Sorry, New Englanders, Virginia was not only founded first (13 years before Plymouth); had the first publicly proclaimed Thanksgiving (1 year before the Pilgrims arrived); held the first elected representative Assembly (again 1 year before the Pilgrims arrived); but Virginia can also claim the first known colonial trial of a suspected witch (four years before the Puritans under Governor John Winthrop even arrived in 1630). Massachusetts does get the award, though, for the most dramatic presentations: inviting the indigenous people to their Thanksgiving feast and hanging their witches. So how then was witchcraft handled in Virginia? Did Adam Thorowgood or his family have any dealings with suspected witches?
Witches in England and Scotland
Since Biblical times, good Christians had been taught to fear the Devil and his evil spirits, but around the 14th century, suspicions developed that the odd ones living in their communities might have sold their souls to the Devil and contracted to do his biding.1 When inexplicable misfortune hit, it seemed reasonable that one’s disagreeable neighbor, the town’s social misfit, or the eccentric widow who collected herbs by night might be responsible through a witch’s spell.
Witches seemed very real to most of the English and Scots in the 16th and 17th century. Even Shakespeare conjured up three Scottish witches to poison Macbeth’s mind with ambitious prophecies. The problem, though, was how to recognize and catch them.
King James VI of Scotland (who also became King James I of England) was very concerned about witches and, in fact, literally wrote the book on what to do about them. Relying heavily on a 1584 English translation of a popular treatise published by two Dominican friars, Malleus Maleficarum, the King composed his Daemonologie in 1597 with a Protestant twist. When he took the English crown in 1603, he had his book published in England and had witchcraft again made a felony punishable by death under The Witchcraft Statute of James I. That was the law that the colonists brought to Jamestown. 2
The First Colonial Witch Trial: Joan Wright
Sir George Yeardley, twice the Governor of Virginia, had many firsts. In 1619, he convened the first House of Burgesses and purchased some of the first Africans to arrive. When he was later reappointed, he presided in 1626 over the first known trial of a suspected witch in the colonies . The early colonists had been quick to condemn the native Powhatans as Devil worshippers and children of the Devil, but were a bit slower at pointing the finger at each other.
Elizabeth Cittie Parish (formerly called Kecoughtan; now known as Hampton) was one of the early shires in Virginia. Its population increased when it was designated as an area of safety for the settlers after the Powhatan Uprising of 1622. According to the census of Virginia conducted in 1624/5, there were 258 settlers living in that area. Among those were Edward Waters and his servant Adam Thorowgood. Also living there were Robert and Joan (or Jane) Wright, servants to Anthony Bonall, a French silk maker and wine grape cultivator. In 1626, the Wrights moved to Pace’s Paines across from Jamestown (now Surry County), but suspicions followed that Joan had practiced witchcraft in Kecoughtan. Soon thereafter she was formally charged and tried. 3
As the trial was in September, it is unknown whether Adam had returned to England before the trial started. However, having lived in Kecoughtan the previous years as part of Edward Waters’ household, he may well have known the Wrights or at least heard talk of Joan’s suspicious activities. According to the surviving transcript of the trial, charges against Goodwife Wright included causing hens in Kecoughton to die, healthy plants to be drowned, and people to become sick; foretelling deaths; cursing a hunter so that he “for a long time could never kill anything;” and causing an infant to die. 4
Joan Wright had been asked by Lt. Allington, to attend to his pregnant wife as the midwife, but when the wife discovered that Joan was left-handed and heard the rumors about her, she refused her and had another midwife brought. When Goodwife Wright found out, she was upset. The Allingtons believed she therefore cursed them, and consequently, each sequentially became ill (although of different disorders). Even though they all recovered, the infant succumbed after a second illness more than a month after its birth.
In the trial, Mrs. Isabel Perry testified that Mrs Gates said that “she (Wright) was a very bad woman and was accompted a witch amongst all them at Kickotan” and that Dorothy Behethlem had said that Wright had even practiced witchcraft back in Hull, England. Also according to Mrs Perry, when Mrs. Gates confronted Wright, she did not deny being a witch, but rather “replied, god forgive them, and so made light of it.” 5
There obviously was much hearsay testimony and circumstantial evidence brought against Joan Wright. Clearly, she had troubled relationships with her neighbors and may have even enjoyed making them fearful of her. However, illness and death were so common in Virginia that it would have been difficult to prove she caused them, particularly over an extended period of time. Although the transcript of the trial survived, the verdict of Gov. Yeardley did not. It is likely, though, that he took a more reasoned approach to the accusations. If she had been put to death for witchcraft, that certainly would have been remembered or survived in some record. This fall, Jamestown Settlement presented an excellent re-enactment of the trial of Jane/Joan Wright in “ Season of the Witch.”
The Thorowgoods and Virginia Witch Trials
There were at least 22 witch trials in Virginia from 1626 to 1730. Of those, 8 were held in Lower Norfolk County (later Princess Anne County), 3 of which involved the same accused witch, Grace Sherwood. 6 While it may appear that the citizens of this county were particularly superstitious or accursed, the seemingly high proportion of cases is partly because those court records survived, while records of many other counties were destroyed. Lower Norfolk was the county settled by Adam Thorowgood; its first county court was held in his home; and he often presided as a justice at the court until his death in 1640. Although he never tried the case of a witch, his grandsons did.
The Virginia justices found most of the accusations of witchcraft unsubstantiated. The only guilty verdict that remains is for William Harding of the Northern Neck in Virginia, who was accused by his Scottish preacher of witchcraft and sorcery in 1656. The accusations must not have been too serious, for his punishment was only ten lashes and banishment from the county. Nor were the citizens overly concerned, as he was given two months to leave. Katherine Grady was the only suspected witch to be hung, but it was done before she even reached Virginia in 1654 and under the direction of the ship’s captain, not court justices. When the ship encountered a severe storm near the end of its journey, the passengers were convinced that Katherine had caused it through witchcraft. Upon reaching Jamestown, the Captain had to appear before the admiralty court, but its findings have been lost.7
The justices were concerned, however, that reputations and lives were being damaged by casual accusations of witchcraft. In 1655, the Lower Norfolk justices ordered that persons who raised “any such scandal concerning any party whatsoever and shall not be able to prove the same, both upon oath and by sufficient witness” would have to pay 1,000 pounds of tobacco and be censured by the court. 8
This was put to the test in 1698 when John and Ann Byrd sued Charles Kinsey and John Potts for having “falsely and scandalously” defamed them by claiming they were witches and “in league with the Devil.” Kinsey finally admitted to the court that he might have only dreamed that they “had rid him along the Seaside and home” through witchcraft . John Thorowgood, a son of Adam Thorowgood II, was one of the justices on that court which surprisingly did not give a cash award to the Byrds, but rather found for the defendants. However, they chose not to pursue witchcraft charges against the Byrds. 9
The Trials of Grace Sherwood
The hysteria of Salem’s witch trials in 1692-3 might have encouraged Virginians to take a closer look at their neighbors, as there was a modest increase in witch trials from 1694-1706. Lt. Col. Adam Thorowgood III, John’s brother, also served as a justice in the Lower Norfolk County Court. He was part of the famous and complicated 1705/1706 witch trials of Grace Sherwood, “The Virginia Witch” or “The Witch of Pungo.” Like Joan Wright, Grace had a history of contentious relations with her neighbors. It started when a neighbor, Richard Capps, called Grace a witch, and the Sherwoods brought suit against him for defamation. 10
Although that was settled out of court, a few months later several other neighbors began to make accusations that she had bewitched pigs to death, destroyed cotton, and taken Mrs. Barnes on a ride through the keyhole. In 1698, the Sherwoods again brought a defamation suit against those neighbors. Grace Sherwood presented eight witnesses in her behalf, but again the justices decided in favor of the defendants who had made the accusations of witchcraft. Grace Sherwood had to pay the court costs and for the defendant’s nine witnesses. Even so, the court did not pursue charges of witchcraft.
In 1705, Elizabeth Hill, another neighbor, called Grace a witch, and a brawl between them ensued. Grace filed a complaint of trespassing and assault and battery against Elizabeth. Although Grace prevailed, she received little in monetary damages. Elizabeth Hill’s husband then made a formal charge of witchcraft against her. Accusations included that no grass would grow where she had danced in the moonlight, that she had soured the cow’s milk, and that she had made herself small enough to fly in an eggshell to England and back in one night to get rosemary seeds for her garden. However, rosemary was abundant locally and, ironically, often used to protect against witches. 11
The justices, which included Adam Thorowgood III, warned the Hills against making false claims, but agreed to have Grace examined by a jury of women to see if she had any “devil’s marks” (unusual growths or discolorations) on her. The foreman for the women was Mrs. Barnes, one of those Grace had previously tried to sue. They came back with the finding that she did have some unusual marks. Unlike the photo, the exam would have only been conducted by a group of women; nonetheless, it would have been very humiliating.
The Princess Anne justices then passed the case to the General Court in the new Virginia capital of Williamsburg, but that court remanded it back to the county justices for clearer charges. In Princess Anne, the justices ordered another group of women to examine her to confirm the prior findings, but the women refused to come. Another group was asked, and they also refused. It seemed no one wanted to tangle with a possible real witch.
The justices then decided to try the method of “ducking” the accused in a body of water as King James had advocated. As water was considered a pure medium, an innocent person would sink, whereas the water would reject a witch and she would float. A rope was tied around Grace’s waist to pull her up so she would not drown if innocent, and they even postponed the test to a sunny day to not endanger her health. Grace was dressed in a shift, so whether the ropes were tied so air was trapped in her shift or she held her breath or, as some claimed, she untied her ropes and swam around the cove laughing at the observers, Grace did not sink. The results of the physical examination and ducking were taken to indicate she was a witch, but which accusations were considered credible is unknown.
The case was probably sent back to the General Court, but those records burned in 1865, and we do not know the final disposition of the case. Her trial is dramatized in Colonial Williamsburg’s program “Cry Witch.” Grace Sherwood spent some time in jail, but was ultimately released and lived until around 1740. 12
Virginia Beach has erected a kindly statue in honor of this misunderstood woman, and the Governor of Virginia recently pardoned her, even though there is no record of her conviction. Grace seems not to have had the sweet disposition portrayed in the statue, but still she serves as a symbol of those innocent “cunning women” who suffered when their skills with herbal potions and their independent and defiant spirits were misconstrued as evil. The last known witch trial in Virginia was in 1730.
The Witch’s Bottle
It appears that not all the Lower Norfolk/Princess Anne County residents were confident that the justices could keep them safe from witches. In 1979, near the Thorowgood property, a still-sealed witch’s bottle was found buried upside down, as would be expected, possibly dating from the era of the Sherwood trials. 13 Inside one can still see the straight pins intended to harm the witch and a yellowish liquid stain, which might have been urine, to keep the witches away. Someone was worried.
A Modern Dilemma
Witchcraft and the occult are still practiced by some today. While there are those who try to connect with the spirit of the earth and be “good witches,” there are others who have carried out horrific acts. Unfortunately, over the ages, many innocents were sent to their deaths because of the superstitions and suspicions of others. It has been estimated that 85% of those killed in European witch hunts were women. A Puritan preacher of the time, William Perkins, was unapologetic in his explanation: 14
The woman, being the weaker sex, is sooner entangled by the devil’s illusions, with the damnable act, than the man. And in all ages it is found true by experience, that the devil hath more easily and oftener prevailed with women than with men.
Although we may recoil from or laugh at the beliefs and practices of the past, today we also struggle with what to do with individuals who desire to inflict harm. How can we humanely identify and deal with potential terrorists and mass murderers without sweeping up “strange,” but innocent, victims? How can we better prevent and respond to acts of evil and hatred? These challenges are with us still.
- Hudson, Carson O., Jr., Witchcraft in Colonial Virginia (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2019), 16. ↩
- Hudson, 55-60. “King James VI and I’s Demonology, 1597,” published online in The British Library: Discovering Literature: Shakespeare and Renaissance collection items. http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/king-james-vi-and-is-demonology-1597. Accessed online 10/22/2019. ↩
- Hudson, 75. Hotten, John Camden, The Original Lists of Persons of Quality (Berryville, VA: Virginia Book Company, 1980), 253. ↩
- Hudson, 75-79. “Transcription from the Original: General Court Hears Case on Witchcraft, 1626,” Encyclopedia of Virginia, accessed online 10/15/2019. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Hudson, 127-129. ↩
- Hudson, 81. “Witchcraft in Virginia,” William and Mary Quarterly, 1:3 (January 1893), 127-128. ↩
- Hudson, 89. Turner, Florence Kimberly, Gateway to the New World: A History of Princess Anne County, Virginia, 1607-1824 (Easley, SC: Southern Historical Press, Inc., 1984), 79. ↩
- Hudson, 89. “Witchcraft in Virginia,” William and Mary Quarterly, 2:1 (July 1893), 60. McCartney, Martha W., Jamestown People to 1800 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2012), 403. ↩
- Hudson, 90. “Transcription from the Original: The Case of Grace Sherwood (1706),” Enclyclopedia of Virginia, accessed online 10/5/2019. Dorman, John Frederick, Adventurers of Purse and Person, Virginia, 1607-1624/5, 4th ed., vol 3 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co, 2004), 335. ↩
- Hudson, 90-92. Tucker, 79-80. “Transcription from the Original: The Case of Grace Sherwood (1706),” online access. ↩
- Hudson, 92-98. Tucker, 80-81. “Witchcraft in Virginia,” William and Mary Quarterly, 1:3 (January 1893), 127-128. “Transcription from the Original: The Case of Grace Sherwood (1706),” online access. ↩
- Tucker, 82. ↩
- Hudson, 74. ↩