Sherwood, Grace

Sherwood, Grace

(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 claimed damages of fifty pounds (the equivalent of about one thousand dollars today). Capps apologized and the matter was settled out of court. No details of the charges were recorded. However, six months later the Sherwoods were back in court, this time with two suits for slander, asking one hundred pounds on each count. The first suit was against husband and wife John and Jane Gisburne, claiming that Jane "slandered, wronged, and abused" Grace Sherwood. Further, Jane said that Grace was a witch and that she had cast a spell that had blighted the small crop of Gisburne cotton.

The second case claimed that another husband and wife—Anthony and Elizabeth Barnes—had similarly wronged and abused Grace by declaring that she appeared at the Barnes's farm in the shape of a black cat. In that form, they said, Grace jumped on Elizabeth as she lay in her bed, then drove and whipped her "as a man does a horse." Grace finally left the room by way of the keyhole!

Both cases were dismissed, however, and the judge assessed James and Grace the cost of attendance and the entertainment of nine witnesses for four days.

For the next few years things remained quiet in Princess Anne County. James Sherwood died, leaving Grace with three sons: John, James, and Richard.

In the fall of 1704 Grace Sherwood appeared in court once again, this time demanding fifty pounds in damages. She charged that Elizabeth Hill assaulted her, bruising and beating her "to great damage." Elizabeth did not deny the charge. In fact, she asserted that Grace bewitched her, causing her to strike back in defense. Grace was awarded twenty shillings (or one pound). But Elizabeth and her husband, Luke, turned the tables. They immediately took Grace to court, charging her with witchcraft.

Up to this point Grace Sherwood had always been the plaintiff; now she was the defendant. On March 7, 1706, the sheriff provided a jury of "discreet and knowing women" who were to physically examine Grace and report their findings. The women were to search Grace for any mark on her body: moles, warts, pimples, or any type of blemish. Such a blemish was believed to be a mark of the Devil, where the witch suckled her imp familiar.

At the end of the seventeenth century, Scotland, France, and to a lesser extent England were still staggering under the hysterical persecutions. In the New World, in Boston, the Goodwin family's Irish washerwoman, Goody Glover, was accused of witchcraft by the family's children, found guilty, and hung. In nearby Salem village, nineteen people were hung and one man was pressed to death. In Connecticut various women were charged; many were found guilty, but most were acquitted. In total, nine women and two men were hung there. But in Virginia the authorities were more tolerant.

The justices were Captain Henry Chapman, Mr. John Cornick, Captain George Hendcock, Colonel Edward Moseley, Mr. Jno. Richason, Mr. William Smith, Major Henry Sprat, Lieutenant Adam Thorrowgood, and Captain Horatio Woodhouse. Ann Bridgets, Mary Burgess, Mary Catle, Winiford Davis, Hannah Dimis, Sarah Goodaerd, Ursula Henly, Sarah Norris, Sarah Sergeent, Margaret Watkins, and Exable Waplies comprised the jury of women searchers. The forewoman was none other than Grace Sherwood's old enemy Elizabeth Barnes. The women quickly found "several spots" on her body signifying that "she was not like them." The justices had no hesitation in finding Grace guilty.

The case was without precedent in Princess Anne County, and in fact all of Virginia. Colonel Moseley and his fellow justices did not know how to proceed. Eventually they advised Luke and Elizabeth Hill to take their complaint to the Governor's Council at Williamsburg. This Council was likely the most distinguished, influential body of men in the colonies before the Revolutionary War, its members appointed by the king to hold office for life and awarded the gratuitous title of "colonel." In April 1706 the members were Colonels William Bassett, James Blair, Robert Carter, William Churchill, John Custis, Dudley Digges, Henry Duke, Benjamin Harrison, Edmund Jennings, John Lightfoot, and Philip Ludwell. They listened to the Hills's story and examined their papers. They conferred briefly, then, with due ceremony, referred the Hills to the Attorney General.

After reviewing the case, the Attorney General announced that he thought the accusations against Grace Sherwood were far too vague. He decided that Colonel Edward Moseley and his court should handle the affair, and he withdrew his involvement. Luke and Elizabeth Hill returned to Princess Anne County and the justices there.

Sheriff Shallows was ordered to search Grace Sherwood's home for items such as poppets, "images and such like things," and report back when the court reconvened in May. Meanwhile, the decision was made to conduct a witch ducking of Grace Sherwood. The theory at that time was that water, being the element of baptism, would accept good and reject evil. Therefore an accused witch would sink if innocent and float if guilty. If she did indeed sink, she would be pulled out before she drowned. The court set the date of July 5, 1706, for the ducking.

When the date arrived, bad weather caused the sheriff to postpone the event for a week. On Wednesday July 10, 1706, the court assembled on a point of land on Lynnhaven Bay, on John Harper's plantation. Sheriff Shallows stood by with men and boats. Grace Sherwood was bound in the traditional manner for a witch ducking: her right thumb was tied to her left big toe and her left thumb to her right big toe. She was then taken out in one of the boats to where the water was "above man's depth," and tossed over the side. Perhaps because of the air trapped in the voluminous clothing she wore, Grace managed to stay afloat. She was hauled back into the boat and taken to the shore. There she was again searched, by "five ancient women who have all declared on oath that she is not like them nor other woman that they know of." Grace was then ordered by the court to be secured in irons and held in jail for further trial.

The further trial never materialized, according to the records of Princess Anne County. In 1740 Grace's three sons presented her will, together with proof of her death. She left 145 acres of land to the eldest and a small legacy to the others. There is no record of her age, although she was almost certainly about eighty when she died. Today the spot where she was thrown into the water is still known as Witch Duck Point.

The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism © 2002 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.