When Virginia Ducked Milady Witch
Old Dominion's Justice Was Dispensed With Touch of Superstition
in Those Far-Off Colonial Days
and Narrowly Escaped a Blot on Its Escutcheon
By Beverly Campbell
The abiding fear of the Devil and his minions that prevailed among the religious exiles of New England during the early part of the Eighteenth Century found but little echo in the Virginia Colony. However, Virginia did not wholly escape from the fear of witches; but her witch-terrors found their sources in folk-lore more than in theology. The incident with which this story deals is the outstanding instance of the Virginians acting Salem-wise. The story is a true story in very major particular, including names, save that of Mr. Peyton, who is purely a ficticious character. The place the scene was enacted bears the name today of "Witch Duck Point." Rosemary abounds in the neighborhood, and one is told that the witch who plays the important role in our story brought the fragrant shrub "in an eggshell" out of England to Princess Anne County. But less lovely accusations than this were made by her contemporaries, and what happened is a genuine bit of folk-lore as one will find anywhere in America
All roads in Princess Anne County led to New Town on this fifth day of July, in the year 1706. It was court day, and such days meant much to the Tidewater folks. The church, weddings, funerals, market days, the arrival and departure of ships, the landing of immigrants, were of utmost importance to them, and court days were red letter days. However this court day was indeed a real occasion. A woman was to be tried for witchcraft. The whole county was disturbed. Nothing had so upset the even temper of their ways since Mr. Bacon and his followers had rebelled against the autocratic government of the tyrant Governor Berkeley.
Grace Sherwood was a witch--had sold herself, body and soul to the devil--had exercised supernatural powers to cast spells--was going around bewitching people. So the rumors grew. Today the accusations were to be heard before the justices and Grace Sherwood was to be tried on a suspicion of witchcraft.
The woman was not unknown to her neighbors. She was born and raised in the adjoining country and kept house there for her father, John White, who worked at his trade of carpentering during the winter months and tended his small farm during the planting and harvesting seasons. In time Grace had grown up and married James Sherwood, a respected citizen, who had a small farm here in Princess Anne, six head of fat cattle, two good steers and a comfortable cottage. She had made James Sherwood a good wife, up to his death five years previous. Since then she had managed her small estate with the aid of her three young sons.
This suspicion of being a witch and of having dealings with the devil, had been maliciously started two years before the death of her late husband, and for seven years Grace Sherwood and her brood had lived apart, shunned by her neighbors because of the evil spells she was thought to be able to cast upon them. On two other occasions Grace Sherwood had been publically accused in court of exercising supernatural powers of evil, however no evidence had been submitted to satisfy the minds of the justices that the accusation was a just one. Now the matter was to be settled once for all.
* * *
Despite the fact that on this July day a steady rain had been falling since long before daybreak, yet people from far and near were gathered for the trial, and the small courtroom was crowded to its utmost capacity when the clerk made his proclamation announcing the court in session.
The presiding justice had taken his seat and was now calmly surveying the assemblage. He was a hale, hearty old gentleman, with a close cropped Van Dyke beard, dressed entirely in black velvet, with ruffles at his wrist and broad, shining silver buckles at his knees and shoes, and much addicted to taking snuff, a small box for which now stood on the table in front of him. He was a lively old gentleman, though quite grave on the present occasion.
The court having come to order, he sat erect in his chair and addressed the sheriff: "Grace Sherwood, of this county has been complained of as a person suspected of being a witch. Let her now be brought before this court for examination."
Immediately the door of the anti-room was thrown open and a deputy entered bringing Grace Sherwood. Whatever grounds there were for the accusation of being a witch, Grace Sherwood certainly possessed none of the appearance of one. She was a middle-aged woman, full, round and plump. She had a motherly face, brown hair turning slightly gray, and mild hazel eyes that bespoke a kindly nature. Obviously she was much frightened and her face of an ashen paleness. She was dressed in a tidy black dress, wore a white apron, and a bunch of keys dangled at her side.
She was brought forward and seated in the appointed place. On the opposite side of the room sat Mr. Maxwell Boush, the Queen's attorney, and Luke Hill and his wife, the accusers. Both Hill and his wife were tall, thin, raw-boned persons, whose sharp, crafty features inidicated far less of human kindness than those of the woman they sought to prosecute.
The justice cleared his throat, took a pinch of snuff, then addressed the prosecuting attorney: "This court requests Mr. Maxwell Boush, as council in behalf of our Sovereign Lady, the Queen to present the information against Grace Sherwood in order that she be brought to a regular trial."
Mr. Boush seemed a little uneasy and rather in awe of the justice as he rose from his chair and carefully selected a paper from which he read aloud in a clear scholarly voice: "Whereas, an information in behalf of her Majesty was presented by Luke Hill to the court in pursuance to Mr. General Attorney Tomson's report, and on His Excellency's order in council on the sixteenth of last April, about Grace Sherwood being suspected of witchcraft. There have thereupon been sworn several evidences against her by which it doth very likely appear. And whereas, for several things have been omitted in this business between Luke Hill and Grace Sherwood, particularly the want of a jury to search her . . ."
"Ah, such be quite true," interrupted the justice. "Let us proceed now with greater order. First, 'twas my instruction at the last court that the sheriff should summons an able jury of women to search Grace Sherwood for warts and moles and other marks of the Devil, although the same was right well performed by the sheriff himself, yet they refused and did not appear. I will not tolerate such action, and do order that these same persons be again summoned by the sheriff for their contempt. and I assure you all that when they are brought before us they will be dealth with according to the utmost severity of the law. And secondly, I order that a new jury be formed of just, elderly women as be present in this assembly. Now, while the sheriff busy himself selecting this jury, we may proceed with such questioning of the accused as may have bearing on the case. Grace Sherwood, I command you to answer with truth such questions as may be put to you. You here stand charged with sundry acts of witchcraft. What do you say?"
* * *
"I am innocent," answered Grace Sherwood, in a frightened voice. "I know nothing of it. I have done no witchcraft."
"You mean to stand here and say that these charges proscribed against you are false?" asked the justice in a stern voice, "Speak up, woman, and say what contract you have with the devil."
Grace answered, looking straight into the eyes of the justice, "I have made no contract with the devil. I never saw him in my life."
Mr. Boush rose and addressed the bench: "May I ask that Your Honor question this woman concerning the accusation against her, made some time back by Richard Capps."
"Aye. Did not you cast a spell upon Richard Capps, and his cattle die because he would not sign your book?" questioned the judge.
"I have no book," answered Grace Sherwood piteously, "and I hold no madness against Richard Capps, nor would I poison his cattle, although he hath persecuted me greatly."
"Well, then, concerning Jane Gisbourne," spoke up the prosecuting attorney, "She says "twas you who cast a spell and blighted her crop of cotton."
"I know naught of spells. I have no power to blight crops," answered the prisoner.
"I command you, Grace Sherwood, to tell the full truth in this matter," thundered the justice. "How came Jane Gisbourne to be tormented and to charge you with doing it?"
Some of the fear seemed to leave Grace Sherwood, who now spoke out in a clear, strong voice. "I be a God-fearing woman and no servant of the devil, as ye would make me. I am entirely innocent of these charges, I tell you. Why am I to be harried and hawked in this manner? I am not come here to say I'm a witch and to take away my own life by saying so."
"Then I am to suppose that you practiced no witchcraft against Elizabeth Barnes," said the justice, "That you did not assume the appearance of a black cat, enter her sleeping room, drive her from her bed, whip her unmercifully, then disappear suddenly, either through the keyhold or under the door, she knows not which."
* * *
At this point the proceedings were suddenly interrupted. Mr. Peyton, a well-known planter from up the river, who has studied law in England and practiced the profession on occasion, had risen from his seat on the side of the room, and came striding down the crowded aisle. He was a tall, gray-headed man, of uncommon benevolent countenance and prepossessing appearance. His hair was combed back from his high, polished forehead, and fell in long, white locks upon his coat collar. He was dressed very much after the same style as the presiding justice, and carried an ivory-headed cane.
He bowed to the justices, and in a clear, well-modulated voice addressed them: "Your Honors, may I presume to address the court? You all know me well. I desire to speak in defense of this woman. I am fully qualified, and wish to act as her attorney in this matter."
"Such is quite in order, Mr. Peyton," answered the justice.
"Then may I put but one question?" asked Mr. Peyton. "Were not the charges brought by Richard Capps, John Sibourne and his wife Jane, Anthony Barnes and his wife, Elizabeth, all heard in court and a verdict rendered in favor of this Grace Sherwood?"
"The affair of Richard Capps was not brought to court, I believe," answered the justice, but was settled by agreement of both parties. The other two cases were tried in court and Grace Sherwood collected suit for defamation of character. Grace Sherwood herself brought these cases into court, where she was openly accused of witchcraft during the proceedings, but the trials were not on charges of witchcraft."
"Just so," answered Mr. Peyton, "and was not the accuser here, Luke Hill, and his wife haled into court sometime last December of a warrant sworn by Grace Sherwood, charging Madam Hill with trespass, assault and battery? And was not Madam Hill found guilty of the charge and did not the court render such a verdict?"
"All you say is true," answered the justice.
"So why, may I ask, is this case being tried on hearsay rather than actual facts. If there be any witnesses present that can say for a surety that this woman be a witch and have had any dealings whatsoever with Satan, then let them stand up and bring their accusations openly," continued Mr. Peyton.
A hush spread over the courtroom. No one present seemed inclined to answer this challenge. Accuse her as much as they please outside of the courtroom, but to stand up in court and speak under oath was another thing.
After a few moments of strained silence, the justice turned to Luke Hill. "You be the accuser, Luke Hill, let the court hear what you have to say in this matter."
"May it please Your Honor, my charge was not that she be a witch to my own true knowledge but that there be a grave suspicion of witchcraft," answered Luke Hill.
"Then if there be no witnesses," said the justice, "and if the sheriff has chosen those to be of the jury, let them be sworn in and take the prisoner aside into the anti-room to shift and search her for warts, spots, moles, and abrasions, or any such other accredited signs about her body of her contact with the devil. If ye 12 dames find such marks not usual in other women, you are to make a report on oath to the truth thereof.
"Also I order the sheriff to go forthwith to the house of Grace Sherwood, together with the constable of that precinct, and to search the premises for all images and such like things as may strengthen the suspicion that has been lodged by Luke Hill. Till these things be done, I order the court recessed."
Superstitious Justice Borrowed Page From Salem's History
The next day there was no change in the inclement weather, the creeks and streams had overflowed their banks, and the roads were in places almost hub-deep in mud, yet the courtroom was again crowded with its throng of spectators.
The sheriff reported that he had found nothing in the house of Grace Sherwood that would indicate that she was a witch. Then the jury of women was called. Their forewoman was none other than Elizabeth Barnes whose privacy Grace Sherwood had invaded in the guise of the pugnacious black cat, and Grace saw the verdict foreordained in her old enemy's eyes when the jury brought it. They reported, under oath, that marks of the Devil's contract were found on Grace's body, and that in such she was unlike other women.
Thereupon the court being willing to have all means possible tried either to acquit Grace Sherwood, or to give more strength to the suspicion in order that she might be dealt with as the case deserved, it was ordered by the justice that she be tried in the water by ducking, but the weather being very rainy and bad, the possibility that the test by water might endanger her health, it was ordered that the sheriff appear on the following Wednesday at 10 o'clock, with the prisoner, at John Harper's plantation, where the test be given.
Deep Water Test Nearly Proved Fatal to Grace Sherwood
On Wednesday morning the sun's rays streamed down from the cloudless sky radiating an enervating steamy heat from the rain-soaked soil, and the humidity became more and more oppressive as the sun slowly climbed toward its noon-day peak. However, none of the crowd gathered at John Harper's plantation for the witch-ducking were aware of the weather. The trial of Grace Sherwood was all important, and the one and only subject of conversation.
Promptly at 10 o'clock, the sheriff put in his appearance with the prisoner and straightway made off toward the pond, where the justice and a large group of the colonists were gathered, awaiting their coming. The justice, Mr. Boush, Mrs. Peyton and a number of other gentlemen had sought shelter from the sun's rays under the shade of a great oak tree by the water's edge, and the sheriff piloted his prisoner to this spot, followed by a throng of eager spectators intent upon the drama being enacted. Everyone crowded closer for a better point of vantage from which to view the proceedings.
After greetings had been exchanged, the justice asked: "Has all precaution been provided, such as convenient assistance of men and boats?"
"Aye," answered the sheriff, "and the depth of the water off this point been tested to assure us that it be above a man's depth."
"All proper care should be used in such matter," observed the justice, "Now, Grace Sherwood, have you aught to say, why this test be not given."
"Should I say aught, 'twould be to no purpose, answered Grace Sherwood."
"There have been many circumstances to indicate that you be a witch, to all of which you made no excuse and had little or nothing to say in your own behalf, only seeming to rely on what the court would do," said the justice gravely, "therefore I have ordered that you be tried by water. Do you consent?"
If by so doing 'twill clear me of this foul charge, I gladly consent," answered Grace Sherwood, in a clear, strong voice.
"Then let her be given over again to the jury of women, who are to search her most carefully before she goes into the water that she carry nothing about her to cause any further suspicion. They will bind her hand and foot, and then will the sheriff and his men fetch her here and cast her into the water, to see whether or not it receive her," ordered the justice.
Whereupon Grace Sherwood was led aside by the old women who did as they were bid. All the while Mr. Peyton, stood by with folded arms, and openly showing his displeasure at the whole business. When Grace Sherwood was brought back by the sheriff and his men, Mr Peyton opened his mouth as if to voice a protest, but probably realizing the fruitility of such action, held his peace, and the husky deputies swung the bound body of Grace Sherwood far out into the deep water.
A great shout rose from the crowd as her body struck the water with a resounding splash and then floated as though it were of cork. "See!" they screamed, "She be self-convicted! The water will not receive her! Yea, truly she be a witch."
* * *
Mr. Peyton could stand no more. He strode forward to the water's edge, shouting, "Ye fools, mean ye to let her drown! Someone give a hand. Fetch the boat and bring her ashore." The crowd was stirred to action by his anger and several men waded out and brought the drenched body of Grace Sherwood ashore. The thongs that bound her were untied, and she was now lay choking and sputtering, coughing up the water she had swallowed during the ducking.
Mr. Peyton, thoroughly angered, turned and fiercely attacked the justice, "Little did I think that you would have had a hand in this. Pray tell me where be justice in such practice. It hath neither sense or reason--this strange theory. Should the woman swim to security then she be favored of the devil and so self-convicted. And if she be innocent, and pray, to what compensation. Bah! You all be dolts and fools."
"I care not for the manner in which you address your remarks to a magistrate of the law, Mr. Peyton," answered the justice, "however that will be overlooked for the moment. But for all, there is reason in what you say."
Assistance was being given Grace Sherwood all the while, and now she was able to rise to a setting position, and gazed about her with a dazed expression. The justice came over to her and spoke, "Grace Sherwood, in this matter with thee, we have been in the wrong. I would make amends. The ducking you have received shall suffice the complainant in this case, and I declare you a free woman of the charge of witchcraft. Let my carriage be brought and carry Madam Sherwood to her home forthwith. Mr. Peyton, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts for showing us the error of our ways. Should this woman have drowned her blood would have been upon our hands. Now, all of you people here gathered to see the woman persecuted, let there be no more talk of witches amongst you. Listen well, I say there shall be no more of this foolish talk amongst you. And if you do not heed what I say you will not be dealt with lightly."