Trial by Water


I have lived in Virginia for about seven years now and for six of those seven years I have traveled the country – So, I have never really ‘lived’ in Virginia, meaning I don’t know about my community as much as I would like.

So, today I took interest in my community and wanted to look into why the streets here have interesting names.  One street name that has always stood out to me was Witchduck Rd.  Every time, I would pass this street it would spark my imagination and get me thinking about the history on why someone would name a road Witchduck.

After  doing some research and talking to a friend who has lived here most of his life I found the answer to the ‘mystery’ of the name Witchduck,

Witchduck Rd and Witchduck Point was named after a place where women who were accused of being witches would face a trial by water.  Yes, where they tie stones, wieghts and other heavy objects to the accused and throw them into deep water – if they float- they are guity of being a witch. If they drown – they were innocent.

I was curious in thinking that there must have been several ‘trial by water’ cases here for them to name a street after such an act. So I dug deeper and found, Grace Sherwood.

Here is a short blurb about Grace Sherwood’s life:

In the 1680s, Sherwood inherited nearly 200 acres from her father. Apparently,  Sherwood’s neighbors were envious not only of her acquisition, but also of her ability to harvest crops so successfully when they could not.

Neighbors took her to court, accusing her of blighting their cotton and killing a bull. One woman claimed that Sherwood transformed into a cat and slipped in through the keyhole of her home “with fangs and claws and leapt on her back.” – quoting from church vestry records.

Sherwood beat back most of the accusations — she was hauled into court at least 12 times — but what finally did her in was the discovery of two moles on her upper body. “This was evidence that she was in league with the devil.”

July 10, 1706, authorities took Sherwood out to the river, tied her thumbs to her toes and attached a 13-pound Bible around her neck and threw her in the water.  If she was innocent she would sink; if she was a witch, the waters would reject her evil spirit and she would float. According to the records, she ripped off the ropes underwater and floated back up.

Records appear to show that Sherwood was jailed for eight years. She eventually returned to her land and lived a quiet life until her death in 1740, at age 80. Throughout her life, she served as a midwife.  Records also show that children considered her a friend and that she healed sick animals and “worked with herbs.”

After learning about this horrible experience I wanted to go visit the location, I wanted to visit Witchduck Point.  Mylie and I made our way to Witchduck Point and when we arrived we found this wonderful statue of Grace.

[singlepic id=26 w=320 h=240 float=left]  [singlepic id=27 w=320 h=240 float=center]

Apparently, 300 years later on July 10, 2006 Virginia governor Timothy M. Kaine issued a ceremonial pardon to Grace Sherwood.

So if you are ever in Virginia Beach and you find yourself on Witchduck Rd you should stop at the corner of Witchduck Rd and Independance Blvd to honor this woman.

  • Jason Bayless1

    September 26, 2009

    You are very welcome. I am glad you finally found the answer to your question.

  • Alan2

    September 26, 2009

    Thanks for the info on Witchduck Rd. I grew up in Norfolk and used to visit my grandparents in Va. Beach. We often passed that area and occasionally asked our parents why it was called Witchduck.
    They mentioned something about a legend of a witch but that was about it. Appreciate the research.


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