Grace Sherwood lived around the turn of the 18th century is known for being the first (if not only) woman charged with being a witch in the state of Virginia. Most historians claim that her trial was the result of a less enlightened age, but there are some claims that support the charge of Grace Sherwood being a witch. Was an innocent woman convicted of witchcraft? Or did the powers she possess protect her from death?
Grace Sherwood was born around 1660 and married James Sherwood around 1680. Little else is known about her before 1698 when her and her husband began a series of lawsuits for defamation and slander. It seems they sued John and James Gisburne for claiming Grace was a witch and that she “cast a spell that blighted their crop of cotton”. The case was quickly dismissed but the Sherwood were back in front of a judge in a matter of weeks. This time, they were suing for a hundred pounds from Antony and Elizabeth Barnes after Elizabeth allegedly claimed Grace came into her home late at night in the form of a cat and whipped her as she lay in bed before leaving through the keyhole in the door or a crack in the wall. Again, the charges of defamation were quickly dismissed.
James Sherwood would die in 1701 and Grace would never remarry. She would go on to sue Luke Hill claiming he had “beaten her to a great damage”. She asked for fifty pounds, but was awarded only twenty shillings. The tactic of suing people backfired on her as a few weeks later Luke Hill, and his wife Elizabeth brought charges against Grace for practicing witchcraft.
Practicing witchcraft was still a serious offense. It was only ten years earlier that twenty people had been executed in Salem, Massachusetts for the same crime. A jury of women were formed to examine Grace for “spots” that were believed to be the mark of a witch. At this, the court did not know what to do. This was a precedent setting case. And the people in the area didn’t want another witch hunt like the one in Salem. So, they passed the case to the governors council in Williamsburg. The higher court did not want to rule on such a touchy issue, so they passed the case back to the original court.
It was then decided to subject Grace to a time honored test for witchcraft called “Witch ducking”. A rope is tied to the suspects right thumb and left big toe and a second rope around the left thumb and right big toe. The suspect is then tossed in the water. If they float or swim, they are a witch. If they do not (and they are rescued before they drown), then they are innocent. It is said that those who drown during the process are satisfied in the next life that their name was cleared.
The ducking of Grace Sherwood was to take place but was delayed because of…rain. On Wednesday, July 10, 1706 at 10am Grace Sherwood in front of a sizable crowd was ducked. Almost immediately, she came back to the surface with no signs of restraints and swam to the shore. The crowd began to talk: She was a witch!Grace was then shackled in irons and taken back to jail. Oddly, that’s where the official documents end. There is no record of the punishment for being a witch. Some people say that she was held for a short time and then quietly released.
The next time Grace Sherwood appears in the courts documents is in 1733 with filing her will. Grace died in 1740, but that didn’t stop the legend of her witchy powers. Some of the stories told include Grace needed some rosemary for cooking so she commandeered a ship, and within a day sailed to England and back to retrieve the needed item. It is said that only after that day did rosemary grow in Princess Anne County (now part of Virgina Beach). It it also said that much like The Devils Tramping ground, the spot where Grace Sherwood was ducked hasn’t grown anything since that day.