The pol­i­tics of a witch

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Suzanne Fields


hether you sink or swim in Vir­ginia Beach has some­times been a mat­ter of life or death. You could com­mune with the late Grace Sher­wood to find out why even Gov. Tim Kaine thought it pru­dent to make it a mat­ter of state.

To “com­mune” may be a bit ar­chaic way to com­mu­ni­cate in the age of in­stant In­ter­net com­mu­ni­ca­tion, but you have to get an e-mail ad­dress be­fore In­ter­net com­mu­ni­cat­ing, and if Grace has an e-mail ad­dress no one knows what it could be. Her neigh­bors ac­cused her of us­ing sorcerer’s pow­ers 300 years ago to poi­son crops, kill live­stock and con­jure storms. (Talk about fe­male power.)

She could prove her in­no­cence only through trial by wa­ter. If she sank when thrown into the Lynnhaven River, she was deemed in­no­cent, al­though she could ex­pect to drown be­fore she could en­joy ex­on­er­a­tion. If she floated, she was guilty and could ex­pect to die as com­pli­ments of the state. Such was jus­tice by Catch-22.

Witch­craft may ap­peal to a child’s imag­i­na­tion around a camp­fire, but this is not “Buffy

the Vam­pire

Slayer” nor

“Sab­rina the

Teenage Witch.”

It’s a cruel part

of Amer­i­can his­tory. Be­lief in

witch­craft grew

out of the su­per­sti­tious side of

re­li­gion, re­in­forced by the

courts. Ex­pert

wit­nesses, like


to­day, were called on to sup­ply rea­sons why a par­tic­u­lar per­son was thought to be a witch. She — nearly all witches were women — might have suf­fered from mad­ness, but the ter­mi­nol­ogy was the­o­log­i­cal, with ref­er­ences to Satan or demons in­hab­it­ing her body. Witches were burned in Europe from the 15th through the 18th cen­turies, even af­ter the En­light­en­ment wrought by such thinkers as Ke­pler, Descartes and Coper­ni­cus.

Dif­fer­ent kinds of or­deals de­ter­mined guilt. One was the tear test. If a sus­pected witch couldn’t cry on hear­ing a sad and tragic story, usu­ally about the Cru­ci­fix­ion, this was taken as proof she lacked re­morse, even though she might be suf­fer­ing from what is still known as “dry eye.” “Witch­prick­ers” prod­ded for in­sen­si­tive spots, warts or moles where the devil might have en­tered the body. The wa­ter dunk­ing test for sink­ing or float­ing was par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar in Amer­ica.

An all-fe­male jury found that Grace Sher­wood had two sus­pi­cious moles, “not like theirs or like those of any other wo­man,” and she was sen­tenced to trial by wa­ter. (An ac­cu­sa­tion by a neigh­bor that she had be­come a cat and silently crept though a keyhole into her home was dis­missed.) Grace was some­thing of a non­con­formist who wore trousers be­fore pants suits be­came fash­ion­able. She suc­ceeded at grow­ing crops. To the river with her.

Two curious young men, age 7 and 10, joined me on the search for the place where Grace Sher­wood’s fate was sealed. We walked down an old path now named “Witch Duck Road,” fol­low­ing her steps to the banks of Lynnhaven River where she was tied up in a rit­u­al­ized way. A rope was cross­bound from the thumb of her right hand to the big toe of her left foot and from the thumb of her left hand to the big toe of her right foot. If that weren’t enough to sink her, the godly folk sus­pended a 13-pound Bi­ble around her neck.

Even for young grand­sons fas­ci­nated by tales of Hou­dini es­cap­ing from bonds of chains and safes, th­ese knots and weights made es­cape sound dif­fi­cult. We rapidly turned the pages of our guide to learn that Grace broke free of her ropes and swam to shore. So far, so bad. She had es­caped with her life, but that only proved that Satan in­hab­ited her body. She spent al­most seven years in prison on con­vic­tion of sor­cery.

This sum­mer, three cen­turies later, the gov­er­nor of Vir­ginia has par­doned her. “With 300 years of hind­sight, we all cer­tainly can agree that trial by wa­ter is an in­jus­tice,” the gov­er­nor said, and reached for a mod­ern po­lit­i­cal moral. “We also can cel­e­brate the fact that a wo­man’s equal­ity is con­sti­tu­tion­ally pro­tected to­day, and women have the free­dom to pur­sue their hopes and dreams.”

Grace Sher­wood would still be an un­par­doned witch but for Belinda Nash, who re­searched the story for 20 years and nagged the cur­rent gov­er­nor for a par­don. She thought of ask­ing Mark Warner, the for­mer gov­er­nor, but she cal­cu­lated that his pres­i­den­tial as­pi­ra­tions might make him loathe even to deal with such an ar­cane is­sue. And what if he said no? That would be flirt­ing with a hex, and who wants to of­fend a 300-year-old witch?

Suzanne Fields, a colum­nist for The Wash­ing­ton Times, is na­tion­ally syn­di­cated.

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