Stories of witchcraft and accusations of the practice of sorcery revolved around either a primitive tribal culture or power in the hands of one or a few religious leaders who believed, or were duped into believing, that witches were among the populace. Yet, often overlooked, is the human nature of how some people will falsely accuse others as a means to obtain an outcome that they strongly desire. Such was the case in Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, where people were accused, convicted, and executed on a massive scale simply because they were different in some way from those in power. The practice of false accusation of witchcraft can be more easily understood in a case study of a single early 18th century colonial person so accused.
The Witch of Pungo
An excerpt from “A Voice from New Mill Creek: The Methodists.” From Ocracoke Inlet in North Carolina, the pirate crew of Cutter Anne sailed one full hot day to the mouth of Hampton Roads in Virginia, and put into safe harbor through an inlet that led to Lynnhaven Bay, which was on their port side, after Cape Henry Point. As they passed through the inlet they found a rat’s maze of choices about where to sail. The captain decided to bear to starboard to follow the flow of land until he could find some place to dock or anchor. That place happened to be Witch Duck Bay, so named because it was where local woman (Grace Sherwood) was once strapped to a chair attached to a long board. She was submerged. The idea was that water, considered to be a pure element, would reject a witch (Grace would float to the surface if she was a witch). Grace was blamed for the effects of drought on the crops of local farmers. Various local farm animal maladies were added to her charge for good measure. The good men of the county shoved the board out over the water. They stood on one end of it so that the chair on the other end (with Grace in it) was suspended above the water. Then, they let their end of the board up to duck her! Grace was naked, except for a burlap sack that was crudely placed over her contorted shape. Each of her thumbs was strapped to the toes of her opposite feet. In a head down position she sat, in peril of drowning. Men held her under for awhile. Then, they stood on the board again to let her up; she lived. They ducked her again, and several more times. Grace held her breath each time, just before she was ducked. She also worked the straps off her thumbs. Once her hands were freed, Grace wiggled out of the chair during a ducking, surfaced, and swam to the other side of the small bay. Clearly, the woman was a witch!
An Attractive Widow
Men took to boats and went after Grace. She was captured and jailed for the crime of practicing witchcraft. As the drought became a distant memory during the next growing season, her accusers justified Grace’s conviction and continued incarceration. The argument was that since the powers of a jailed witch could not pass beyond her confinement, they were all better off keeping her in jail. Grace was locked up in the jail next to the Princess Anne County courthouse for many years. The small bay where she was ducked was renamed Witch Duck Bay. Captain Snukes and his men got an earful of this story at the small tavern by the wharf where they docked the cutter. He reached his tolerance when a few local men proudly spoke of how their fathers and uncles were among the good citizens who had ferreted out the witch among them. One offered to get his father in order to regale the story again, from a living participant. “You do that,” Augustus roared. “Bring him to me. I will have my men to see how well his ass floats on yonder waters!” That put a decided hush on the mirth of the crowd. Most of the local men scurried out of the tavern. With the absence of bullies in combination in the tavern, some truth to the story of Grace Sherwood might be had from the barkeep who served ale to the pirate crew. Grace was a widow who was left about 150 acres of land in Princess Anne County (modern day Virginia Beach, Virginia). Thus, she became a farmer. Her husband had worked the farm land. Now, she had to do that in order to feed her family. She wore the trousers of a farmer, which affronted the sensibilities of local wives. She was a healer and a midwife before and after she was widowed. As a healer, she was knowledgeable in the use of herbs (she was both a doctor and pharmacist of early 18th century Colonial Virginia). Midwifery (helping other women to give birth) was commonly practiced. Grace was no witch. She was a tall, attractive, young widow, filled with mirth, (she laughed freely and loved to be around people). Her accusers were local women, who gossiped and conspired to find a way to rid themselves of a pretty, unattached beguiler of their men. The women combined to either cajole their men or to withhold affection unless a man charged Grace with practicing witchcraft. Other men were compelled by their wives to support the charge in order get an outcome that they strongly desired, which was to rid themselves of the pretty young widow. https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/265123