few years earlier.

As a result, Grace's case went to the General Court and Attorney General. The charges were returned to the county level with the suggestion that a jury of women again search Grace as well as her house. The jury refused to appear.

In July, the county wished to settle the affair once and for all, and the justices ordered the sheriff to try her by ducking. Later in the month, Grace was led from her cell where a crowd gathered, chanting, "Duck the witch!" She was stripped to her shift, then tied crossbound with the thumb of her left hand to the big toe of her right foot, and her left thumb to her right big toe. From a boat, she was lowered in a pond, where she floated and was found guilty. Brought to shore, she was searched by a jury of woman. Again, they discovered the two suspicious moles.

Grace was taken into custody. After her release in 1714, she paid the back taxes on her property. Apparently afterward, she lived a quiet life. A will was found dated 1733 and probated in 1740, where she died at the age of 80. On July 10, 2006, 300 years after Grace's ducking, she was pardoned by the 70th Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, Timothy M. Kaine.

Kim Murphy

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