Witches of Virginia

Chances are if you’re thinking about witches this Halloween when a shadow scuttles across the moon or a black cat crosses your path, you’re picturing a woman accused of casting spells or associating with the Devil in the frosty woods of New England. The accused witches of Salem, in what was then the Province of Massachusettes Bay, are the country’s most famous purported practitioners of the dark arts, but Virginia had its own experiences with witchcraft trials. It’s believed that there were about two dozen witch trials in Virginia between 1626 and 1730. So why aren’t Virginia’s accused witches as famous as the witches of Salem and New England?

For one, very little is known about the specifics of the Virginia witchcraft trials because most of the court records related to them were destroyed during the Civil War. But even from the surviving evidence, it’s clear that Virginia’s accused witches were very different from New England’s. Most of the trials in Virginia involving witchcraft were civil suits and countersuits for defamation resulting from rumors or gossip that someone was a witch, not criminal trials for practicing witchcraft.

Such was the case with Virginia’s most famous accused witch, Grace Sherwood of Princess Ann County. In 1698 Sherwood’s neighbors accused her of bewitching their pigs and cotton and of riding one of them, Elizabeth Barnes, about at night and then turning into a black cat and disappearing out of a keyhole.

Sherwood and her husband sued the neighbors for defamation and slander but lost the case. In 1705, after the death of her husband, Sherwood sued two other neighbors for assault and battery and won that case. But they turned around and charged her with witchcraft. It was only a little more than ten years after the Salem witch trials, when twenty-five people accused of witchcraft were killed or died in jail during an escalating panic, but there were profound differences in how the Virginia community reacted.

Unlike the hysteria that reigned in Salem, there seemed to be a genuine reluctance to prosecute Sherwood. Even after women deputized by the court found “witches’ marks” on Sherwood, the case didn’t go to trial. The county justices then tried to send the case to a higher court, but it was returned to them. Finally, they ordered her to be tried by ducking, a process by which an accused witch was bound and thrown into a body of water to see if she would float–a sure sign of a witch.

Even the ducking was postponed because the weather was bad and the justices were afraid it might endanger Sherwood’s health. On July 10, 1706, Sherwood was thrown into a branch of the Lynnhaven River. She floated. But for reasons that aren’t clear, a re-trial was ordered and then apparently never held. She appeared before a county court to pay a debt in 1708 and her land was reinstated to her in 1714, so it’s believed she was free by then. Sherwood lived on her farm for the remainder of her life and died in 1740, at about eighty years old.

Of the twenty or so known witchcraft trials in Virginia, about half the defendants were acquitted and most of those who were convicted were punished with a fine and a public apology.

So why did Virginia’s witches fail to generate the heat and hysteria that New England’s did? The intensity of the Salem witch prosecutions are believed to have been driven by a very specific interplay of forces, including the extreme religiosity of the New England Puritans, the growing socioeconomic and cultural divide between the cosmopolitan port of Salem Town and the more rural backcountry of Salem Village, and the fear and dislocations caused by frontier attacks related to King Philip’s (1675-76) and King William’s (1688-99) Wars with France and it’s Native allies.

The social, religious, and economic conditions were very different in the Chesapeake Bay colonies. As Maureen Rush Burgess concluded in her dissertation on witchcraft in the Bay region, not only did the largely Anglican Virginia colonists lack the religious fervor of their New England Puritan counterparts but the persistent shortage of women–the most frequent targets of witchcraft complaints–made the male colonists who administered the law unlikely to “execute a woman for something as minor as a little sorcery.”

And therein lies the most important difference, according to Burgess: the Southerners’ worldview regarding witchcraft was markedly different. They tended to see witchcraft as a practice rather than heresy or a demonic covenant. “The reality of witchcraft in seventeenth-century Chesapeake was that the witches and sorcerers were lost in a sea of rogues, vagabonds, thieves, and cavaliers,” she writes. “In a society comprised of those from the margins of all levels of society, the use of supernatural means to obtain one’s goals was seemingly no more odious than those who used other nefarious means to realize their ambitions.”

Had your fill of calmly bobbing for apples? Bored with haunted hayrides? Here are a few book recommendations for the height of spooky season!


One thought on “Witches of Virginia

  1. I found this very enlightening and absolutely hilarious.
    I have done some reading on the Scottish witch trials to understand more about how that kind of panic arises and continues. And I will definitely add your essay to my files.


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