Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Witch of Pungo


Folk music has long been a source of historical information. Major local events have been preserved in the form of song probably since folks started singing. Some of these songs of often tragic events survive for many generations. Some, like the childhood nursery rhymes “London Bridge” and “Ring Around the Rosie”, story-songs of the Black Plague, have nearly lost the original context of their stories. On this side of the Atlantic many of our story-songs have survived and even had a resurgence of popularity many years after the song’s events have long faded.

I have been interested in music and history for as long as I can remember and songs that combine these two interests hold a special intrigue. I thought we’d take a look at some of the more interesting story songs of North America.

Let’s start with a local story.

Down along the coast, about 20 miles south of Virginia Beach, is the small community of Pungo in Princess Anne County. Pungo was the home of Grace Sherwood, the only person ever convicted as a witch in Virginia. The famous witch trial fervor of New England in 1692 never really caught on down here. Grace Sherwood was a midwife who lived with her husband and sons on a small farm in Princess Anne County. Her troubles started around 1698 when a neighbor accused her of cursing his cotton crop. This was the first of the allegations and she was brought before the court time and time again over the next few years by two neighbors who blamed her for their poor crops and dead livestock. After her husband’s death the allegations became more frequent. Sherwood took her accusers to court for slander on several occasions. After many such appearances the court decided she should be tested by water, then called “ducking”. On July 10th, 1706 Grace Sherwood was bound right thumb to left big toe and left thumb to right toe. She was then thrown into the Western Branch of the Lynnhaven River where, by the reasoning of the time, if she floated and lived, she was guilty, for the consecrated water would reject her, if she sunk and drown, she would be innocent. Dead, but innocent. She floated for a while when one of her supporters shouted for someone to save her. She was hauled ashore and found guilty by the fact that she was alive. She was jailed for a short period and released to live out her life as a midwife and healer.

On July 10th, 2006, the 300th anniversary of her “ducking”, Governor Tim Kaine granted Grace Sherwood a full pardon. The area along the Lynnhaven River where Grace was tried by water has since been known as Witchduck Point.

Grace’s story has been preserved in song.

East Virginia - Legend of Grace Sherwood.mp3

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