"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, July 18, 2016

Grace Sherwood, the Litigious Witch

Although America's most notorious witchcraft trials took place in Salem in 1692-3, judicial persecution of alleged "witches" lingered for a surprisingly long time. In fact, the state of Virginia's last prosecution took place some years after the Salem hysteria. These unusually tangled proceedings centered around one woman: Grace White Sherwood, who is remembered to this day as the "Witch of Pungo."

Grace was born sometime around 1660. In 1680, she married a planter named James Sherwood. The marriage produced three children: John, James, and Richard. After Grace's husband died in 1701, she inherited his farm, which she managed herself, largely without assistance. She was a strong, capable, independent woman who evidently disdained the idea of remarriage. According to later legend, the practical Sherwood was also in the habit of wearing men's clothes to do her farm work. Such unconventionality was rare at the time, which would have made her an object of puzzled disapproval in some circles. Tradition--whether true or false--has it that Sherwood was also a talented midwife and "healer,"--two professions that traditionally have left a woman vulnerable to charges of sorcery by the more superstitious members of a community.

Sherwood's first known legal dispute was in 1697, when a Richard Capps charged her with "hexing" his bull to death. Sherwood retaliated by bringing a defamation suit against him. The surviving information about the incident is sparse, but it is known that some sort of settlement was worked out between the two parties. The next year, another neighbor accused her of casting spells against his hogs and cotton fields. Sherwood counter-sued for slander, but these efforts to defend herself were tossed out of court. Later that same year, one Elizabeth Barnes declared that Sherwood had taken on the form of a black cat, and then entered Barnes' home and whipped her. Other neighbors, John and Jane Gisburne, asserted that Sherwood "bewitched their piggs to death and bewitched their Cotton." Sherwood filed more defamation suits against these new accusers, again unsuccessfully.

In 1705, Sherwood got into a brawl with a woman named Elizabeth Hill. She sued Hill for assault and battery. This was one of Sherwood's few legal successes: the court awarded her twenty shillings in damages. Hill and her husband retaliated by charging Sherwood with witchcraft. Allegedly, she had "bewitched" Mrs. Hill into suffering a miscarriage.

This charge was taken very seriously by the authorities. A jury of twelve "ancient and knowing women" were ordered to search Sherwood's body for "witches' marks." (The forewoman of this jury was the same Elizabeth Barnes who had earlier described being attacked by Grace the Shape-Shifting Black Cat, which gives one a clue about the impartiality of this tribunal.) These woman reported that Sherwood was "not like them nor noe Other woman that they knew of, having two things like titts on her private parts of a Black Coller, being Blacker than the Rest of her Body."

In May 1706, the court ruled that, although there was no proof Sherwood was a witch, there was still "great cause of suspicion." She was ordered to stand trial.

In a truly medieval touch, county justices ordered that Sherwood undergo "trial by ducking." On July 10, 1706, she was brought to the mouth of nearby Lynnhaven River (now known, predictably enough, as "Witch Duck Bay.") There, she would be bound in a sack, and tossed into the water. If she floated, that would be considered proof that she was a witch. If she sank--vindication! (The one nod to humanity shown in the matter was that several justices stayed near the scene in a rowboat. If she proved herself innocent, they would save her from drowning.)

Legend has it that just before being pushed off the boat, the accused woman told the justices, "Before this day be through you will all get a worse ducking than I."

Sherwood was, perhaps, just too self-reliant for her own good. She not only easily floated on the surface, but she was able to untie her bonds and swim to shore. Even though it had been a clear summer's day, as soon as she was out of the water, a sudden downpour broke out, leaving all the spectators soaking wet. Well. If all that didn't prove she was in league with the Evil One, what would?

Although surviving records do not give many details about what happened next, we know Sherwood was jailed for some period of time--perhaps as long as seven years. There is documented evidence that she was a free woman by 1714. As far as is known, there were no further charges made against her.

All in all, Sherwood was a party--either as defendant or plaintiff--in about a dozen known lawsuits. Sherwood was forced to pay court costs in all these cases. As she was far from wealthy, being accused of witchcraft proved to be a financially ruinous pastime.

Still, Sherwood was more fortunate than many alleged witches of her era. After her release from prison, she recovered her 145-acre property, and appears to have been allowed to live quietly on her farm until she died in 1740, aged about eighty.

The "Witch of Pungo" lived on in local memory. One particularly colorful legend has it that after Sherwood's death, her sons laid her body out near the fireplace. A strange gust of wind rushed in through the chimney, causing her corpse to disappear, leaving only a cloven hoofprint to give a clue to the "witch's" final destination. (The dull truth is that she lies in an unmarked grave near what is now Pungo Ferry Road in Virginia Beach.) Shortly after her death, gossip swept the area that her "familiars," in the shape of black cats, were roaming the town, leading to a widespread massacre of felines. The result of this extermination was a serious rat and mice infestation throughout Princess Anne County, which is about the closest this entire story comes to some measure of justice. To this day, locals assert that Sherwood's ghost still appears at "Witch Duck Bay" on every anniversary of her ducking. A far more charming legend has it that all the rosemary growing in the Virginia Beach area was started by a single cutting planted by Sherwood.

In 2007, a statue of the "Witch of Pungo" was erected in her memory near the courthouse where she stood trial. The year before, Virginia Governor Timothy Kaine had formally overturned her conviction.

By Lago Mar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Better late than never, I suppose.


  1. You would think that an enterprising eighteenth century Perry Mason would have made his fortune by cleverly defending witches throughout North America. He could have confused his opponents by travelling with a white cat...

  2. anydieas why there's a raccoon in the statue?

    1. It's meant to represent her reputed love for animals. Not sure why they chose a raccoon, though.

    2. As she was posing for the sculptor, a raccoon happened to approach her, sculpture-bombing the memorial.

  3. To Pants or not to Pants
    One of the newest and most persistant myths about Grace Sherwood is that she wore men's pants while doing farmwork. This was supposed to be a sign of witchcraft. But people give a practical reason for this. They say that after Grace's husband James died in 1701, she had to do all the heavy work like plowing the field. She would wear her dead husband's pants so she wouldn't get her dress dirty. Or maybe she was scared of getting her skirt caught in that wicked fast plowblade moving at one mile per hour.
    This is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. By 1701 her stepson James Jr. would have been at least 22 years old. (yes stepson, we'll get back to that in another post) Her two sons were in their late teens and big enough to do all sorts of heavy work. Besides of which, who would have cared what some poor farmer's wife was wearing. If it was one of the leading ladies of the parish like Sarah Thorowgood, maybe it would have been an issue. The Sherwood land is a peninsula and can't be seen from the road, so no one would have seen what Grace was wearing. Also, at that time, they didn't own a plow.
    The idea of women wearing men's ctothes being associated with witchcraft originated in the Middle Ages. Joan of Arc was accused of this during her trial in the 1300's. The charge was never used in any of the cases Grace was involved in. It was first put into print in Louisa Venable Kyle's book called The Witch of Pungo and other historical stories. This was in 1973. Belinda Nash borrowed it and used it in her book A Place in Time in 1993.
    One could argue that oral traditions circulate for many years before they are written down. But in Grace's case, most of the myths about her did get written down. The eggshell boat trip to England to get rosemary story comes to mind. It was referenced in a Harper's Weekly article in 1888. The story about the pewter plates and Grace using them to fly is also very old. It first appeared in print in the William and Mary Quarterly in 1895. The smoke and black cat through the keyhole story is part of the original narrative. Grace sued the Barnes for slander over that story being spread by them.
    So this idea of Grace wearing pants is purely the invention of Louisa Venable Kyle. The story about the 13 pound bible put around Grace's neck when she was ducked also originated from Kyle. In the older witch ducking stories, a millstone is hung around the neck to help the accused sink and prove her innocence. In either case, it would be grounds for a mistrial and probably wasn't ever done.
    So now, many people in our area reference these myths as if they were really part of the historical narrative. By spreading these myths, people are doing more harm to Grace's reputation than the people in her lifetime who also slandered her.
    I urge anyone who is interested in this stuff to check the book out of the library and read the whole thing in context. It was written as a children's fairy tale story.

  4. I would like to know more about James, Jr. being a stepson, as he is my 8th great-grandfather.

  5. William- can you reference where you found this info? I just discovered that Grace Sherman is my 9th great-grandmother!
    Judy- we might be related then!


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