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Grace Sherwood and the Last Witch Trial

Phyllis realizes the importance of portraying women in history who made a difference in the world.

Salem Massachusetts Witch Trials Were Highly Unfair to the Accused

Depiction of a Salem, Massachusetts Witch Trial

Depiction of a Salem, Massachusetts Witch Trial

Salem Witch Trials

The Salem witch trials in colonial America were conducted due to deep-rooted superstitions, mass hysteria, religious extremism, and the supernatural beliefs that Satan was among those on Earth. These exaggerated idiosyncrasies are what surrounded the fate of Grace Sherwood and the last witch trial in America.

Even today, witchcraft is filled with false accusations and lore stemming from the minds of fearful individuals with little knowledge of the ancient art of true witchcraft and the healing benefits of the practice. In the time of Puritans in colonial America, life was governed by the Church. Extreme beliefs and forbidden acts such as observance of holidays like Easter and Christmas, dancing and music, were strongly enforced. Although they are commonly known even today as the Salem witch trials, trials occurred in other towns throughout the colonies. Not long before the trials began in February of 1692, people began spreading rumours about odd or abnormal happenings, and suspicious behavior of some individuals. The people were so fearful of what the Church proclaimed and enforced that the least little thing that was considered abnormal was looked upon as witchcraft. Some people even used witchcraft accusations against people they disliked, just for revenge over petty matters.

Church leaders, like Reverend Cotton Mather who firmly believed in witchcraft, terrified the colonists to the point of mass hysteria with the belief that Satan was among them. Reverend Mather published many pamphlets that constantly were spread around to every household.

The Salem trials were held in 1692 and 1693. The last known witch trial was conducted in 1706 in Virginia, when Grace Sherwood was accused of witchcraft.

Depiction of a Witch Trial Similar to What Grace Sherwood had to Endure

Examination for Trial

Examination of a Witch 1853 by T.H. Matteson

Examination of a Witch 1853 by T.H. Matteson

Grace White Sherwood

Grace White was born sometime around 1660, to John White and his wife, Susan. John was a carpenter and small landowner. The White family lived in Pungo, which was a community in lower Norfolk County of Virginia.

Grace lived all her life in Pungo, which is in the areas of Virginia Beach. She grew up to become a woman who was true to herself and her beliefs. She was wise in the ways of nature and far ahead of her time. Grace was very attractive and seen as a non-conformist, strong-willed, and different. In those colonial days of the 1600s the qualities and gifts Grace had became a curse to her happiness in life. Even so, Grace had faith in herself and refused to let go of her love for nature, healing, children, and animals.

Grace knew herself, knew every herb in her area and how to use them for healing, cooking, teas, and remedies. It is evident that Grace felt her life work to be one of healing and helping others -- she was dedicated to this task, loyal to her self and the gifts bestowed upon her. She respected herself. She knew how to apply knowledge with wisdom and find balance and harmony with nature.

Grace married James Sherwood, a landowner and farmer, in 1680 (approx). Her father, John White, gave his new son-in-law fifty acres of land. When White died in 1681 the remainder of his estate went to James Sherwood. James and Grace had three sons, John, James, and Richard.

Grace eventually became known as the witch of Pungo.

Ordeal by Water

17th Century Engraving

17th Century Engraving

Accusations and the Trial

In 1698 there was some problems with neighbors of the Sherwoods and the outcome was that James and Grace sued John and Jane Gisburne, and Anthony and Elizabeth Barnes for defamation and slander. The Gisburnes and the Barnes had claimed that Grace had shown signs of being a witch. The Sherwoods lost both the cases.

James Sherwood died in 1701, leaving Grace with the heavy responsibility of the farming and raising her three sons. In 1705 there was more trouble with neighbors and Grace sued Luke and Elizabeth Hill for assault and battery. This time Grace won the case and received twenty pounds sterling in damages.

The following year, early 1706, Luke Hill charged Grace with witchcraft, which was a criminal offense per an act passed in Parliament in 1603/4.

Grace was arrested and her children were taken to a relative. After numerous delays, the trial started on May 2, 1706. Due to several accusations, and a search of her body by a jury of women for signs of a witch, which was positive, Grace was found guilty of witchcraft and had to submit to trial by ordeal -- she was to be tied cross-bound and dropped in water "over the depth of a man's height". The concept was that since water is pure it would not accept the body of a witch and therefore the body would float. Grace was to go through this test. If her body sank and she drowned, she would be declared innocent and buried in consecrated ground. If her body floated, she would indeed be declared a witch and sentencing would follow.

Being tied cross-bound is to tie the thumb of the right hand to the big toe of the left foot, and the thumb of the left hand tied to the big toe of the right foot. This is not an easy position for one to escape from in deep water. Yet by sheer willpower and strength, Grace managed to float and save herself. She was taken from the water, unbound and back to court for sentencing. Because she did not drown, it was proof to the law that Grace was a witch.

In July 1706, Grace was sentenced to eight years in jail. When she was released, Grace's land, house and three sons were restored to her.

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Grace lived the rest of her life on her farm until her death at the age of 80, in the Autumn of 1740.

Witch Duck Bay Where Grace Sherwood was Ducked

Posthumous Pardon

On July 10, 2006, there was a memorial ceremony and statue dedication in Virginia in honor of Grace Sherwood. The ceremony was held on the 300th anniversary of the day that Grace was convicted on suspicion of witchcraft. Grace received her pardon, posthumously, from Virginia Governor Timothy Kaine who officially pardoned her on the 300th anniversary of her conviction. Her lovely statue is a testimonial to a woman many people have come to love and admire. The statue was created by California sculptor Robert Cunningham -- it depicts Grace's love of nature with a raccoon and a basket of rosemary.

Although the trial of Grace was the last witch trial held in North America, today she is remembered and honored as a healer, herbalist, and a good woman with a kind heart.

Memorial Stone for Grace Sherwood

Grace Sherwood

© 2013 Phyllis Doyle Burns


Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on September 14, 2014:

Hi JamaGenee. Thanks for the visit and commenting. That is really interesting about your many greats grandma. I am sure it was a terrifying time for all the people of Salem.

Grace Sherwood was very lucky to have escaped execution. It was at a time when people began questioning the harsh treatment and unfairness of the trials. I have read about the infected rye that may have been the cause of hallucinations and odd behaviour and it seems quite feasible that this was, indeed, the cause of all the problems, plus hysteria spreading.

Thanks for the votes and sharing - I appreciate this very much.

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on September 14, 2014:

Thank you, Rochelle. I appreciate that. Have a great evening.

Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on September 14, 2014:

Very interesting hub, about a fascinating person. Shared, etc.

Joanna McKenna from Central Oklahoma on September 14, 2014:

Phyllis, one of my however-many-greats-grandmother was a character witness for one of the women accused at Salem. The woman was aquitted, but I'm ever amazed that this very outspoken "Great-grandma" didn't end up in the dock herself considering how easy it was to accuse women (and some men) of witchcraft back then.

Forensic researchers are now of the belief that a wet summer caused a toxic mold-like organism to infect the rye used to make the bread Salemites began eating the following winter, an organism now known to cause hallucinations and the odd behavior that led to accusations of witchcraft.

However, it would appear Grace Sherwood simply had the misfortune to be an outspoken widow with property. Being so easy to lodge an accusation of witchery and the verdict geared to guaranteeing death whether innocent OR guilty, this was the preferred method for a town or a town's VIP to gain property they couldn't get for "free" by any other means. Very sad. But hurrah for Grace surviving the cross-tying and escaping the noose, although eight years in a colonial jail couldn't have been a picnic for her.

Upped and shared. ;D

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on November 23, 2013:

This hub has received an 'Editor's Choice' award. Thank you to those who chose my hub for this award.

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on September 06, 2013:

Flourish, thank you so much for reading and commenting - also for the votes, I really appreciate that. I, too, have wondered about Grace's children. I could find no information on them or any descendants of hers. It would be interesting to know. Thanks again.

FlourishAnyway from USA on September 06, 2013:

What a fascinating hub about a lady who really was in a no win situation but made the best out of it. I am glad that all these years later she did receive her pardon. It would be interesting to know what became of her children. Voted up and more! Sharing.

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on August 25, 2013:

phoenix, thank you -- I am happy you like the story. Grace was a very strong woman in many ways. It is so good that she survived all the trouble and the ordeal by water. To be able to continue on with her life and get back her home and family was an unusual occurrence in those days. Thanks again for your visit and comment. I appreciate it very much.

Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon from United Kingdom on August 25, 2013:

Thank you for writing this wonderful hub. I had never heard of Grace Sherwood till now and I found her story fascinating. All in all she got off lightly. She was able to lead a long, full life which is more than can be said for most.

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on August 22, 2013:

Wayne, my gosh it is great to hear from you! Thank you so much for the visit and comment. I hope all is well with you and yours.

You are so right -- ignorance certainly did manifest in many ways. So many people died due to ignorance and the inability to understand the ways of Nature in the case of the witch trials. Grace was very fortunate to have a judge on her case who was tired of the witch trials and all the hysteria. I do believe he, in his own way, was beginning to see the light and wished to put an end to such unfair treatment of people like Grace Sherwood.

I also believe that Grace was one of the first to open up to truths by having so much faith in herself and to persevere in her way of life and beliefs. To know that she was pardoned and is now seen as a woman of wisdom, great love of Nature, and a good heart is a wonderful thing.

Thank you again, Wayne, for your visit, I truly appreciate it. May you always walk in peace and harmony. Blessings to you and yours.

Wayne Brown from Texas on August 22, 2013:

Over time, ignorance has certainly manifest itself is so, so, many ways. To think that at one time doctors could not grasp the concept of a sterile work environment demonstrates that even the educated were in some form still very ignorant. Such is the case here with Mrs. Sherwood. She was quite lucky that the sentence did not entail being burned at the stake. Still, she was faced with a test that did not have a desireable outcome either way yet she perservered. She just might be a symbol of humankind's ability to overcome ignorance. Nice story...very interesting. ~WB

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on August 21, 2013:

Nell, it was her good fortune that she was not hanged. Thanks for the visit and comment, also for the vote, I appreciate it.

Nell Rose from England on August 21, 2013:

Wow! I was unaware that there were people who were tried for witchcraft, floated back to the surface after the dunking, and still lived to tell the tale! Great read phyllis, and thanks! voted up and shared, nell

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on August 21, 2013:

Mary, thanks for the visit and comment. Grace had faith in herself and was a strong woman. I am glad you enjoyed the article. Thanks again, and for the votes. Have a great day.

Mary Craig from New York on August 21, 2013:

You really find the most interesting things to write about. We've all heard of the witch trials and the horrors they resulted in but this was an encouraging story. One that shows the power a person can display when they are in the right!

Voted up, useful, and interesting.

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on August 20, 2013:

Hi Eddy. I am so glad you liked the story of Grace Sherwood. Thank you so much for your visit and comment. Have a wonderful week.

Eiddwen from Wales on August 20, 2013:

A great story and thank you for sharing Phyllis.

Enjoy your day.,


Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on August 19, 2013:

Anna, thank you for visiting, reading and commenting, I really appreciate it. Grace's story is sad, but at least she lived and her family and home were restored to her. So many others were falsely accused and executed. It was a very sad thing that was caused by lack of knowledge.

Anna Haven from Scotland on August 19, 2013:

A sad but interesting story. At least she finally got acknowledged for who she really was and pardoned.

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on August 18, 2013:

Hi Sheila. I agree, Grace's pardon was long overdue. Thanks for the visit and comment.

sheilamyers on August 18, 2013:

Very interesting hub. I was happy to read the part where she was granted a pardon. Unfortunately, it was long over due. Thanks for sharing the great story.

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