The Witch No. 1

Witchcraft in Colonial Virginia

Witchcraft was a genuine concern for colonial Virginians. The colony's English settlers brought with them a strong belief in the devil's power and his presence in the New World. This belief was first manifested in the Jamestown colonists' early perceptions of the Virginia Indians, whom they believed to be devil worshippers. After 1622, some colonists began to accuse one another of practicing witchcraft. Though witchcraft cases in Virginia were less common and the sentences less severe than the more famous witch trials of Salem, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, evidence exists that about two dozen such trials took place in Virginia between 1626 and 1730. They ranged from civil defamation suits to criminal accusations. The most famous of these was the trial of Grace Sherwood of Princess Anne County, in which the judges determined her guilt by administering a water test. Records indicate that the last witchcraft trial in the mainland colonies took place in Virginia in 1730; five years later, Parliament repealed the Witchcraft Act of 1604, the statute under which British American colonists prosecuted accused witches. Since then, witchcraft has been largely forgotten as an aspect of life in colonial Virginia. MORE...

 

Background

The English colonists who came to Virginia in 1607 believed in the reality of witchcraft before they even set foot on North American soil. Like most Europeans, their Christian faith had deep roots, and they perceived the natural world as a place that could be shaped by supernatural forces. Witch trials had been a part of English life for centuries, and Parliament had passed a law criminalizing the practice of witchcraft in 1542, so the men and women who settled the English colony at Jamestown would have considered witchcraft to be a real and punishable offense.

The English colonists believed the Indians they encountered to be devils, or at least devil worshippers. In their descriptions of Virginia Indians, the Jamestown colonists often used supernatural terms: John Smith described the paramount chief Powhatan as "more like a devil then a man," while George Percy recalls the Indians "making noise like so many Wolves or Devils." Alexander Whitaker, an Anglican minister, reported that he found the Indians to be "very familiar with the Devill" and observed, "Their Priests … are no other but such as our English Witches are." This perception stemmed partly from the colonists' interpretation of the Powhatans' religious beliefs and rituals (some settlers believed that the Powhatans' main deity, Okee, was the devil incarnate) and partly from the Indians' unfamiliar appearance. As the historian Edward L. Bond wrote, "Colonial accounts of native bodies carried implications beyond mere physical descriptions … for English philosophy and theology linked body and spirit by suggesting that the exterior appearance of the body gave evidence of the interior state of the soul."

All this led the colonists and most Englishmen to conclude, as Puritan minister William Crashaw did in 1613, that "Satan visibly and palpably raignes [in Virginia], more then in any other known place of the world." Initially, it was easier for the English to connect the Indians' unfamiliar appearance and rituals to their traditional understanding of demonology than to accept a worldview that differed so greatly from their own. The early English interpretation of native life in Virginia did much to support the widespread contemporary belief that the practice of witchcraft was "most comon in … [the] wild partes of the world," as the Scottish king James IV (later King James I of England) wrote in his 1597 study, Daemonologie. Around 1622, however, once the Virginia colony had stabilized and its English population grew, the colonists began to turn their suspicions inward, no longer focusing their accusations on the Indians, but on each other.

Witchcraft Cases in Virginia

Most of Virginia's colonial-era court records were destroyed in fires during the American Civil War (1861–1865), so it is impossible to know exactly how many witchcraft cases were heard in Virginia and when. Historians know of some two dozen cases dealing with witchcraft in colonial Virginia. Most of these cases are defamation suits resulting from slander or gossip; in fact, the only Virginia law to specifically address witchcraft, passed in Lower Norfolk County on May 23, 1655, was intended to eliminate not the practice of witchcraft, but rather "divrs dangerous and scandalous speeches … raised by some psons concerning sevrall women in this countie termeing them to be witches, whereby their reputacons have beene much impaired, and theire lives brought in question." False accusers were to pay a fine of 1,000 pounds of tobacco and could be further punished by the court if it was deemed necessary.

In criminal witchcraft cases, Virginia courts adhered to England's witchcraft law, a 1604 statute passed under James I called "An Act against Conjuration Witchcraft and dealing with evil and wicked Spirits." In Virginia these cases deal mostly with the charge of maleficium—causing harm to people or property by supernatural means. The earliest witchcraft allegations on record against an English settler in the British North American colonies were made in Virginia in September 1626. The accused, Joan Wright of Surry County, was a married woman and a midwife. A number of Wright's neighbors testified against her, alleging that, through witchcraft, she had caused the death of a newborn, killed crops and livestock, and accurately predicted the deaths of other colonists. Wright was acquitted despite her own admission that she did in fact have knowledge of witchcraft practices.

The charges against Wright are typical of many witch trials during the colonial period: at a time when most misfortunes, like crop failure, illness, or death, had no apparent cause, witchcraft was a relatively logical explanation; an eccentric or unpopular member of the community made a convenient scapegoat. The fact that Wright was a woman is typical, too: in the surviving records of witchcraft cases in Virginia, only two accused witches were men, reflecting a trend that also exists in the legal records of England and the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

The most famous witch trial in colonial Virginia is the case of Grace Sherwood of Princess Anne County. Sherwood was first accused by her neighbors in 1698 of having "bewitched their piggs to death and bewitched their Cotton"; later that year another neighbor claimed that "the said Grace came to her one night and rid [rode] her and went out of the key hole or crack of the door like a black Catt." Grace Sherwood and her husband, James, brought defamation suits against the accusers, but did not win either case. The rumors and accusations continued until 1706, when Sherwood stood trial before the General Court. After a long investigation, the court justices decided to use the water test to determine her guilt or innocence. The test, which was so controversial that it was no longer used on the European continent at the time of Sherwood's trial, involved binding the accused's hands and feet and throwing him or her into a body of water. A defendant who sank was presumed innocent, because the water—a pure element—had accepted him or her; a defendant who floated was presumed guilty. Sherwood floated. She was convicted and imprisoned, but by 1714, she had been released.

Sherwood's case reflects how reluctant Virginia authorities were to execute convicted witches. English law prescribed harsh punishments for witchcraft, the most extreme being "paines of deathe," but no person accused of the crime in colonial Virginia was executed. By comparison, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, nineteen so-called witches were executed in 1692 alone. (Some historians have pointed to the death of Katherine Grady, who was hanged in 1654, as an example of a Virginia execution for witchcraft, but Grady's trial and death took place at sea, on a ship bound for the colony.)

The last witchcraft trial on record in Virginia took place in 1730, five years before Parliament repealed the English statute against witchcraft. Justices charged the accused, a woman named Mary, with using witchcraft to find lost items and treasure. She was convicted and whipped thirty-nine times. This was likely the last criminal case of witchcraft tried in any of the mainland colonies. That same year, Benjamin Franklin published in the Pennsylvania Gazette a satirical report of a witch trial in New Jersey. His elaborate, mocking descriptions of the practices of court justices in trying witches illustrate the beginning of a shift in the colonial perception of witchcraft from terrifying reality to puritanical fantasy.

Beyond the Colonial Period

By the turn of the eighteenth century, witchcraft cases had virtually disappeared from court records in Virginia—and from popular memory. Over time, Virginia's witch trials were overshadowed by the cases tried in New England, which were more numerous and more sensational, and then forgotten altogether. This collective amnesia came into play during the sectional crisis in the decades leading up to the Civil War, when tensions between northern and southern politicians regarding slavery ran high. On February 16, 1849, Democratic congressman Henry Bedinger of Virginia, having grown tired of defending the South and the practice of slavery to "fanatical" abolitionists, invoked the Salem witch trials as evidence of the North's immorality and the South's cultural superiority, saying, "There are some monstrosities we never commit." This misperception of the history of witchcraft in Virginia persists even today.

Time Line

  • 1542 - Parliament passes a law making witchcraft "a felony punishable by death and forfeiture of goods and chattels."
  • 1597 - James VI, king of Scotland (later crowned James I of England), publishes Daemonologie, a book that examines the practice of witchcraft and supports witch hunts. In it, he writes that witchcraft is "most comon in … [the] wild partes of the world."
  • 1604 - Parliament passes "An Acte against Conjuration Witchcrafte and dealing with evill and wicked Spirits," outlawing witchcraft and allowing authorities to prosecute accused witches in Virginia.
  • 1613 - In a foreword to Anglican minister Alexander Whitaker's Good Newes From Virginia, Puritan minister William Crashaw reports that "Satan visibly and palpably raignes [in Virginia], more then in any other known place of the world."
  • September 11, 1626 - The General Court meets in Jamestown to hear evidence against Joan Wright of Surry County, who is accused by her neighbors of practicing witchcraft. She is acquitted in what may be the earliest allegation of witchcraft on record against an English settler in North America.
  • 1654 - Katherine Grady, en route to Virginia from England, is accused of being a witch, tried, found guilty, and hanged aboard an English ship.
  • May 23, 1655 - Lower Norfolk County passes a law prohibiting its residents from falsely accusing other colonists of witchcraft. Offenders will be fined 1,000 pounds of tobacco.
  • 1698 - James and Grace Sherwood sue John and Jane Gisburne and Anthony and Elizabeth Barnes for defamation and slander. The Sherwoods allege that both couples accused Grace Sherwood of practicing witchcraft.
  • January 1706 - Luke Hill formally charges Grace Sherwood with witchcraft.
  • March 1706 - In response to Luke Hill's charge of witchcraft against Grace Sherwood, the Princess Anne County Court impanels a jury of women, including Elizabeth Barnes, to search Sherwood's body for witch's marks. The jury finds two marks, and Sherwood is ordered to jail to await trial.
  • July 5, 1706 - Grace Sherwood stands trial for witchcraft in Princess Anne County. The justices decide to subject Sherwood to the water test to determine her guilt or innocence. If Sherwood sinks, she will be presumed innocent; if she floats, she will be presumed guilty.
  • July 10, 1706 - Grace Sherwood undergoes a water test to determine whether she is guilty of the charge of witchcraft. Sherwood floats, indicating her guilt, and once ashore is examined for witch's marks. A jury of women finds two marks. Sherwood is imprisoned and ordered to undergo another trial. It is unclear whether the second trial ever occurred.
  • 1730 - A woman named Mary is accused of using witchcraft to find lost items and treasure. She is convicted and whipped thirty-nine times. This is the last witchcraft trial on record in Virginia.
  • October 22, 1730 - In the Pennsylvania Gazette Benjamin Franklin publishes "A Witch Trial at Mount Holley," a satirical account of a witch trial in New Jersey.
  • 1735 - English Parliament overturns the Witchcraft Act of 1604 and replaces it with the Witchcraft Act of 1735, which criminalizes the pretense, not the practice, of using black magic.
  • February 16, 1849 - Democratic congressman Henry Bedinger of Virginia invokes the Salem witch trials as a defense against Northern claims that Southern culture is inherently immortal and brutal.
Further Reading
Bond, Edward L. "Source of Knowledge, Source of Power: The Supernatural World of English Virginia, 1607–1624." The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 108, no. 2 (2000): 105–138.
Davis, Richard Beale. "The Devil in Virginia in the Seventeenth Century." The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 65 (April 1957): 131–149.
Gibson, Marion. Witchcraft Myths in American Culture. New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, 2007.
Hudson, Carson O. These Detestable Slaves of the Devill: A Concise Guide to Witchcraft in Colonial Virginia. Haverford, PA: Infinity Publishing, 2001.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Witkowski, M. C., & . Witchcraft in Colonial Virginia. (2014, May 30). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Witchcraft_in_Colonial_Virginia.

  • MLA Citation:

    Witkowski, Monica C. and . "Witchcraft in Colonial Virginia." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 30 May. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: February 23, 2012 | Last modified: May 30, 2014