Monday, February 14, 2011

The Dunking of Grace Sherwood

Grace Sherwood, also known as the Witch of Princess Anne County, lived in Virginia in the early 1700's. Not much is known of her, what is known comes from the scattered remnants of court room records and local folklore.

Mrs. Sherwood was a widowed land-holding woman, most likely of mixed African descent, who lived along Bansnett's Creek near the Chesapeake region of Virginia. Her story begins with a trial in which she accused a local man, Luke Hill, of trespass, assault, and battery. She won the trial, and collected damages, but Mr. Hill accused her of witchcraft in retaliation, leading to another trial in which she was the main attraction. Folklore makes it difficult to determine whether there is any validity to his accusations, but spite is obviously what motivated him.

During this whole debacle, the local authorities were apprehensive about even trying her at all and tended to delay and stall the process. She was examined twice for Witch's Marks while the courts argued over jurisdiction and sent her case back and forth. To top it off, an all woman jury could not be found who could preside in her trial, leading to postponement of the final date. She was allowed to undergo trial by ordeal as an option. Her ordeal was to be "Ducked" in water, to determine guilt or innocence. Innocence being determined in this case by the innocent party sinking to the bottom, and God miraculously saving the accused because of their pure and innocent heart. Anything else was deemed a sign of guilt.

The local authorities really wanted no part of this, other than to make it go away. They even went so far as to provide boats for her rescue, and to schedule it on a day where the weather would not make her ill from the exposure to cold. On July 10th, 1706 the day finally came. They took her to the appointed place (now called Witch's Duck, on Chesapeake Bay) and tossed her in. Doing what any sane able bodied American would do, Mrs. Sherwood swam back to shore, sealing her guilt in the court's eyes.

Unlike most trials of this nature, Mrs. Sherwood was not sentenced to death. She ended up spending some time in the local jail, how much we do not know, since the court records end with her sentencing. It is known that her land was legally passed to others many years later, so it is assumed by most historians that she did not serve much time in jail and was soon released. Maybe there was validity to the accusations, as she seemed to get off rather light compared to most victims of the Witch Trials. Archeological records have even turned up "witch's bottles" in the area where she was suspected to live, leading to further speculations. A vivid psuedo-historical folklore has sprung up since her death, and she has become an almost mythical figure in the obscure history of the Chesapeake Region.

Her case also highlights the fact that most trials for witchcraft in the early American Colonies, centered around widowed land-holders, and in most places the legal system had no real desire to pursue it.

The picture above is a piece of artwork by Joshua Shaw, illustrating the place where her "ducking" took place.

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