Take a seat at the trial of Grace Sherwood, the “Virginia Witch.”
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is "Behind the Scenes" where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions.
Elizabeth Hill miscarried her baby, and she knew the reason: Grace Sherwood had cursed her. It was 1706 in Williamsburg, Virginia, and witchcraft was a felony. It was common knowledge that witches caused crop failure, storms at sea, sickness, and misfortune. The punishment for a witch was death by hanging.
Here in Colonial Williamsburg, Grace Sherwood faces trial several nights a week, in the evening program "Cry Witch," and the outcome is never certain. Tonight, we have a seat at her trial, in the Capitol's General Court. The room is high ceilinged, with wooden benches on a gray slate floor. Candles light the room, and darkened windows cast strange reflections.
Sheriff: Oyea, oyea, oyea. Silence is commanded in this court while her majesty's justices are sitting, upon pain of imprisonment. Let all manner of persons that have anything to do with this court draw near and give your attention, and if anyone have any intent to prosecute, let them come forth, and they shall be heard. God save the queen.
Crowd: God save the queen.
Judge: Gentlemen, before we begin, I wish to speak to you privately concerning the matter before us. As you are aware, we have a woman in Princess Anne County, one Grace Sherwood, who is accused of witchcraft. This matter has caused a great deal of concern, and the populace is much divided in their opinions.
The existence of witches, or persons who are familiar with the devil or evil spirits has become a matter of great controversy and debate among learned men, and of late, there have been very few convictions on this charge. Nonetheless gentlemen, I remind you, it is a capitol offense. Your duty is to hear the evidence as it is presented, and upon proper legal proofs of witchcraft, render a just verdict. I am completely confident that you will ably fulfill the duties which have been placed upon you.
Very well. Mr. Sheriff, you may call the case.
Sheriff: Yes, your Excellency. Will the queen's attorney come forth and prosecute the action against one Grace Sherwood of Princess Anne County?
Queen's Attorney: Your Excellency, gentlemen. I am here, ready to begin. Indictments presented against Grace Sherwood of Princess Anne County in her majesty's colony of Virginia, prepared by her majesty's attorney in Virginia.
First, that the said Grace Sherwood of Lynnhaven Parish of Princess Anne County of her majesty's colony of Virginia did, at the instigation of the devil, willfully and feloniously bewitch diverse persons, livestock, and goods in the aforesaid county.
Second, that an able jury of 12 women summoned by the court of the aforesaid county did examine the person of said Grace Sherwood, and have declared on their oath that she is not like them, or no other women that they know, having marks of a black color on her private parts, being blacker than the rest of her body.
Third, that the said Grace Sherwood, on the 10th day of July last, was by order of county justices of the court of Princess Anne County, and by her own acceptance, bound hand and foot, and placed in water above her head, and that she did float on the same water contrary to custom and the judgment of the law in such matters.
These indictments do comply with the observations of the discovery of witches as provided for by law and her majesty's peace, dignity, crown, etcetera.
Judge: Thank you, Mr. Attorney. Grace Sherwood, you've heard the indictment presented by her majesty's attorney, how do you wish to plead – guilty, or not guilty?
Grace Sherwood: I am not guilty, sir.
Queen's Attorney: The crown takes note.
Judge: Madam, this court is not required to furnish you a counsel. Do you have an attorney to speak on your behalf?
Grace Sherwood: I have no need of an attorney, sir. I shall speak for myself.
Judge: Do you have any witnesses to be called forward on your behalf?
Grace Sherwood: No, sir.
Judge: Madam, it is your right to challenge your jury. Is there any gentleman juror or justice here present that you would not have pass judgment upon you?
Grace Sherwood: No, sir. I am willing to rely on your judgment and the mercy of this court.
Judge: Very well. Mr. Sheriff, you may take charge of the accused.
Sheriff: Yes, sir.
Judge: Mr. Attorney, you may prosecute your case, sir.
Queen's Attorney: Thank you, sir. Gentlemen, for the first witness, the crown wishes to call the petitioner of this matter, Mr. Luke Hill of Princess Anne County, to be brought forth.
Judge: Mr. Sheriff?
Sheriff: Your Excellency. This court calls Luke Hill to come forward and be heard.
Queen's Attorney: You are Luke Hill of Princess Anne County?
Luke Hill: I am.
Queen's Attorney: Will you be sworn, sir?
Luke Hill: I will.
Sheriff: Do you, Luke Hill, swear the evidence that you will present to this court to be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?
Luke Hill: I so swear.
Queen's Attorney: Luke Hill, you have petitioned this court to investigate a matter of witchcraft. In your petition, you state that Grace Sherwood has long been practicing witchcraft and the black arts in Princess Anne County, and has in fact bewitched your wife. Pray sir, tell this court what has been happening in your parish.
Luke Hill: Your honors, sirs, it all began several years ago when Grace Sherwood had a dispute with a constable in our parish. It was over a plot of land, one acre. Now, the court ruled in his favor. He was growing cotton that year, and within a week, the cotton crop had become blighted, and his pigs began to act peculiar and die. We suspected her of witchcraft at that time, but later we were sure.
Queen's Attorney: How so, sir?
Luke Hill: Well, she dances in her fields. Some say that when she is alone, she wears men's clothing. Although we have noticed she has kept the Sabbath, she never takes communion.
Queen's Attorney: Is there anything else, Mr. Hill? What of the bewitchment of your wife?
Luke Hill: I bid her out at the marketplace. I bid her to be gone from our parish and to leave us alone. She said, "Luke Hill, you mind your own business, or you shall be grievously sorry."
Grace Sherwood: As many people have.
Judge: Quiet, madam. Proceed.
Luke Hill: It was after that that it happened.
Queen's Attorney: What happened?
Luke Hill: She was bewitched. And the child, the child she was carrying, was lost to us. Our child. And I know it was Grace Sherwood that caused it!
Grace Sherwood: This is nothing but silly superstition!
Judge: Madam, you are speaking out of turn. Hold your tongue and sit you down. Proceed.
Queen's Attorney: Thank you, Excellency. Luke Hill, you were telling this court that Grace Sherwood bewitched your wife, and that caused the loss of your unborn child?
Luke Hill: I am.
Queen's Attorney: I have no further questions for this witness at this time, your Excellency.
Judge: Thank you, Mr. Attorney. Mr. Hill, you testified that this woman, the accused, told you to mind your own business, or you would be grievously sorry?
Luke Hill: Yes, your Excellency.
Judge: Those were her exact words?
Luke Hill: Her exact words.
Judge: It was the following day that your wife suffered her loss?
Luke Hill: The very next morning.
Judge: Well, Mr. Attorney, this would appear to be a curse which was brought to its evil fruition, the, ah …
Queen's Attorney: The malum secundum, your Excellency. The evil curse which is uttered, and the evil which results from the curse.
Judge: Very well. Grace Sherwood, rise. You have heard the testimony of Mr. Hill against you. It is your right to question your accusers to attempt to disprove their statements. Do you have any questions you would care to put to this witness?
Grace Sherwood: Begging your pardon, sir, but there is nothing, nothing, that I could ask this man to which he would give an honest reply.
Luke Hill: You witch!
Judge: Very well, that is sufficient. I will not have that in this court. If you have no questions you care to ask, then you sacrifice your right to speak at this time. Sit you down. Mr. Hill, you did testify that you saw the accused dressed in men's clothing, and that some say she dances in her fields. Have you seen this with your own eyes?
Luke Hill: I saw Grace Sherwood dancing around a bonfire with men's clothing on her body.
Judge: Thank you, Mr. Hill, for your testimony, sir. You are dismissed.
Queen's Attorney: Excellency, at this time the crown does indeed wish to call the wife of Luke Hill, Elizabeth Hill of Princess Anne County.
Sheriff: Your Excellency. This court calls Elizabeth Hill to come forth and be heard.
Queen's Attorney: You are Elizabeth Hill, wife of Luke Hill of Princess Anne County?
Elizabeth Hill: Yes, sir.
Queen's Attorney: Will you be sworn, madam?
Elizabeth Hill: Yes, sir.
Sheriff: Do you, Elizabeth Hill, swear the evidence that you will present to this court to be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?
Elizabeth Hill: I so swear.
Queen's Attorney: Elizabeth Hill, your husband has testified that you were bewitched by Grace Sherwood, and that this did cause the loss of your unborn child. Madam, tell this court how you were bewitched.
Elizabeth Hill: Sirs, I was with child when my husband spoke with Grace Sherwood on the market day, and she cursed him. The very next day, I were taken with a strange sickness. It made me so ill I could not even stand. I lay in bed with pain tearing at my stomach. Then, I lost the baby. I lay in agony. Then she comes to my house to delight in her handiwork.
Grace Sherwood: I came by to comfort a neighbor, and she insulted me for my trouble.
Judge: Grace Sherwood, if you interrupt this court with another such outburst I'll remove you to the whipping post. There, you'll receive ten lashes on your bare back. You will then will be bound and gagged and returned to court to continue these proceedings. Look at me. Do I make myself clear?
Grace Sherwood: Yes, sir.
Queen's Attorney: I have no further inquiries of this witness, Excellency.
Judge: Thank you, Mr. Attorney. Grace Sherwood, rise. Once again, it is your opportunity to question the witnesses brought forward to testify against you. Do you have any questions you would put to this witness?
Grace Sherwood: Just one. Mrs. Hill, is it not true that not five days after you lost a court case to me that your husband petitioned the court for this very matter?
Judge: Mr. Attorney?
Queen's Attorney: If I may. Gentlemen, it is in fact true that Grace Sherwood has been in and out of Princess Anne County Court on several occasions, these have all been for civil matters. They have no bearing upon this case.
Judge: I agree. As I've said before, matters settled in civil court in Princess Anne County are irrelevant to these proceedings, and will not be reconsidered in this court. Now, Grace Sherwood, do you have any appropriate questions you would care to put to this witness?
Grace Sherwood: Apparently not, sir.
Judge: Then sit you down. Mistress Hill, madam, let us speak plainly. Miscarriages, they are not uncommon. Perhaps it was that you were suffering from some illness or distemper, or by chance you lifted too great a weight for your condition, or ate or drank something that was not of your custom that may have caused this?
Elizabeth Hill: Beg pardon, your Excellency, but I bore three healthy children and never before had pain such as this. I lifted nothing heavy that day. Sarah, our eldest, she brought in the firewood. And as for eating and drinking, we all had hominy pudding and small beer. We all ate from the same trencher, and I alone fell ill.
Judge: How far were you gone, madam?
Elizabeth Hill: My sixth or seventh month, sir. The child was quickened. I felt him kick. When the midwife come, she said the babe were perfectly formed, and there were no reason for him to be dead. None save for witchcraft.
Lloyd Dobyns: Listen to next week's podcast to hear the outcome of Grace Sherwood's trial. Does she live or die, in "Cry Witch?"