Grace Sherwood: The Witch of Virginia Beach
Early court records tell the tale of Grace Sherwood, who was tried in 1706
as Virginia Beach's first witch. Unfortunately, there are no existing images
of Grace. Her story is perhaps the most fascinating of the folklore in
the history of Tidewater. Witchcraft was a very serious and real thing to
the colonists. The cult was believed to be a threat to the Christian Church,
and everyone during the early 1700's was on the lookout for witches, who
could be recognized by so-called unusual or mysterious behaviors.
Grace lived her entire life in the Pungo area of Virginia Beach (named for
Indian chief Machiopungo), and married James Sherwood with whom she had
three sons. She was said to be strikingly attractive, string-willed, and
a non-conformist by nature. These traits were resented by her neighbors,
who began spreading rumors about her witch-like behavior. She was accused
of blighting gardens, causing livestock to die, and influencing the weather.
After eight years of constant slander and bickering by her neighbors, Grace
was formally charged with suspicions of witchcraft. A jury of women were
ordered to search her body for suspicious or unusual markings, thought to
be brands of the devil himself, and naturally the jury found, "marks
not like theirs or like those of any other women." However, neither
the local court nor the Attorney General in Williamsburg, would pass judgment
on declaring her a witch. It was finally decided that Grace, "by her
own consent, be tried in the water by Ducking, (dunking)." Water was
considered to be the purest element and the theory was that it would reject
anything of an evil nature. Based on this theory, the accused was tied up
and thrown into the water. If the person drowned, he was declared innocent
of witchcraft; if he could stay afloat until he could free himself, he was
declared a witch.
On July 10, 1706, Grace was marched from the jail (which located near the
present day site of Old Donation Church) down the dirt road (now Witch Duck
Road) to the Lynnhaven River. This portion of the river has since been named
Witch Duck Bay in memory of the occasion. This being a big event, hoards
of people from all over the colony flocked to the scene as news of the Ducking
had spread throughout the Commonwealth.
Grace Sherwood was tied crossbound with the thumb of her right hand to the
big toe of her left foot, and the thumb of her left hand to the big toe
of her right foot, and thrown into the water. As predicted by her accusers,
Grace managed to stay afloat until she could free herself and swim to shore.
She was jailed and awaiting trial for witchcraft for nearly eight years,
when the charges against her were dropped due to the softening of her accusers
hearts, and she was set free. She moved back to her Pungo home and lived
there until her death at the age of 80.
Many stories have been told and retold over the years about this most remarkable
woman. One of the many tall tales that have been handed down from generation
to generation has to do with the day of her ducking. When they led Grace
Sherwood through the crowd that had turned out to see her put into the water
she told them, "All right, all of you po' white trash, you've worn
out your shoes traipsin' here to see me ducked, but before you'll get back
home again you are goin' to get the duckin' of your life." When they
put Grace into the water the sky was as bright blue as a bird's wing, but
immediately afterward it grew pitch black, the thunder rolled and the lightning
flashed all across the heavens. The terrified people started for home, only
to be washed off the roads and into the ditches by a regular cloudburst.