Wednesday, August 23, 2006

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Whether you sink or swim in Virginia Beach has sometimes been a matter of life or death. You could commune with the late Grace Sherwood to find out why even Gov. Tim Kaine thought it prudent to make it a matter of state.

To “commune” may be a bit archaic way to communicate in the age of instant Internet communication, but you have to get an e-mail address before Internet communicating, and if Grace has an e-mail address no one knows what it could be. Her neighbors accused her of using sorcerer’s powers 300 years ago to poison crops, kill livestock and conjure storms. (Talk about female power.)

She could prove her innocence only through trial by water. If she sank when thrown into the Lynnhaven River, she was deemed innocent, although she could expect to drown before she could enjoy exoneration. If she floated, she was guilty and could expect to die as compliments of the state. Such was justice by Catch-22.

Witchcraft may appeal to a child’s imagination around a campfire, but this is not “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” nor “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.” It’s a cruel part of American history. Belief in witchcraft grew out of the superstitious side of religion, reinforced by the courts. Expert witnesses, like psychiatrists today, were called on to supply reasons why a particular person was thought to be a witch. She — nearly all witches were women — might have suffered from madness, but the terminology was theological, with references to Satan or demons inhabiting her body. Witches were burned in Europe from the 15th through the 18th centuries, even after the Enlightenment wrought by such thinkers as Kepler, Descartes and Copernicus.

Different kinds of ordeals determined guilt. One was the tear test. If a suspected witch couldn’t cry on hearing a sad and tragic story, usually about the Crucifixion, this was taken as proof she lacked remorse, even though she might be suffering from what is still known as “dry eye.” “Witch-prickers” prodded for insensitive spots, warts or moles where the devil might have entered the body. The water dunking test for sinking or floating was particularly popular in America.

An all-female jury found that Grace Sherwood had two suspicious moles, “not like theirs or like those of any other woman,” and she was sentenced to trial by water. (An accusation by a neighbor that she had become a cat and silently crept though a keyhole into her home was dismissed.) Grace was something of a nonconformist who wore trousers before pants suits became fashionable. She succeeded at growing crops. To the river with her.

Two curious young men, age 7 and 10, joined me on the search for the place where Grace Sherwood’s fate was sealed. We walked down an old path now named “Witch Duck Road,” following her steps to the banks of Lynnhaven River where she was tied up in a ritualized way. A rope was crossbound from the thumb of her right hand to the big toe of her left foot and from the thumb of her left hand to the big toe of her right foot. If that weren’t enough to sink her, the godly folk suspended a 13-pound Bible around her neck.

Even for young grandsons fascinated by tales of Houdini escaping from bonds of chains and safes, these knots and weights made escape sound difficult. We rapidly turned the pages of our guide to learn that Grace broke free of her ropes and swam to shore. So far, so bad. She had escaped with her life, but that only proved that Satan inhabited her body. She spent almost seven years in prison on conviction of sorcery.

This summer, three centuries later, the governor of Virginia has pardoned her. “With 300 years of hindsight, we all certainly can agree that trial by water is an injustice,” the governor said, and reached for a modern political moral. “We also can celebrate the fact that a woman’s equality is constitutionally protected today, and women have the freedom to pursue their hopes and dreams.”

Grace Sherwood would still be an unpardoned witch but for Belinda Nash, who researched the story for 20 years and nagged the current governor for a pardon. She thought of asking Mark Warner, the former governor, but she calculated that his presidential aspirations might make him loathe even to deal with such an arcane issue. And what if he said no? That would be flirting with a hex, and who wants to offend a 300-year-old witch?

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