The English colonists believed the Indians they encountered to be devils, or at least devil worshippers. In their descriptions of Virginia Indians, the Jamestown colonists often used supernatural terms: John Smith described the paramount chief Powhatan as "more like a devil then a man," while George Percy recalls the Indians "making noise like so many Wolves or Devils." Alexander Whitaker, an Anglican minister, reported that he found the Indians to be "very familiar with the Devill" and observed, "Their Priests … are no other but such as our English Witches are." This perception stemmed partly from the colonists' interpretation of the Powhatans' religious beliefs and rituals (some settlers believed that the Powhatans' main deity, Okee, was the devil incarnate) and partly from the Indians' unfamiliar appearance. As the historian Edward L. Bond wrote, "Colonial accounts of native bodies carried implications beyond mere physical descriptions … for English philosophy and theology linked body and spirit by suggesting that the exterior appearance of the body gave evidence of the interior state of the soul."
Witchcraft Cases in Virginia
In criminal witchcraft cases, Virginia courts adhered to England's witchcraft law, a 1604 statute passed under James I called "An Act against Conjuration Witchcraft and dealing with evil and wicked Spirits." In Virginia these cases deal mostly with the charge of maleficium—causing harm to people or property by supernatural means. The earliest witchcraft allegations on record against an English settler in the British North American colonies were made in Virginia in September 1626. The accused, Joan Wright of James City County (later Surry County), was a married woman and a midwife. A number of Wright's neighbors testified against her, alleging that, through witchcraft, she had caused the death of a newborn, killed crops and livestock, and accurately predicted the deaths of other colonists. Wright was acquitted despite her own admission that she did in fact have knowledge of witchcraft practices.
The charges against Wright are typical of many witch trials during the colonial period: at a time when most misfortunes, like crop failure, illness, or death, had no apparent cause, witchcraft was a relatively logical explanation; an eccentric or unpopular member of the community made a convenient scapegoat. The fact that Wright was a woman is typical, too: in the surviving records of witchcraft cases in Virginia, only two accused witches were men, reflecting a trend that also exists in the legal records of England and the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Sherwood's case reflects how reluctant Virginia authorities were to execute convicted witches. English law prescribed harsh punishments for witchcraft, the most extreme being "paines of deathe," but no person accused of the crime in colonial Virginia was executed. By comparison, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, nineteen so-called witches were executed in 1692 alone. (Some historians have pointed to the death of Katherine Grady, who was hanged in 1654, as an example of a Virginia execution for witchcraft, but Grady's trial and death took place at sea, on a ship bound for the colony.)
The last witchcraft trial on record in Virginia took place in 1730, five years before Parliament repealed the English statute against witchcraft. Justices charged the accused, a woman named Mary, with using witchcraft to find lost items and treasure. She was convicted and whipped thirty-nine times. This was likely the last criminal case of witchcraft tried in any of the mainland colonies. That same year, Benjamin Franklin published in the Pennsylvania Gazette a satirical report of a witch trial in New Jersey. His elaborate, mocking descriptions of the practices of court justices in trying witches illustrate the beginning of a shift in the colonial perception of witchcraft from terrifying reality to puritanical fantasy.
Beyond the Colonial Period
By the turn of the eighteenth century, witchcraft cases had virtually disappeared from court records in Virginia—and from popular memory. Over time, Virginia's witch trials were overshadowed by the cases tried in New England, which were more numerous and more sensational, and then forgotten altogether. This collective amnesia came into play during the sectional crisis in the decades leading up to the Civil War, when tensions between northern and southern politicians regarding slavery ran high. On February 16, 1849, Democratic congressman Henry Bedinger of Virginia, having grown tired of defending the South and the practice of slavery to "fanatical" abolitionists, invoked the Salem witch trials as evidence of the North's immorality and the South's cultural superiority, saying, "There are some monstrosities we never commit." This misperception of the history of witchcraft in Virginia persists even today.
1542 - Parliament passes a law making witchcraft "a felony punishable by death and forfeiture of goods and chattels."
1597 - James VI, king of Scotland (later crowned James I of England), publishes Daemonologie, a book that examines the practice of witchcraft and supports witch hunts. In it, he writes that witchcraft is "most comon in … [the] wild partes of the world."
1604 - Parliament passes "An Acte against Conjuration Witchcrafte and dealing with evill and wicked Spirits," outlawing witchcraft and allowing authorities to prosecute accused witches in Virginia.
1613 - In a foreword to Anglican minister Alexander Whitaker's Good Newes From Virginia, Puritan minister William Crashaw reports that "Satan visibly and palpably raignes [in Virginia], more then in any other known place of the world."
September 11, 1626 - The General Court meets in Jamestown to hear evidence against Joan Wright of Surry County, who is accused by her neighbors of practicing witchcraft. She is acquitted in what may be the earliest allegation of witchcraft on record against an English settler in North America.
1654 - Katherine Grady, en route to Virginia from England, is accused of being a witch, tried, found guilty, and hanged aboard an English ship.
May 23, 1655 - Lower Norfolk County passes a law prohibiting its residents from falsely accusing other colonists of witchcraft. Offenders will be fined 1,000 pounds of tobacco.
1698 - James and Grace Sherwood sue John and Jane Gisburne and Anthony and Elizabeth Barnes for defamation and slander. The Sherwoods allege that both couples accused Grace Sherwood of practicing witchcraft.
January 1706 - Luke Hill formally charges Grace Sherwood with witchcraft.
March 1706 - In response to Luke Hill's charge of witchcraft against Grace Sherwood, the Princess Anne County Court impanels a jury of women, including Elizabeth Barnes, to search Sherwood's body for witch's marks. The jury finds two marks, and Sherwood is ordered to jail to await trial.
July 5, 1706 - Grace Sherwood stands trial for witchcraft in Princess Anne County. The justices decide to subject Sherwood to the water test to determine her guilt or innocence. If Sherwood sinks, she will be presumed innocent; if she floats, she will be presumed guilty.
July 10, 1706 - Grace Sherwood undergoes a water test to determine whether she is guilty of the charge of witchcraft. Sherwood floats, indicating her guilt, and once ashore is examined for witch's marks. A jury of women finds two marks. Sherwood is imprisoned and ordered to undergo another trial. It is unclear whether the second trial ever occurred.
1730 - A woman named Mary is accused of using witchcraft to find lost items and treasure. She is convicted and whipped thirty-nine times. This is the last witchcraft trial on record in Virginia.
October 22, 1730 - In the Pennsylvania Gazette Benjamin Franklin publishes "A Witch Trial at Mount Holley," a satirical account of a witch trial in New Jersey.
1735 - English Parliament overturns the Witchcraft Act of 1604 and replaces it with the Witchcraft Act of 1735, which criminalizes the pretense, not the practice, of using black magic.
February 16, 1849 - Democratic congressman Henry Bedinger of Virginia invokes the Salem witch trials as a defense against Northern claims that Southern culture is inherently immortal and brutal.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Witkowski, M. C., & Newman, C. Witchcraft in Colonial Virginia. (2016, October 25). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Witchcraft_in_Colonial_Virginia.
- MLA Citation:
Witkowski, Monica C. and Caitlin Newman. "Witchcraft in Colonial Virginia." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 25 Oct. 2016. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: February 23, 2012 | Last modified: October 25, 2016
Contributed by Monica C. Witkowski and Caitlin Newman. Monica C. Witkowski is an independent scholar from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Caitlin Newman is associate editor of Encyclopedia Virginia.