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Grace Sherwood and the Last Witch Trial
Salem Massachusetts Witch Trials Were Highly Unfair to the Accused
Salem Witch Trials
The Salem witch trials in colonial America were conducted due to deep-rooted superstitions, mass hysteria, religious extremism, and the supernatural beliefs that Satan was among those on Earth. These exaggerated idiosyncrasies are what surrounded the fate of Grace Sherwood and the last witch trial in America.
Even today, witchcraft is filled with false accusations and lore stemming from the minds of fearful individuals with little knowledge of the ancient art of true witchcraft and the healing benefits of the practice. In the time of Puritans in colonial America, life was governed by the Church. Extreme beliefs and forbidden acts such as observance of holidays like Easter and Christmas, dancing and music, were strongly enforced. Although they are commonly known even today as the Salem witch trials, trials occurred in other towns throughout the colonies. Not long before the trials began in February of 1692, people began spreading rumours about odd or abnormal happenings, and suspicious behavior of some individuals. The people were so fearful of what the Church proclaimed and enforced that the least little thing that was considered abnormal was looked upon as witchcraft. Some people even used witchcraft accusations against people they disliked, just for revenge over petty matters.
Church leaders, like Reverend Cotton Mather who firmly believed in witchcraft, terrified the colonists to the point of mass hysteria with the belief that Satan was among them. Reverend Mather published many pamphlets that constantly were spread around to every household.
The Salem trials were held in 1692 and 1693. The last known witch trial was conducted in 1706 in Virginia, when Grace Sherwood was accused of witchcraft.
Depiction of a Witch Trial Similar to What Grace Sherwood had to Endure
Examination for Trial
Grace White Sherwood
Grace White was born sometime around 1660, to John White and his wife, Susan. John was a carpenter and small landowner. The White family lived in Pungo, which was a community in lower Norfolk County of Virginia.
Grace lived all her life in Pungo, which is in the areas of Virginia Beach. She grew up to become a woman who was true to herself and her beliefs. She was wise in the ways of nature and far ahead of her time. Grace was very attractive and seen as a non-conformist, strong-willed, and different. In those colonial days of the 1600s the qualities and gifts Grace had became a curse to her happiness in life. Even so, Grace had faith in herself and refused to let go of her love for nature, healing, children, and animals.
Grace knew herself, knew every herb in her area and how to use them for healing, cooking, teas, and remedies. It is evident that Grace felt her life work to be one of healing and helping others -- she was dedicated to this task, loyal to her self and the gifts bestowed upon her. She respected herself. She knew how to apply knowledge with wisdom and find balance and harmony with nature.
Grace married James Sherwood, a landowner and farmer, in 1680 (approx). Her father, John White, gave his new son-in-law fifty acres of land. When White died in 1681 the remainder of his estate went to James Sherwood. James and Grace had three sons, John, James, and Richard.
Grace eventually became known as the witch of Pungo.
Ordeal by Water
Accusations and the Trial
In 1698 there was some problems with neighbors of the Sherwoods and the outcome was that James and Grace sued John and Jane Gisburne, and Anthony and Elizabeth Barnes for defamation and slander. The Gisburnes and the Barnes had claimed that Grace had shown signs of being a witch. The Sherwoods lost both the cases.
James Sherwood died in 1701, leaving Grace with the heavy responsibility of the farming and raising her three sons. In 1705 there was more trouble with neighbors and Grace sued Luke and Elizabeth Hill for assault and battery. This time Grace won the case and received twenty pounds sterling in damages.
The following year, early 1706, Luke Hill charged Grace with witchcraft, which was a criminal offense per an act passed in Parliament in 1603/4.
Grace was arrested and her children were taken to a relative. After numerous delays, the trial started on May 2, 1706. Due to several accusations, and a search of her body by a jury of women for signs of a witch, which was positive, Grace was found guilty of witchcraft and had to submit to trial by ordeal -- she was to be tied cross-bound and dropped in water "over the depth of a man's height". The concept was that since water is pure it would not accept the body of a witch and therefore the body would float. Grace was to go through this test. If her body sank and she drowned, she would be declared innocent and buried in consecrated ground. If her body floated, she would indeed be declared a witch and sentencing would follow.
Being tied cross-bound is to tie the thumb of the right hand to the big toe of the left foot, and the thumb of the left hand tied to the big toe of the right foot. This is not an easy position for one to escape from in deep water. Yet by sheer willpower and strength, Grace managed to float and save herself. She was taken from the water, unbound and back to court for sentencing. Because she did not drown, it was proof to the law that Grace was a witch.
In July 1706, Grace was sentenced to eight years in jail. When she was released, Grace's land, house and three sons were restored to her.
Grace lived the rest of her life on her farm until her death at the age of 80, in the Autumn of 1740.
Witch Duck Bay Where Grace Sherwood was Ducked
On July 10, 2006, there was a memorial ceremony and statue dedication in Virginia in honor of Grace Sherwood. The ceremony was held on the 300th anniversary of the day that Grace was convicted on suspicion of witchcraft. Grace received her pardon, posthumously, from Virginia Governor Timothy Kaine who officially pardoned her on the 300th anniversary of her conviction. Her lovely statue is a testimonial to a woman many people have come to love and admire. The statue was created by California sculptor Robert Cunningham -- it depicts Grace's love of nature with a raccoon and a basket of rosemary.
Although the trial of Grace was the last witch trial held in North America, today she is remembered and honored as a healer, herbalist, and a good woman with a kind heart.
Memorial Stone for Grace Sherwood
© 2013 Phyllis Doyle Burns