Swimming a Witch

Enlarge picture
Swimming a witch, 1613. Courtesy Fortean Picture Library.

Swimming a Witch

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

In 1689, in the newly formed Princess Anne County of Virginia, carpenter James Sherwood and his wife Grace brought suit against a neighbor, Richard Capps, for defamation of character. They won the suit but six months later were back in court with two separate suits for slander against other neighbors. Apparently the neighbors of the Sherwoods believed strongly that Grace was a witch. In 1704 Grace was back in court again as a plaintiff, but two years later, neighbors turned the tables and took Grace to court on a charge of witchcraft. The trial dragged on for some time before Grace Sherwood was found guilty, and it dragged further before any sentence was carried out.

To confirm Grace's guilt it was decided to "swim" or "duck" her. The theory was that water, the element of baptism, would only accept good and would reject evil. Therefore, if a witch was thrown in the water and she floated, her guilt was confirmed. She could then be dragged out and executed. On the other hand, if she sank, she was indeed innocent; it was hoped that she could be pulled out and rescued before she drowned. Grace Sherwood floated, although it was probably due to the air trapped in her voluminous clothing.

Swimming a witch was a common procedure for determining probable guilt. In Daemonologie, 1507, King James stated: "It appears that God hath appointed, for a supernatural sign of the monstrous impiety of the witches, that the water shall refuse to receive them in her bosom, that have shaken off them the sacred water of baptism and wilfully refused the benefit thereof."

In Discovery of Witches (1647), Matthew Hopkins stated: "If a man charges another with black magic and has not made his case good, the one who is thus taxed shall go to the river and plunge into the water. If the river overcometh him, then shall his accuser possess his property. If, however, the river prove him innocent and he be not drowned, his accuser shall surely be put to death, and the dead man's property shall become the portion of him who underwent the ordeal." The method of preparing the person for swimming involved tying the right thumb to the left big toe and the left thumb to the right big toe. This was known as being "cross bound."

The first official use of the swimming test in England occurred in Northampton in 1612 against Arthur Bill and his parents. The last use was in Leicester in 1717 against a mother and daughter who, it was recorded, "swam like a cork, a piece of paper, or an empty barrel, though they strove all they could to sink." Although swimming a witch was later banned, many people took the law into their own hands; in 1751 two beggars, husband and wife, were drowned at Longmarston, Northamptonshire. As recently as 1865 a mob swam an elderly deaf and dumb Frenchman who subsequently died.