Va. Resident’s Quest Leads to Pardon for Woman Convicted in 1706
Pungo, Va., may have to come up with some other historical tidbit as its claim to fame. The Witch of Pungo — who supposedly accursed Tidewater farms in the 17th and 18th centuries — has been cleared of all charges, namely that she was ever a witch.
On Monday, 300 years after Grace Sherwood was convicted at a trial that saw her thrown into the Lynnhaven River with her thumbs tied to her feet, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine pardoned her. The rules of the trial were simple: If you floated, you were guilty of being a witch; if you sank, you were cleared. And dead.
She served more than seven years in jail, was released and lived until she was 80. She is the only person convicted in Virginia by a “witch ducking trial.”
The news from Richmond was greeted in Virginia Beach — which today includes the rural section of Pungo — with a great amount of revelry because the legend of Sherwood is so deeply ingrained in the city’s folklore, serving as both a somber and cheeky reminder of its past.
In the Virginia Beach area, the tale of the Witch of Pungo is told to schoolchildren. The annual Pungo Strawberry Festival features a parade led by an honorary Pungo mayor and his wife, who plays the role of the Pungo witch. There’s even a popular children’s book written by a Norfolk woman titled “The Witch of Pungo.”
And every year, a reenactment of Sherwood’s trial takes place near the spot where she was thrown in the water — now Witchduck Point — with residents on boats playing the roles of sheriff, witch and town residents.
At this week’s reenactment — held on land to maximize the crowd — Virginia Beach Mayor Meyera E. Oberndorf read a statement from Kaine and delivered a proclamation pronouncing July 10 Grace Sherwood Day.
“With 300 years of hindsight, we all certainly can agree that trial by water is an injustice,” Kaine wrote. “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.”
The pardon was perfectly timed for an uncommonly monumental anniversary that might not have been so smoothly choreographed were it not for the bulldogged nature of resident Belinda Nash. It was Nash, 59, a former pig farmer who, out of her zeal for truth and love of research, investigated the life of Sherwood, scouting records from old church vestries, historical societies and libraries, and then learning how to lobby a governor for a pardon. (She initially had no idea that governors were responsible for such matters and first called a Virginia Beach magistrate to get the job done.)
“People have asked me why didn’t I give up when I came up with so many obstacles. For Grace, I would go as far as I could,” Nash said yesterday, juggling phone calls in her Tidewater home from reporters as far away as Britain. “I just like to find out the end result, the truth of the story. I have to be here for a reason, don’t I?”
In her quest to obtain the pardon, Nash became a guilt-free nagger, a consistent caller in recent days to Kaine’s office to make sure he would do Sherwood right by issuing a rare pardon.
“I am well acquainted with Mrs. Nash,” Kevin Hall, a spokesman for Kaine, said in a diplomatic tone. “At one point, on Friday, she was threatening to call every two hours to have some word from this office.”
Grace Sherwood’s problems with her neighbors started as such spats typically do. In the 1680s, Sherwood inherited nearly 200 acres from her father. Nash suspects Sherwood’s neighbors were envious not only of her acquisition, but also of her ability to harvest crops so successfully when they could not.
Neighbors took her to court, accusing her of blighting their cotton and killing a bull. One woman claimed that Sherwood transformed into a cat and slipped in through the keyhole of her home “with fangs and claws and leapt on her back.”
Nash said she was quoting from church vestry records.
Sherwood beat back most of the accusations — she was hauled into court at least 12 times — but what finally did her in was the discovery of two moles on her upper body. “This was evidence that she was in league with the devil,” Nash said. “So she agreed to be tried by water.”
Authorities took Sherwood out to the river, tied her up and threw her in the water. They tied a 13-pound Bible around her neck. But, according to Nash, she ripped off the ropes underwater and floated back up.
Her husband died in 1701, before the witch ducking, but she and her children continued to tend her land, even after her release. Throughout her life, she served as a midwife. Records show that children considered her a friend and that she healed sick animals, Nash said. Mysteriously, she said, Sherwood also “worked with herbs.”
Her pardon may still not be enough, though, to convince Pungonians of her innocence. Nash reports that a church turned down her offer to put a statue being built in Sherwood’s honor outside its property.
For other locals, the problem comes down to this: What do we call her? Joe Burroughs, 73, a Pungo farmer, thought of one solution: “I reckon now it would be Honorary Pardoned Witch of Pungo.”