Virginia's governor clears convicted witch

It took 300 years, but Virginia's only convicted witch has finally been pardoned.

State Gov. Timothy M. Kaine was asked to exonerate Grace Sherwood, who was tried by water and accused of using her powers to cause a woman to miscarry. On Monday, the 300th anniversary of Sherwood's "ducking" trial, Kaine obliged, issuing what a spokesman called "an informal pardon."

"Today ... I am pleased to officially restore the good name of Grace Sherwood," Kaine wrote in a letter that Mayor Meyera Oberndorf read aloud before a re-enactment of the ducking.

"With 300 years of hindsight, we all certainly can agree that trial by water is an injustice," Kaine wrote. "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."

The mayor also proclaimed Monday "Grace Sherwood Day." She praised the tenacity of local resident Belinda Nash who had petioned to "clear the name of a woman whose only sin was she was left a widow, she worked hard and some of the people didn't like her."

Sherwood, a midwife who at times wore men's clothes, lived in what today is the rural Pungo neighborhood and later became known as "The Witch of Pungo." She went to court a dozen times, either to fight witchcraft charges or to sue her accusers for slander.

In her final case, she was 46 when she was accused of using her powers to cause a neighbor woman to miscarry.

On July 10, 1706, Sherwood was dropped into the Lynnhaven River and floated proof she was guilty because the pure water cast out her evil spirit, according to the belief system of the time.

Kaine spokesman Kevin Hall said the informal pardon is "a gesture of goodwill" for Nash, 59, who has been researching Sherwood for years and is part of a group that annually remembers Sherwood with a re-enactment in the river.

"The governor thought this was a decent gesture to make on the 300th anniversary of a woman who, I think most reasonable people would agree, was wronged and a victim of a frenzy," Hall said.

For Monday's ceremony attended by about 60 people, the re-enactment took place on land in front of the Ferry Plantation House, a historic home where Nash volunteers as director and, dressed in costume, tells visitors about Sherwood. The courthouse where part of Sherwood's trial took place was located on the old plantation property.

Nash's daughter, Danielle Sheets, was tied cross-bound, her thumbs to her toes, and placed in a small boat, just as Sherwood would have been.

"I be not a witch. I be a healer," Sheets shouted, in character. "Before this day be through, ye will all get a worse ducking than I."

As the real Sherwood was pulled from the water, a downpour supposedly started. The sky remained clear Monday.

Sherwood may have been jailed until 1714, when records show she paid back taxes and with the help of then-Gov. Alexander Spotswood she was able to reclaim her property. She then lived quietly until her death at 80.

Nash said she hopes Kaine's action will help her find a place to put a Sherwood statue, a picture of which she unveiled Monday.

"Every time it seemed that people said, 'We don't want a statue of a witch,"' said Nash, who has raised about a third of the $92,000 (Ђ72,145) cost of the bronze statue. "Well, now she is no longer a statue of a witch."

After the ceremony, Mary Sherwood Holt of Newport News gave Nash $1,000 (Ђ785) toward the statue _ a donation from Holt and her cousin, John Sherwood of Annapolis, Maryland. He has a boat named "Witch of Pungo."

The family thinks they may be related to Grace Sherwood, Holt said, "and we a have a passion for her in any event," reports AP

"I just think it's a wonderful story," said Holt, 79. "Any strong, competent woman is still considered a witch by some people, right?"