VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — The Witch of Pungo is no longer a witch.
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine on Monday gave an informal pardon to Grace Sherwood, who 300 years ago became Virginia’s only person convicted as a witch tried by water.
“I am pleased to officially restore the good name of Grace Sherwood,” Kaine wrote in a letter Virginia Beach Mayor Meyera Oberndorf read aloud before a re-enactment of Sherwood’s being dropped into the river.
“With 300 years of hindsight, we all certainly can agree that trial by water is an injustice,” Kaine wrote. “We also can celebrate the fact that a woman’s equality is constitutionally protected today, and women have the freedom to pursue their hopes and dreams.”
Sherwood, a midwife who at times wore men’s clothes, lived in what today is the rural Pungo neighborhood, and she later became known as “The Witch of Pungo.”
Her neighbors thought she was a witch who ruined crops, killed livestock and conjured storms, and she went to court a dozen times, either to fight witchcraft charges or to sue her accusers for slander.
She was 46 when she was accused in her final case of using her powers to cause a neighbor to miscarry.
On July 10, 1706, Sherwood was dropped into the Lynnhaven River and floated — which was considered proof she was guilty because the pure water cast out her evil spirit, according to the belief system of the time. The theory behind the ducking test was that if she sank, she was innocent, although she would also drown.
Sherwood may have been jailed until 1714, when records show she paid back taxes and with the help of then-Gov. Alexander Spotswood she was able to reclaim her property. She then lived quietly until her death at 80.
Belinda Nash, 59, has been researching Sherwood for years and asked for the governor to exonerate the woman. A group annually remembers Sherwood with a re-enactment in the river.
For Monday’s ceremony attended by about 60 people, the re-enactment took place on land — in front of the Ferry Plantation House, a historic home where Nash volunteers as director and, dressed in costume, tells visitors about Sherwood. The courthouse where part of Sherwood’s trial took place was located on the old plantation property.
Nash’s daughter, Danielle Sheets, was tied cross-bound, her thumbs to her toes, and placed in a small boat, just as Sherwood would have been.
“I be not a witch. I be a healer,” Sheets shouted, in character. “Before this day be through, ye will all get a worse ducking than I.”
Although the skies had been clear, as the real Sherwood was pulled from the water, a downpour supposedly started. The sky remained clear Monday.
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