VIRGINIA BEACH — Some know her as nothing more than the infamous “Witch of Pungo” while others may say Grace Sherwood was a mother and farmer who persevered as a woman before her time.
To her neighbors in then Princess Anne County, Sherwood was surely a witch and to test their suspicions, trial documents read Sherwood endured a “trial by water.”
On July 10, 1706, Sherwood would be “cross-bound and dropped into water above a man’s depth” — if she sunk to the bottom and drowned, she’d be innocent, but if she rose to the top of the water, she’d be found guilty of witchcraft.
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Sherwood managed to untie herself and as she swam back to shore yelled to onlookers who came to see if she’d sink or float, “before this day be through you will all get a worse ducking than I,” said Danielle Sheets, co-author of A Place in Time: The Age of the Witch of Pungo.
“According to newspaper articles from the time, the sky turned dark, the thunder roared, lightning struck, and the deluge of rain was so severe that as the people who came to witness her trial by water were trying to flee they literally got washed into the ditches on what is now North Witchduck Road,” Sheets said.
In her 20 years as a volunteer at the Ferry Plantation House, Sheets said she’d get a taste of what Pungo’s witch endured when she got thrown overboard during reenactments of the trial.
“We had the transcript of her trial by water because it was part of Princess Anne County record — we had it word-for-word,” she said.
The first damning evidence for Sherwood was the fact she, a woman, could swim during a time Sheets said people feared the water and leeches which at the time were representations of the devil.
Another piece of evidence was found when Sherwood was carefully examined by a jury of “ancient and knowing women” who testified to “suspicious moles,” or markings of the devil on her body.
It wasn’t until after Sheets’ late mother and co-author, Belinda Nash, wrote to the Virginia Bar Association and was successful in having Sherwood exonerated exactly 300 years after her trial that the reenactments stopped and Sheets could forgo getting “ducked” every year on the trial’s anniversary.
At the time it seemed as if the townspeople had all the evidence they needed to condemn Sherwood for witchcraft but Sheets said as Nash looked closer during her endeavors to preserve the Ferry Plantation House, she found more than several discrepancies in the urban legends surrounding the Pungo Witch.
“Just learning about [Sherwood’s story] it just seemed like a travesty,” Sheets said. “I remember when I first moved to Virginia Beach people would say ‘the witch’s house is over there’ — they literally thought the Ferry Plantation house was either somewhere Grace Sherwood lived or somewhere she was tried.”
Dispelling the myths
When Belinda Nash stepped in and took on the initiative to preserve the Ferry Plantation House and through her 25 years of research, Sheets said one of the first things her mother wanted to correct was the misrepresentation of the house’s connection to Sherwood’s history.
“She went looking for the records and the timeline because Grace’s trial was 1706 and the courthouse at Ferry Plantation wasn’t built until 1735,” she said.
Because she was an attractive widow who wore pants to farm her own land and refused to remarry as to not slight her own sons’ right to inherit the land, Sheets said the stigma around Sherwood started even before the witchcraft accusations.
Sheets said to consider the time when good things happened because of God and bad things happened because of the devil.
“If bad things happened the weirdo single-woman neighbor must’ve caused it because she’s weird, she’s not like us,” she said. “When people were having miscarriages, their animals were sick, or when massive storms happened the people tended to point the finger at Grace.”
Also reported in Salem witch trials, Sheets said the terrible images and hysterical “fits” thought to be caused by a witch’s curse almost only affected women but could’ve also been caused by the LSD-like effects of moldy grains consumed primarily by women while the men ate meat and potatoes.
Sherwood would spend seven years in a jail cell at what is now Old Donation Episcopal Church before she was released, received most of her land and her children back, and then died in her 80s at home, Sheets said.
And, while legend says Sherwood’s witchcraft is what prohibits grass from growing or snow setting on her grave at Princess Anne and Pungo Ridge, Sheets explained “grass won’t grow and snow won’t settle on ivy.”
Remembering Grace Sherwood
It wasn’t enough to just vindicate Sherwood from her guilty witchcraft verdict in 2006, Sheets said her mother also wanted to ensure Sherwood was also celebrated and remembered as someone who stood for what was right when the system was wrong.
“She was a midwife, plus she healed animals, she contributed a lot under adverse circumstances but she never let it get to her,” she said. “Whether it be a Grace Sherwood or a Rosa Parks just to make sure people going forward know that if you have something to say, don’t bow down to everyone else, be your own person, and that should be celebrated and remembered.”
In 2007, Nash led the charge to have a sculpture of Sherwood erected on North Witchduck Road and coincidentally it faces the former jail and courthouse she was perjured.
Between her doctor’s appointments and while receiving treatment for breast cancer, Sheets said she and her mother sought to set the record straight about Sherwood’s history as they wrote their book in 2012.
Nash died in 2016 but the story of Sherwood, animal healer, farmer, and mother is still told and her book, A Place in Time: The Age of the Witch of Pungo, can also be purchased at the Ferry Plantation House.