Salem witch trials are among the most well-known instances of witchcraft in colonial America, but belief in witches was not limited to New England. The colonists who settled in the lower colonies, like Virginia, came from England at a time when witch trials were a fact of life and had been for centuries. Beliefs such as these were bolstered by King James I’s 1597 text Daemonologie, which wrote that witchcraft and possession by the devil was, “most common in such wild partes of the worlde,” because there, “the Devill findes greatest ignorance and barbaritie.” 1 As Edward Bond wrote in his article “Source of Knowledge, Source of Power,” this led to English colonists who were “predisposed…to see evidence of malevolent supernatural forces in North America,” which they did, nearly immediately.2
Upon arrival, colonists recorded the signs of witchcraft and the devil they saw in the new world. When describing the native people of Virginia, John Smith wrote, “their chiefe God they worship is the Devill,”3 and Powhatan, the chief, was “more devill than man.”4 Reverend Alexander Whitaker, in a letter to a fellow priest in England, wrote that the behavior of the native people, “make me think that there be great witches among them, and that they are very familiar with the devil.”5
In his article “The Devil in Virginia in the Seventeenth Century”, Richard Beale Davis wrote that the few instances of witchcraft in colonial Virginia “had more to do with folklore than theology,” and Virginia avoided anything nearing the scale of the witch trials in Salem due to the shift from the puritanism of the Virginia Company to Anglican beliefs. Nonetheless, Davis argues, “that there should be investigations of alleged witchcraft was inevitable in any seventeenth-century European society.”6 In her thesis The Cup of Ruin and Desolation, Maureen Rush Burgess explains that while the “East Anglican Puritans” believed that witchcraft was heresy, the colonists who settled in Virginia hailed from all regions of England, and generally shared the more traditional English sentiment that witchcraft was a practice.7
The Act of 1604 identified witchcraft as a felony in England and its colonies. Specifically, the law forbade the “practice of invoking or conjuring spirits…. [or] to consult, covenant with, entertain employ, feed, or reward any evil and wicked spirit to or for any intent or purpose.” Convicted witches were sentenced to die by hanging.8
James I’s Act of 1604 was repealed in 1736. Published in Williamsburg that same year, too early to reflect the replacement of James I’s statue with the Act of 1736, The Office and Authority of the Justice of the Peace wrote the following regarding witchcraft and its corresponding punishments:
The existence of Witches, or Persons of either Sex, who have real correspondence and familiar conversation with Evil Spirits, has been a Subject of Controversy among learned Men; and Later Ages have produced very few Instances of Convictions of Witchcraft; But nevertheless, ‘tis a Capital Offence, and, by the Common Law, such Offenders were to be burnt.9
The Act of 1736 no longer classified witchcraft as a felony, but still imposed a punishment of a year in prison for “persons pretending to use witchcraft.”10
Early Virginia court documents that mention witchcraft were often libel cases; the accused witch could, and did often, sue their accuser for slander in civil court, even if no formal charge had been made. In a stated attempt to dissuade slander, the Norfolk court in 1655 imposed a fine of 1000 pounds of tobacco for “any such scandal” like the “dangerous and scandalous speeches have been raised by some persons concerning severall women in this Countie, termeing them to be Witches” if there was no proof to back up the accuser’s claims.11 If formal charges of witchcraft were alleged, the case would first be heard in county courts, and, if the situation was considered serious enough, move to the General Courts in Jamestown.12
Unfortunately, many of Virginia’s early court records were destroyed in Civil War fires, resulting in spotty documentation of witchcraft cases heard in the Commonwealth, often missing verdicts or dropping off halfway through the case, and the fates of the accused are lost to history.
The earliest documented case of witchcraft in the Virginia colonies took place in 1626, when Joan Wright was tried at the General Court at Jamestown. The initial testimony concerned the sickness and death of an infant. The child’s father, Lt. Allington, had initially sought to hire Wright as a midwife for his wife’s birth, but after discovering she was left handed, a bad omen, he instead chose another midwife. After this slight to Mrs. Wright, disaster struck Allington’s family. Both mother and baby fell ill, and the baby died. Multiple other people testified against Wright, alleging that she could predict death, and had caused the sickness and death of neighbor’s farm animals. While court records show that the following week more testimony was heard, the records end without a verdict for Mrs. Wright.13
Two women were hung for witchcraft on ships off the coast of Virginia, first in 1654, and again in 1659. The matter concerning Katherine Grady’s 1654 execution was later heard in a Jamestown court, while Elizabeth Richardson’s 1659 execution went to a Maryland court. Both women were hung in efforts to calm storms that the crew and passengers believed were caused by witches. Both captains were tried, though the records for Captain Bennett, who ordered Grady’s death were lost, Captain Prescott was not convicted of any wrongdoing in Richardson’s death.14
A notable witchcraft case in early Virginia was that of William Harding, which diverged from the norms of Virginia’s witch trials not only because Harding was a man, but also because there was a conviction and punishment. Harding, of Northumberland County, was found guilty of witchcraft in 1655. He received a sentence of ten lashes, and was given two months to leave the county.15
The most infamous and well documented witchcraft trial in Virginia is that of Grace Sherwood of Princess Anne County, accused multiple times of being a witch by her neighbors. In 1697, one of Sherwood’s neighbors, Richard Capps, began telling people she was a witch, leading Grace and her husband to sue Capps in February 1698 for defamation.
Not long after the matter with Capps was settled, in September 1698, Grace found herself back in court, suing her neighbors.
One neighbor spread rumors that Sherwood had “bewitched their pigs to death and bewitched their cotton,” while another was spreading the story that Sherwood snuck into her bedroom at night, “rid” her, and then left through “the key hole or crack in the door like a black Catt.”16 Grace lost both defamation suits.
Grace was back in court to sue her neighbors once more before, ultimately, she was formally accused of being a witch in January of 1706. A jury of women was assembled to search Sherwood’s body for marks of a witch, believed to be teats where the devil could feed off of her. The jury returned with the news they had found multiple marks on Sherwood’s body, and the county court continued their investigation, ordering Grace to be tried by ducking.
She was bound and lowered into a pond; if she sank, she was innocent, but if she floated, she was a witch. Sherwood floated, and was convicted. Here the court records run out, so the sentence she received is unknown. We do know that Grace was not executed, as her will was probated in 1740.17
In 2006, Governor Tim Kaine pardoned Grace Sherwood, 300 years after her conviction. Though Sherwood’s conviction was the last of its kind in Virginia, folklore about witches lived on in the Commonwealth.
By Olin Johnson, Virginia Newspaper Project Intern
- James VI/I. Daemonologie, In Forme of a Dialogue, Divided into three Books: By the High and Mighty Prince, James &c. England, 1597. 68.
- Bond, Edward L. ”Source of Knowledge, Source of Power: The Supernatural World of English Virginia, 1607- 1624.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Volume 108, Number 2, 2000, p. 114
- Smith, John. The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles. London: Printed by I.D. and I.H. for E. Blackmore, 1632. p. 35.
- Ibid, 36.
- Bruce, Philip Alexander. Institutional History of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century. New York & London: GP Putnam’s Sons, 1910, p. 278.
- “The Devil in Virginia in the Seventeenth Century,” 136
- Burgess, Maureen Rush. The Cup of Ruin and Desolation: Seventeenth-Century Witchcraft in the Chesapeake. Dissertation, University of Hawaii, 2002. p. 202.
- Ibid, 25-26
- Webb, George. The Office and Authority of the Justice of the Peace. Williamsburg: William Parks, 1736, p. 361.
- Hudson, Carson O. These Detestable Slaves of the Devill: A Concise Guide to Witchcraft in Colonial Virginia. Haverford: Infinity, 2001. p. 16
- Brown, Kathleen M. Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1996. p. 146
- “The Devil in Virginia in the Seventeenth Century,” 138
- These Detestable Slaves of the Devil, 31-34
- These Detestable Slaves of the Devil, 35, 39
- The Cup of Ruin and Desolation, 217
- These Detestable Slaves of the Devil, 45-46
- “The Devil in Virginia in the Seventeenth Century,” 147