Grace Sherwood, the witch of Virginia

Richard Seltzer's home page  Publishing home

Grace Sherwood, the witch of Virginia

from Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, ed. George Lincoln Burr, published by Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1914

pp. 435-442

entered by hand by Richard Seltzer, Reactions, suggestions, comments, corrections welcome.


To those who know what elements made up the earliest population of Virginia it is needless to point out why there we find no such abiding fear of the Devil and his minions as among the religious exiles of New England. There no Mosaic law was enacted into statute; and the well-known Cavalier sympathies of the colony suggest why the mid-century witch-panic of England's Presbyterian counties found there no echo.Fear of witches, indeed, Virginia did not wholly escape; but her witch-terrors found their source in folk-lore more than in theology, and, though her courts could not keep altogether clear of the matter, their influence seems to have been almost wholly a restraining one. The testimony of their records has, in part at least, been diligently ferreted out, [Notably by Mr. Edward W. James, who published his gleanings first in the William and Mary College Historical Quarterly (I-IV. 1892-1896), then in the Lower Norfolk County Virginia Antiquary (I-III).] and the historian of the social and economic life of the colony has summarized it in a lucid chapter [Philip Alexander Bruce, Institutional History of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century, I. 276-289.] which is the best introduction to the single episode here to be narrated. By the middle of the century the bandying of the abusive name of "witch" was calling forth actions for slander and vigorous rulings by the courts; and in 1656 a clergyman from Scotland brought against one William Harding the only legl process which is known to have ended in conviction and a penalty -- ten stripes and banishment from the county. Suits enough from that time on there were; but they were brought by the accused for damages, or failed to convince the jury. Especially that southeastern region known a "Lower Norfolk County," and above all, its eastern strip, along the Atlantic, which in 1691 became Princess Anne County, seems to have been disturbed by these suspicions.There in 1675 and 1679 juries of women had been impaneled to search Jane Jenkins and Alice Cartwright, "according to the 18th chapter of Dalton," for the Devil's marks; [What is meant is of course that paragraph of Michael Dalton's many-editioned handbook of procedure, The Countrey Justice, which prescribing tests for the detection of witches, avers that the witches' imp, or familiar, "hath some big or little teat upon their body, and in some secret place, where he sucketh them." "And besides their sucking, the Devil leaveth other marks upon their body," which "being pricked will not bleed, and be often in their secretest parts, and therefore require diligent and careful search."] and there in 1698 Anne Byrd appealed in vain to a court against wild charges of "riding" her neighbors as a witch. In that same year Grace Sherwood, wife of James Sherwood, planter, a woman in middle life whose father, John White, had long dwelt there as carpenter and planter, was accused by one John Gisburne of bewitching his hogs and cotton. She with her husband brought an an action for slander, but lost it, and was as unsuccessful against Anthony Barnes, who charged her with riding his wife and then escaping through the keyhole int he shape of a black cat. It was this Grace Sherwood against whom in 1706 was brought that culminating action for witchcraft to which belong the following papers.Her story has been often told -- and often with a generous use of the imagination. More than once the records have been printed, as in President Cushing of Hampden-Sidney in the Collections (I667-68) of the Virginia Historical and Philosophical Society and by Henry Howe in his Historical Collections of Virginia (Charleston, 1845) pp. 436-438; but most fully and carefully by Edward W. James, whose pages in the William and Mary College Quarterly (III. 190-192, 242-245; IV 18-20) have furnished our text.It has, however been collated afresh with the record at Princess Anne by the editor of the present volume -- and not without correction.It will be noticed that the court clerk uses a sort of short-hand, abbreviating sometimes by a lavish use of "superiors" (as "som'd," for "summoned" Ex'ly" for "Excellency"), sometimes by mere omission of letters.The peculiarities of the text are such that in this instance we have preserved forms which it is now more usual to expand into shapes more easily legible; but the obscurer signs (as "y" for "th", or "ff" for "F", or the stork above the final "con" to make it "cion") have not bee reproduced. [Though the old record book through which these entries are scattered is still in good condition, the passages relating to this interesting case are beginning to suffer from wear, and from the first four lines of the entry for July 5, which come at the bottom of a page, a few words have crumbled away, and are preserved only by the transcripts. In the margin of the entry for May 2 are the words "Ag't Grace Sherwood for witchcraft," and in that of the entry for June 6 the words "Bousch Att'r for Queen vs. Sherwood."]

[In my transcription from George Lincoln Burr's book, I have modernized the spelling and filled out the abbreviations for clarity and readability. Richard Seltzer]

The Case of Grace Sherwood

Princess Ann Sessions. At a Court held January 3, 1706.

Whereas Luke Hill and uxor summoned Grace Sherwood to this court in suspicion of witchcraft and she failing to appear, it is therefore ordered that attachment to the sheriff do issue to attach her body and answer to the said summons next court.

[Luke Hill and wife. Against them in December 1705, Grace Sherwood had brought action for assault and battery, claiming 50 pounds of damages and receiving 20 shillings. What this affray may have had to do with the charge of witchcraft does not appear. The court was the county court, its members a group of "gentlemen of the county, called justices of the peace." Their names appear just below in the entry for March 7. Such a panel of the court heads the record of each of the sessions named, but its repetition has seemed unnecessary.Grace Sherwood's case was only one of many dealt with at each session.Usually only four or five justices were present.]

Under February 6, 1706

Suit for suspicion of witchcraft brought by Luke Hill against Grace Sherwood is ordered ot refer till tomorrow.

Under February 7, 1706

Whereas a complaint was brought against Grace Sherwood on suspicion of witchcraft by Luke Hill, etc., and the matter being after a long time debated and ordered that the said Hill pay all fees of this complaint and that the said Grace be here next court to be searched according to the complaint by a jury of women to decide the difference, and the sheriff is likewise ordered to summon an able jury accordingly.

Under March 7, 1706

Present: Colonel Edward Moseley, Lieutenant [Colonel] Adam Thorrowgood, Major Henry Sprat, Captain Horatio Woodhouse, Mr. Jonathan Cornick, Captain Henry Champman, Mr. William Smith, Mr. Jonathan Richason, Captain George Handcock, Justices.

Whereas a complaint has been made to this court by Luke Hill and his wife that one Grace Sherwood of this county was and has been a long time suspected of witchcraft and has been as such represented wherefore the sheriff at the last court was ordered to summon a jury of women to this court to search her on the said suspicion, she assenting to the same. And after the jury was impaneled and sworn out to make due inquiry and inspection into all circumstances, after a mature consideration, they bring in this verdict: We of the jury have searched Grace Sherwood and have found two things like tits with several other spots: Elizabeth Barnes, forewoman, Sarah Norris, Margaret Watkins, Hannah Dinnis, Sarah Goodacre, Mary Burgess, Sarah Sergeant, Winifred Davis, Ursula Henly, Ann Bridges, Ezable Waples, Mary Cotle.

[At this point the court reached the limit of its powers, and Luke Hill, doubtless at its instance, petitioned the highest tribunal of the colony, the General Court, i.e., the Governor and Council, informing them that "one Grace Sherwood of Princes Anne County being suspected of witchcraft upon his complaint to that county court that she had bewitched the petitioner's wife, the court ordered a jury of women to search the said Grace Sherwood who upon search brought in a verdict against the said Grace, but the court not knowing how to proceed to judgment thereon, the petitioner prays that the Attorney General may be directed to prosecute the said Grace for the same". But the Attorney General, to whom on March 28 the matter was referred, reported on April 16 that he found the charge too general and that the county court ought to have made a fuller examination of the matters of fact, and that "pursuant to the directions and powers to County Courts given by a late act of Assembly" they ought, if they thought there was sufficient cause, to have committed the accused to the general prison of the colony, "whereby it would have come regularly before the General Court." Wherefore he suggested "that the said County Court do make a further inquiry into the matter," and if they find cause for action, to follow the said law' and it was ordered that a copy of his report "be sent to the court of Princess Anne County for their direction in the premises." (Cf. Palmer's Calendar of Virginia State Papers, I. 100: at some points this corrects Mr. James's readings, at others needs correction by them.]

Under May 2, 1706

Whereas a formal complaint was brought against Grace Sherwood for suspicion of witchcraft, which by the Attorney General Report to his Excellency in Council was too general and not charging her with any particular act, therefore represented to them that Princess Ann Court might if they thought fit have her examined De Novo, and the court being of opinion that there is great cause of suspicion therefore order that the sheriff take the said Grace into his safe custody until she shall give bond and security for her appearance to the next court to be examined De Novo and that the constable of that precinct go with the sheriff and search the said Grace's house and all suspicious places carefully for all images and such like things as may any way strengthen the suspicion, and it is likewise ordered that the sheriff summon an able jury of women, also all evidences as can give in anything against her in evidence, in behalf of our Sovereign Lady the Queen, to attend the next court accordingly.

[Such "images" of course as witches were believed to make of those they wished to afflict. "They have often," says Dalton, whose book these justices doubtless had open before them, "pictures of clay or wax (like a man, etc., made of such as they would bewitch) found in their house, or which they roast, or bury in the earth, that as the picture consumes, so may the parties bewitched consume."]

Under June 6, 1706

Whereas Grace Sherwood of this county have been complained of as a person suspected of witchcraft, and now being brought before this court in order for examination, this court has therefore requested Mr. Maximilian Boush to present information against her as counsel on behalf of our Sovereign Lady the Queen in order for her to be brought to a regular trial.

Whereas an information on behalf of her Majesty was presented by Luke Hill to the court in pursuance to Mr. Attorney General Thomson's report on his Excellency's order in Council the 16th of April last about Grace Sherwood being suspected of witchcraft, have thereupon sworn several evidences against her by which it doth appear very likely.

Under June 7, 1706

Whereas at the last court an order was passed that the sheriff should summon an able jury of women to search Grace Sherwood on suspicion of witchcraft, which although the same was performed by the sheriff yet they refused and did not appear, it is therefore ordered that the same persons be again summoned by the sheriff for their contempt to be deal with according to the utmost severity of the law, and that a new jury of women be by him summoned to appear next court to search her on the aforesaid suspicion, and that he likewise summon all evidence that he shall be informed of as material in the complaint, and that she continue in the sheriff's custody unless she give good bond and security for her appearance at the next court, and that she be of good behavior towards her Majesty and all her liege people in the mean time.

Under July 5, 1706

Present, Mr. Jonathan Richason, Captain Jonathan Moseley, Captain Henry Chapman, Captain William Smyth, Justices.

Whereas for this several courts the business between Luke Hill and Grace Sherwood on suspicion of witchcraft have been for several things omitted, particularly for want of a jury to search her, and the court being doubtful that they should not get one this court, and being willing to have all means possible tried either to acquit her or to give more strength to the suspicion that she might be dealt with as deserved, therefore it was ordered that this day by her own consent to be tried in the water by ducking, but the weather being very rainy and bad so that possibly it might endanger her health, it is therefore ordered that the sheriff request the justices precisely to appear on Wednesday next by ten o'clock at hte court house, and that he secure the body of the said Grace until that time to be forth coming, then to be dealt with as aforesaid. Jonathan Richason, Henry Chapman.

[As to this water ordeal for witches see above. These gentlemen were doubtless a committee charged with the matter.]

Under July 10, 1706

Whereas Grace Sherwood being suspected of witchcraft has a long time waited for a fit opportunity for a further examination, and by her consent and approbation of this court it is ordered that the sheriff take all such convenient assistance of boats and men as shall be by him thought fit, to meet at Jonathan Harper's plantation in order to take the said Grace forthwith and put her into the above man's depth and try her how she swims therein, always having care of her life to preserve her from drowning, and as soon as she comes out that he request as many ancient and knowing women as he possibly can to search her carefully for all teats, spots, and marks about her body not uusal on others, and that as they find the same to make report on oath to the truth thereof to the court, and further it is ordered that some women be requested to shift and search her before she go into the water that she carry nothing about her to cause any further suspicion.

entry made later in the same day

Whereas on complaint of Luke Hill in behalf of her Majesty that now is against Grace Sherwood for a person suspected of witchcraft, and having had sundry evidences sworn against her, proving many circumstances to which she could not make any excuse of little or nothing to say in her own behalf, only seemed to rely on what the court should do, and thereupon consented to be tried in the water and likewise to be searched again, which experiments being tried and she swimming when therein and bound, contrary to custom and the judgement of all spectators and afterwards being searched by five ancient women who have all declared on oath that she is not like them nor no other woman that they knew of, having two things like tits on her private parts of a black color, being blacker than the rest of her body, all which circumstance the court weighing in their consideration do therefore order that the sheriff take the said Grace into his custody and to commit her body to the common jail of this county there to secure her by irons or otherwise there to remain until such time as he shall be otherwise directed in order for her coming to the common jail fo the country to be brought to a future trial there. Edward Moseley and Mr. Richason.

[This entry is made later on the same day: the court had merely taken a recess for the "ducking." The common jail of the country is the one at Williamsburg. If , at the next session of the General Court, Grace Sherwood came up for trial, the records are missing, and probably perished in the burning of the State Courthouse in 1865. She at least survived the trial; for in 1708 she was confessing judgement for 600 pounds of tobacco, and in 1733, willing her estate to her three sons. It was not until 1740 that the proving of that will shows her deceased.]

Please send your comments and related suggestions to

Mercy Warren home page

Mercy, a play by Richard Seltzer, based on the lives of Mercy Otis Warren and General Johnny Burgoyne  privacy statement