Monday, July 3, 2006

VIRGINIA BEACH — Grace Sherwood was a healer, a midwife and a widowed mother of three sons.

Her neighbors thought she also was a witch who ruined crops, killed livestock and conjured storms.

On July 10, 1706, the 46-year-old woman was tied up and “ducked” — dropped into a river — in what is now Virginia Beach. The theory behind the test was that if she sank, she was innocent, although she also likely would drown.

She floated — proof she was guilty because the pure water cast out her evil spirit.

Three hundred years later, a modern-day resident of this resort city has asked the governor to exonerate Sherwood, Virginia’s only convicted witch tried by water.

Belinda Nash, 59, also is raising money to erect a bronze statue of Sherwood and trying to find a place to put it.

“I would like to see her name cleared because I don’t believe she was a witch,” said Miss Nash, who has an affinity for Sherwood in part because Miss Nash’s reputation for having things she wishes for come true earned her the nickname “Samantha the Witch.”

“Otherwise, I’d be ducked [too],” she added with a smile in an interview at the Ferry Plantation House, a historic home where she volunteers as director and, dressed in costume, tells visitors about “poor Grace.”

The courthouse where part of Sherwood’s witchcraft trial took place was located on the old Ferry farm property, Miss Nash said.

Nearby is the Western Branch of the Lynnhaven River, where Sherwood was ducked at a site now known as Witchduck Point.

Miss Nash hopes Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, will decide whether to vindicate Sherwood’s name by the 300th anniversary of the ducking, which Miss Nash and a small group will commemorate with a re-enactment, as they do yearly, her daughter playing Sherwood.

Miss Nash’s request was being reviewed, said Mr. Kaine’s spokesman, Kevin Hall.

“I must say it is odd to be considering a request like this for an individual who’s been dead almost 300 years,” Mr. Hall said.

Virginia never had a witch craze like that in Massachusetts, where 19 Colonists were hanged for witchcraft in Salem Town in 1692.

Records survive of 15 witchcraft cases in the Virginia colony in the 1600s, with most ending in acquittals, said Frances Pollard, director of library services at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond.

A copy of the transcript of Sherwood’s trial was among the first items donated to the society, founded in 1831.

No one was executed for witchcraft in Virginia, although Katherine Grady was hanged in 1654 aboard an English ship bound for Virginia when passengers blamed her for causing a storm.

The latest Virginia witchcraft case was in 1802 in Brooke County, now part of West Virginia. A couple accused a woman of being a witch, and the court ruled that was slander. That was a frequent result in such cases, with people fined for bringing false charges, Miss Pollard said.

“It was pretty clear that Virginia early on tried to discourage these charges being brought of witchcraft because they were so troublesome,” Miss Pollard said.

Sherwood seems to be the only accused witch tried by water in Virginia, let alone convicted, Miss Pollard said.

Sherwood lived in what today is the rural Pungo neighborhood and she’s known as “The Witch of Pungo,” the name of a children’s book by Louisa Venable Kyle.

Her story also is told in “Cry Witch,” a courtroom drama at Colonial Williamsburg, the re-created 18th-century capital of Virginia.

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