The English colonists who came to Virginia in 1607 believed in the reality of witchcraft before they even set foot on North American soil. Like most Europeans, their Christian faith had deep roots, and they perceived the natural world as a place that could be shaped by supernatural forces. Witch trials had been a part of English life for centuries, and Parliament had passed a law criminalizing the practice of witchcraft in 1542, so the men and women who settled the English colony at Jamestown would have considered witchcraft to be a real and punishable offense.
The English colonists believed the Indians they encountered to be devils, or at least devil worshippers. In their descriptions of Virginia Indians, the Jamestown colonists often used supernatural terms: John Smith described the paramount chief Powhatan as “more like a devil then a man,” while George Percy recalls the Indians “making noise like so many Wolves or Devils.” Alexander Whitaker, an Anglican minister, reported that he found the Indians to be “very familiar with the Devill” and observed, “Their Priests … are no other but such as our English Witches are.” This perception stemmed partly from the colonists’ interpretation of the Powhatans’ religious beliefs and rituals (some settlers believed that the Powhatans’ main deity, Okee, was the devil incarnate) and partly from the Indians’ unfamiliar appearance. As the historian Edward L. Bond wrote, “Colonial accounts of native bodies carried implications beyond mere physical descriptions … for English philosophy and theology linked body and spirit by suggesting that the exterior appearance of the body gave evidence of the interior state of the soul.”
All this led the colonists and most Englishmen to conclude, as Puritan minister William Crashaw did in 1613, that “Satan visibly and palpably raignes [in Virginia], more then in any other known place of the world.” Initially, it was easier for the English to connect the Indians’ unfamiliar appearance and rituals to their traditional understanding of demonology than to accept a worldview that differed so greatly from their own. The early English interpretation of native life in Virginia did much to support the widespread contemporary belief that the practice of witchcraft was “most comon in … [the] wild partes of the world,” as the Scottish king James IV (later King James I of England) wrote in his 1597 study, Daemonologie. Around 1622, however, once the Virginia colony had stabilized and its English population grew, the colonists began to turn their suspicions inward, no longer focusing their accusations on the Indians, but on each other.
Witchcraft Cases in Virginia
Most of Virginia’s colonial-era court records were destroyed in fires during the American Civil War (1861–1865), so it is impossible to know exactly how many witchcraft cases were heard in Virginia and when. Historians know of some two dozen cases dealing with witchcraft in colonial Virginia. Most of these cases are defamation suits resulting from slander or gossip; in fact, the only Virginia law to specifically address witchcraft, passed in Lower Norfolk County on May 23, 1655, was intended to eliminate not the practice of witchcraft, but rather “divrs dangerous and scandalous speeches … raised by some psons concerning sevrall women in this countie termeing them to be witches, whereby their reputacons have beene much impaired, and theire lives brought in question.” False accusers were to pay a fine of 1,000 pounds of tobacco and could be further punished by the court if it was deemed necessary.
In criminal witchcraft cases, Virginia courts adhered to England’s witchcraft law, a 1604 statute passed under James I called “An Act against Conjuration Witchcraft and dealing with evil and wicked Spirits.” In Virginia these cases deal mostly with the charge of maleficium—causing harm to people or property by supernatural means. The earliest witchcraft allegations on record against an English settler in the British North American colonies were made in Virginia in September 1626. The accused, Joan Wright of James City County (later Surry County), was a married woman and a midwife. A number of Wright’s neighbors testified against her, alleging that, through witchcraft, she had caused the death of a newborn, killed crops and livestock, and accurately predicted the deaths of other colonists. Wright was acquitted despite her own admission that she did in fact have knowledge of witchcraft practices.
The charges against Wright are typical of many witch trials during the colonial period: at a time when most misfortunes, like crop failure, illness, or death, had no apparent cause, witchcraft was a relatively logical explanation; an eccentric or unpopular member of the community made a convenient scapegoat. The fact that Wright was a woman is typical, too: in the surviving records of witchcraft cases in Virginia, only two accused witches were men, reflecting a trend that also exists in the legal records of England and the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
The most famous witch trial in colonial Virginia is the case of Grace Sherwood of Princess Anne County. Sherwood was first accused by her neighbors in 1698 of having “bewitched their piggs to death and bewitched their Cotton”; later that year another neighbor claimed that “the said Grace came to her one night and rid [rode] her and went out of the key hole or crack of the door like a black Catt.” Grace Sherwood and her husband, James, brought defamation suits against the accusers, but did not win either case. The rumors and accusations continued until 1706, when Sherwood stood trial before the General Court. After a long investigation, the court justices decided to use the water test to determine her guilt or innocence. The test, which was so controversial that it was no longer used on the European continent at the time of Sherwood’s trial, involved binding the accused’s hands and feet and throwing him or her into a body of water. A defendant who sank was presumed innocent, because the water—a pure element—had accepted him or her; a defendant who floated was presumed guilty. Sherwood floated. She was convicted and imprisoned, but by 1714, she had been released.
Sherwood’s case reflects how reluctant Virginia authorities were to execute convicted witches. English law prescribed harsh punishments for witchcraft, the most extreme being “paines of deathe,” but no person accused of the crime in colonial Virginia was executed. By comparison, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, nineteen so-called witches were executed in 1692 alone. (Some historians have pointed to the death of Katherine Grady, who was hanged in 1654, as an example of a Virginia execution for witchcraft, but Grady’s trial and death took place at sea, on a ship bound for the colony.)
The last witchcraft trial on record in Virginia took place in 1730, five years before Parliament repealed the English statute against witchcraft. Justices charged the accused, a woman named Mary, with using witchcraft to find lost items and treasure. She was convicted and whipped thirty-nine times. This was likely the last criminal case of witchcraft tried in any of the mainland colonies. That same year, Benjamin Franklin published in the Pennsylvania Gazette a satirical report of a witch trial in New Jersey. His elaborate, mocking descriptions of the practices of court justices in trying witches illustrate the beginning of a shift in the colonial perception of witchcraft from terrifying reality to puritanical fantasy.
Beyond the Colonial Period
By the turn of the eighteenth century, witchcraft cases had virtually disappeared from court records in Virginia—and from popular memory. Over time, Virginia’s witch trials were overshadowed by the cases tried in New England, which were more numerous and more sensational, and then forgotten altogether. This collective amnesia came into play during the sectional crisis in the decades leading up to the Civil War, when tensions between northern and southern politicians regarding slavery ran high. On February 16, 1849, Democratic congressman Henry Bedinger of Virginia, having grown tired of defending the South and the practice of slavery to “fanatical” abolitionists, invoked the Salem witch trials as evidence of the North’s immorality and the South’s cultural superiority, saying, “There are some monstrosities we never commit.” This misperception of the history of witchcraft in Virginia persists even today.