Hear the verdict in 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.
This week, we rejoin the trial of Grace Sherwood, accused of killing a neighbor's baby by witchcraft. Tonight's outcome will determine whether Grace walks free, or dies on the gallows.
Elizabeth Hill: 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.
Judge: Mistress Hill, I know this has been very difficult for you, and I thank you for your testimony. You are dismissed.
Elizabeth Hill: Thank you, sir.
Queen's Attorney: Excellency, at this time I wish to call Elizabeth Barnes of Princess Anne County to be brought forth.
Judge: Mr. Sheriff?
Sheriff: This court calls Elizabeth Barnes to come forth and be heard.
Queen's Attorney: You may recall, Excellency, this is the woman I spoke to you of earlier. She did not wish to come forward to court to testify against the witch, in fact she was brought here by shackle.
Judge: Come forward. Mistress Barnes, is it? Mistress Barnes, God is a mighty force. You have nothing to fear in this court as long as you tell the truth.
Elizabeth Barnes: And I will, sir.
Judge: She may be sworn, Mr. Attorney.
Queen's Attorney: You are Elizabeth Barnes of Princess Anne County?
Elizabeth Barnes: I am.
Queen's Attorney: Will you be sworn, madam?
Elizabeth Barnes: Yes, sir.
Sheriff: Do you, Elizabeth Barnes, 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 Barnes: I swear it, sir.
Queen's Attorney: Madam, you were summoned by the justice of Princess Anne County to serve upon a jury of midwives to examine the person of Grace Sherwood.
Elizabeth Barnes: Yes sir, I was the forewoman.
Queen's Attorney: Just so. Tell the court what you discovered.
Elizabeth Barnes: The justices told us that according to Dalton's book, witches have marks somewhere on their person as a sign of an unholy covenant with the devil. They instructed us to inspect her for such marks. Oh, God protect us. She has two black marks on her private parts, such as we have never before seen on any other woman.
Queen's Attorney: Gentlemen, as you well know, both in Dalton's book, "The Country Justice," also in King James' treatise, "Upon the Discovery of Witches," that these suspicious marks, called devil's marks, are given only to those who have signed their name in the devil's book!
Judge: Thank you, Mr. Attorney. We are aware of those opinions. The devil's mark, or the witch's teat, is a known fact. Mistress Barnes, these marks, were they put to the test to ensure that they were neither birthmarks nor moles?
Elizabeth Barnes: Well yes, sir.
Queen's Attorney: Describe the tests for the court.
Elizabeth Barnes: The court gave us a large pin. A witch's pin. We pricked the mark, and the mark did not bleed. She did not even know we was pricking her!
Queen's Attorney: This proves, gentlemen, that the marks were neither birthmarks nor moles nor no other natural blemish.
Judge: It is considered a proof of witchcraft, yes. Grace Sherwood, rise. Do you have any questions you would put to this witness?
Grace Sherwood: Elizabeth Barnes, why …
Elizabeth Barnes: (Screams.) My head! She is hurting my head!
Judge: What ails that woman? What did she say?
Queen's Attorney: Excellency, she said the accused is hurting her head.
Grace Sherwood: What? I did not.
Judge: Tell her to face away. Mistress Barnes, there is nothing here that can harm you.
Mr. Attorney, it appears that your witness is quite taken. Is there another that we might inquire of as to the character of these marks?
Queen's Attorney: Excellency, I do, in fact, have 11 other such witnesses. The statement from the jury of midwives has arrived from Princess Anne. If I may?
Queen's Attorney: Mistress Barnes, look upon this statement, and show me your name or your mark.
Elizabeth: It is there, Elizabeth Barnes.
Queen's Attorney: Reading in part, gentlemen, "We of the jury have searched Grace Sherwood and have found two things like teats with several other spots on her private parts, of which are a black color, being blacker than the rest of her body, like nothing we have ever seen before." Gentlemen, this statement is signed or marked by all 12 midwives, and I would remind the court that this deposition carries the same weight in evidence as if all 12 women were standing here before us now providing sworn testimony upon God's holy writ. I would enter this statement into evidence, your Excellency. Would you care to see it?
Judge: I would, indeed. Mistress Barnes, you are a midwife?
Elizabeth Barnes: Yes, sir.
Judge: How long have you been a midwife?
Elizabeth Barnes: Since before I reached my maturity, sir. I have turned out more than threescore babies, and I have only lost three.
Judge: And you and these other women, you have never seen such marks upon a woman before?
Elizabeth Barnes: No, sir.
Judge: You're under oath, madam.
Elizabeth Barnes: Yes, sir.
Judge: If you lie, you perjure your very soul.
Elizabeth Barnes: I would not.
Judge: If I find you lying, I'll sentence you to six months in the public jail, and fine you £20 sterling, which if you cannot pay, madam, you'll be taken to the pillory and have your ears nailed to the backboard.
Elizabeth Barnes: No!
Judge: Now did the marks bleed? Did they? Speak up.
Elizabeth Barnes: No, the marks did not bleed! She should have cried out, but she did not. She just laughed at us. The marks should have bled.
Queen's Attorney: Thank you madam, you are dismissed. You may take your seat. Thank you. Finally, gentlemen, I have here a statement from the justice of Princess Anne County which does read, "On the 10th day July last, Grace Sherwood was taken to a pond at John Harper's plantation. There she was bound hand and foot to be tested by ducking, or trial by water." As the court is well aware, any evil spirit or witch will be repelled by water – water being a pure element – thus causing the spirit or the witch to float. "Grace Sherwood was, by her own acceptance, bound hand and foot and placed in water above her head. She did, in front of suitable witnesses, float contrary to the customs and judgment of the law in such matters."
Gentlemen, this statement is also entered in evidence, and with that, and by your leave, the crown rests.
Judge: Very well. Grace Sherwood, rise. Grace Sherwood, as you have obtained no attorney to speak on your behalf, you offered forth no witnesses to testify on your behalf, there seems to be no defense against these charges. You've been given the opportunity to question the witnesses brought forth to testify against you, and you have disproved nothing.
Nevertheless, gentlemen, this is not an inquisition. We are not Roman Catholics, we do not torture or burn people as the pope sees fit to do with his subjects. We're Englishmen, and Virginians. Therefore gentlemen, I believe I shall indulge this court, by asking you, madam, to tell us your side of this most remarkable story.
Queen's Attorney: Excellency, I must protest. As the court is well aware, the accused is by her very nature an interested party, and as an interested party, she cannot testify under oath.
Judge: That is very true. She cannot testify under oath. She may not be sworn, and therefore she may not testify. Let us say, sir, she is not testifying. Let us say she is simply speaking with us. Grace Sherwood, would you speak with us?
Grace Sherwood: Oh, yes, sir. I thank you, sir. Gentlemen, I have done nothing wrong. I say here now, as I've maintained in the past, I had nothing to do with these peoples' misfortune. It is common to lose livestock. Other farmers have pigs that die, cotton that becomes blighted, and no one is called a witch. Humph. As for Mr. and Mrs. Hill, well, they are angry over the loss of a child.
Elizabeth Hill: Which you caused!
Grace Sherwood: I, I am the aggrieved party. I am the one who was insulted, beaten, and bruised. Humph. I beg your understanding, gentlemen, on these foolish charges of witchcraft.
Judge: Now, Grace Sherwood, what of these black marks on your person. And what of the fact that you were bound hand and foot and cast upon the water and did float in an unnatural manner?
Grace Sherwood: These marks, I have had since birth. No devil gave them to me. And as for floating, well, almighty God was watching over me.
Judge: Grace Sherwood, listen to me. Is there anyone, anyone who would come here to this court and testify under oath that you have had these marks on your person since birth? A midwife, a relative perhaps?
Grace Sherwood: No, sir. Mrs. White were my midwife, and she is dead.
Judge: Mr. Attorney, is it not considered fact that one who is possessed with the devil or evil spirits is incapable of speaking the Lord's Prayer?
Queen's Attorney: It is generally accepted as a truth.
Judge: Grace Sherwood, you will speak the Lord's Prayer before this court. You do know the Lord's Prayer, do you not?
Grace Sherwood: Of course.
Judge: Of course. Then speak it.
Grace Sherwood: (Haltingly.) Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our d-d-debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into …
Judge: Mr. Sheriff, remove the accused from the court.
Grace Sherwood: (Moans.) No, no, no! I know that prayer! I know that prayer! Let me go! I know that prayer! Damn you all!
Judge: Gentlemen, the time draws near when we must make a determination regarding the guilt or innocence of the accused. Mr. Attorney, do you wish to make a summary statement?
Queen's Attorney: I do, Excellency.
Judge: You may proceed.
Queen's Attorney: Thank you, sir. Gentlemen, we have here a woman accused of the crime of felony witchcraft. The law requires two witnesses shall be sufficient to convict. I have produced three witnesses.
We have a jury of midwives, led by Elizabeth Barnes, who have examined Grace Sherwood's person, and have found suspicious marks: devil's marks, the likes of which they have found upon no other woman's person before. This answers the second indictment.
Finally, we have a trial by water, an ancient test that determines innocence or guilt by whether the accused sinks or floats. Grace Sherwood was put to this test, and she did in fact float atop the plane of the water in a most unnatural manner. This answers the third indictment.
But gentlemen, it matters not what our personal feeling upon this subject is. The fact remains, the law is the law. There are certain tests to determine whether a person is indeed a witch. Grace Sherwood was put to these tests, and she failed them all, including one right here before our very eyes. Therefore gentlemen, as Queen's Attorney in this matter, I move for a verdict of guilty against Grace Sherwood.
Judge: Very well. Gentlemen, the moment of truth has arrived. I shall offer forth the verdicts, and you shall signify your agreement with one or the other by the raising of your right hand. Gentlemen, please keep your hands raised until the tally for each is complete.
Mr. Sheriff, you will assist. All those who find Grace Sherwood not guilty of felony witchcraft, raise your hand. Very well. All those who find Grace Sherwood guilty of felony witchcraft, raise your hand. Very well.
Judge: Mr. Sheriff, you may return the accused to the bar to receive justice. Grace Sherwood, this court has sat before God and made a determination with regard to the indictments brought against you by her majesty's attorney. As to the charge of felony witchcraft, it is the judgment of this court that you are guilty of said charge.
Grace Sherwood: (Shouts.) No, how could you believe their lies? No, no! (Cackles.) You will all burn, you will all burn! Burn!
Judge: Gentlemen, I thank you for your patience, your consideration, and your insightful questions during what has been a most unusual proceeding. This court is hereby adjourned.
Sheriff: All rise.
Lloyd Dobyns: In the 300 years since Grace Sherwood's trial, witches have become fable, and taking a witch to court would be like trying to press charges against a dragon.
But "Cry Witch" gives us an insight into the power of fear and superstition.
An 18th-century crowd could be swept away by myth. Tonight's jury was the audience – a group of 75 men and women in the 21st century – the majority of whom were persuaded, based on the evidence, that there was a witch in the room.
Make plans to visit Colonial Williamsburg, and reserve a seat at the trial of Grace Sherwood, the Virginia witch.