Separating fact from fiction: The Witch of Pungo

Virginia Beach

Watch part 1 of our Witch of Pungo story above. Part 2 is below.


VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — It was Princess Anne County, 1660. A farmer and his wife welcomed their first and only child, Grace White.

“Dad needed help on the property, so he taught his daughter how to work the land,” said Cody Green, vice president of the Ferry Plantation House in Virginia Beach. “She was learning about the world around her and became an herbalist by living on the land.”

Grace went on to marry James Sherwood, a neighboring farmer. Grace worked as a healer. She used herbs to soothe ailments for her neighbors. 

After losing her husband in 1701, Grace took to tending the farm with her three sons. Based on standards back then, running the farm was “man’s work.”  According to the story about Grace, her work caught the unwanted eye of neighbors, especially men.

“Now the wives are mad about this because the husbands are checking her out. She’s also turning away every suitor,” said Green. “She was an independent woman, and that’s a very dangerous thing.”

Grace’s property flourished, according to Green, because of her knowledge of crop rotation, and how seasonal changes affect produce. Her neighbor’s property wasn’t so lucky.

“Their crops were dying, ‘Well Grace’s crops are fine, so obviously she did something to our crops. Cows aren’t giving milk so Grace must have done something to them.’” said Green.

Grace’s neighbors started making claims of witchcraft.

“Elizabeth Hill, Grace’s neighbor, claimed Grace snuck into her room through a keyhole, hovered above her bed, turned into a cat, and jumped out the window. Another woman said Grace snuck into her room and rode her like a horse around the ceiling,” said Green.

Neighbors became worried and consulted Gov. Edward Nott in Williamsburg. Charges were pressed against Grace.

The only evidence against her was that she didn’t own trinkets, which were thought at that time to ward off spells and demons.

One, a witch’s ball, was believed to ensnare demons and curses, and the other, a witch’s bottle, would be filled with sharp objects and buried cork-down to entrap demons as well.

“Who would not need these tools? A witch,” said Green.

Then, Governor Nott suggested trial by ducking.

“If you died, you were innocent,” said Green. “If the pure water of God expels your body to the surface, and you float, then you were evil and must be dealt with. The whole thing was to kill her.”

The trial was delayed twice due to weather. Eventually, a day was clear enough to put Grace on a boat in the Lynnhaven River.

“The morning of July 10th, 1706, thousands of people lined the Lynnhaven River to watch this happen. This was huge, we never had a convicted witch in our state,” said Green.

“On the way out there, she says, ‘I be not a witch, but, today you will receive a worse ducking than I.’ They tie her wrists to her toes and ankles, and they push her in the water… and she floats. She unties herself, swims around the boat and laughs at them. Now, everybody is losing their minds.”

Green says even though she was found guilty, Grace could not be put to death because the execution of a witch was illegal in Virginia.

“They get her back in the boat, and now this is July in Virginia Beach, what happens in July on a beautiful day? Out of nowhere, we get that freak lightning strike, right?” said Green. “She told them ‘You’re going to receive a worse ducking than I.’ Really, she knew the outdoors, she knew nature. When the leaves start to curl up on the trees, it’s getting ready to rain.”

Grace was then put in a cell, to be forgotten.

“Truth is, you don’t know what you got until it’s gone. She was their healer,” said Green.

Princess Anne County residents had lost their healer, who was jailed in a cell near Lynnhaven Perish Church. In Grace’s years in the cell, under the cover of night, people would take her supplies. In return, they sought advice on how to heal sick and ailing loved ones. Eventually, eight years after Grace was jailed, she was released, but not pardoned, by Gov. Alexander Spotswood. She lived out her life back on her farm, until her death at the age of 80.

“All these Legends have some nugget of truth to them, you know, Grace’s is no different. She was just a good person trying to help people” said Green.

300 years to the day after her conviction, and with a push from Belinda Nash and the Ferry Plantation in Virginia Beach, Grace Sherwood was exonerated by then-Gov. Tim Kaine. 

A statue of Grace stands near Sentara hospital on Independence, with a lesson about persecution, and unjust treatment.

And Witchduck Road gets its name from Grace’s story.

“She pushed through those 10 terrible years, and no matter what, that’s a lesson to everybody: it’s gonna get hard, but it can always get better, and get there, just find a way to get there,” Green said.

To learn more about Grace Sherwood, the trial, or the court documents leading up to the trial, visit the Witch of Pungo section of the Ferry Plantation website.

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