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Grace Sherwood, The last witch to be tried in Virginia


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Grace Sherwood lived in the TIdewater region of Virginia (Virginia Beach area). At that time it was known as Pungo. She was born circe 1660 and died circa 1740. She was the last woman tried for witchcraft in Virginia. She was a midewife, and herbalist. She also was described as a strong willed woman who did not remarry after her husband died, but instead took to running the family farm on her own.


Sherwood was first charged with witchcraft in a court case held in early 1697, in which Richard Capps alleged that she had used a spell to cause the death of his bull. The court made no decision on this charge; the Sherwoods then filed a defamation suit against Capps that was discontinued when the parties came to an agreement. In 1698, Sherwood was accused by her neighbor John Gisburne of enchanting his pigs and cotton crop. No court action followed this accusation, and another action for defamation by the Sherwoods also failed. In the same year Elizabeth Barnes, alleged that Sherwood had assumed the form of a black cat, entered Barnes' home, jumped over her bed, drove and whipped her, and left via the keyhole. Again the allegation was unresolved, and again the subsequent defamation action was lost. For each of the failed actions Sherwood and her husband had to pay court related costs.

According to Richard Beale Davis in his journal article on witchcraft in Virginia, by this time "Princess Anne County had obviously grown tired of Mrs. Sherwood as a general nuisance". In 1705, Sherwood was involved in a fight with her neighbor, Elizabeth Hill.   Sherwood sued Hill and her husband for assault and battery, and on December 7, 1705, was awarded damages of twenty shillings (1 pound shilling). On January 3, 1706, the Hills accused Grace Sherwood of witchcraft, although she failed to answer the charge in court. On February 7, 1706, the court ordered her to appear on a charge of having bewitched Elizabeth Hill, causing a miscarriage.

Proceedings resumed in March 1706; the Princess Anne County justices sought to empanel two juries, both made up of women. The first was ordered to search Sherwood's home for waxen or baked figures that might indicate she was a witch. The second was ordered to look for "demon suckling teats" by examining her. In both instances, reluctance on the part of the local residents made it difficult to form a jury and both juries refused to carry out the search. On March 7, 1706, Sherwood was examined by a jury of 12 "ancient and knowing women" appointed to look for markings on her body that might be brands of the Devil. They discovered two "marks not like theirs or like those of any other woman."The forewoman of this jury was the same Elizabeth Barnes who had previously accused Sherwood of witchcraft.



Neither the colonial authorities in Williamsburg nor the local court in Princess Anne were willing to declare Sherwood a witch.Those in Williamsburg considered the charge overly vague, and on April 16 instructed the local court to examine the case more fully. For each court appearance, Sherwood had to travel 16 miles (26 km) from her farm in Pungo to where the court was sitting.

On May 2, 1706, the county justices noted that while no particular act of maleficum had been alleged against Sherwood, there was "great cause of suspicion". Consequently, the Sheriff of Princess Anne County took Sherwood into custody, though Sherwood could give bond for her appearance and good behavior. Maximilian Boush, a warden of Lynnhaven Parish Church, was the prosecutor in Sherwood's case. On July 5, 1706, the justices ordered a trial by ducking to take place, with Sherwood's consent. but heavy rains caused a postponement until July 10, as they feared the wet weather might harm her health.Sherwood was taken inside Lynnhaven Parish Church, placed on a stool and ordered to ask for forgiveness for her witchery. She replied, "I be not a witch, I be a healer."



At about 10 a.m. on July 10, 1706, Sherwood was taken down a dirt lane now known as Witchduck Road, to a plantation near the mouth of the Lynnhaven River. News had spread, and the event attracted people from all over the colony, who began to shout "Duck the witch!" According to the principles of trial by water, if Sherwood floated she would be deemed guilty of witchcraft; if she did not, she would be innocent. It was not intended that Sherwood drown; the court had ordered that care be taken to preserve her life.

Five women of Lynnhaven Parish Church examined Sherwood's naked body on the shoreline for any devices she might have to free herself, and then covered her with a sack. Six of the justices that had ordered the ducking rowed in one boat 200 yards (180 m) out in the river, and in another were the sheriff, the magistrate, and Sherwood. Just before she was pushed off the boat Sherwood is said to have stated, under clear skies, "Before this day be through you will all get a worse ducking than I."Bound across the body – her right thumb to her left big toe and her left thumb to her right big toe – she was "cast into the river", and quickly floated to the surface. The sheriff then tied a 13-pound (5.9 kg) Bible around her neck. This caused her to sink, but she untied herself, and returned to the surface, convincing many spectators she was a witch. As Sherwood was pulled out of the water a downpour reportedly started, drenching the onlookers. Several women who subsequently examined her for additional proof found "two things like titts on her private parts of a black coller ". She was jailed pending further proceedings.



What happened to Sherwood after her ducking is unclear as many court records have been lost. She served an unknown time in the jail next to Lynnhaven Parish Church, perhaps as long as seven years and nine months. She was ordered to be detained "to be brought to a future trial", but no record of another trial exists, so it is possible the charge was dismissed at some point. On September 1, 1708, she was ordered to pay Christopher Cocke 600 pounds (270 kg) of tobacco for a reason not indicated in surviving records, but there is no mention of the payment. She appears to have been released some time in or before 1714, since in that year she paid back taxes on her 145-acre (59 ha) property—which Virginia Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood helped her to recover from Princess Anne County—off what is now Muddy Creek Road. She lived the remainder of her life quietly until her death in 1740, aged about 80. She is believed to have died in August or September 1740. Her will was proved on October 1, 1740; it noted that she was a widow. She left five shillings each to her sons James and Richard and everything else to her eldest son John.



According to legend, Sherwood's sons put her body near the fireplace and a wind came down the chimney. Her body disappeared amid the embers, with the only clue being a cloven hoofprint. Sherwood lies in an unmarked grave under some trees in a field close to the intersection of Pungo Ferry Road and Princess Anne Road in Virginia Beach. Stories about the Devil taking her body, unnatural storms, and loitering black cats quickly arose after her death, and local men killed every feline they could find; this widespread killing of cats might have caused the infestation of rats and mice recorded in Princess Anne County in 1743.


I had the chance to visit her memorial recently in Virginia Beach.




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That's incredible.

What a different time & what a different world. Ducking is atrocious.

Sad to have wasted so much.

I'm grateful to be where I am.

Thank you for sharing. What was it like to be there & had you read of her before you went?


Hi Moonthorn,


The area has clearly changed so much since the time of her life. Its heavily developed with a hospital, walgreens, car lot (i think), and housing all in the area that the events took place. So it didn't "feel" too different from day to day life. 

I had read of her prior to going to her memorial. I first had heard of her a few years ago when I drove through Virginia Beach, and saw roads and areas called Witchduck or Witch Duck. So I did a little research, and read about her life and trials. This time I have gotten more interested in her. I left offerings of food at her memorial, and spoke to her. I really (personally) feel that she was a witch. Just not the kind that the accusers actually thought she was. 

I wish I could point you to specific evidence to support this feeling, but sadly I can't. It is just the impression I get when i read about her, and when I visited her memorial and made a short drive down to the river that she was ducked into. 


There is a plantation that is open to visitors called the Ferry Plantation, and it is the building she was held in for approximately 8 years after her ducking. It is now said to be haunted by her spirit. I did not get to visit the plantation, but I will be back in the area at the end of May so I am going to try to stop by for a visit.

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