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After Toil and Trouble, 'Witch' Is Cleared

In her efforts to clear the name of Grace Sherwood, Belinda Nash, a volunteer at the historic Ferry Plantation House in Virginia Beach, scouted records from church vestries and learned how to lobby a governor for a pardon.
In her efforts to clear the name of Grace Sherwood, Belinda Nash, a volunteer at the historic Ferry Plantation House in Virginia Beach, scouted records from church vestries and learned how to lobby a governor for a pardon. (By Gary C. Knapp -- Associated Press)

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By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Pungo, Va., may have to come up with some other historical tidbit as its claim to fame. The Witch of Pungo -- who supposedly accursed Tidewater farms in the 17th and 18th centuries -- has been cleared of all charges, namely that she was ever a witch.

On Monday, 300 years after Grace Sherwood was convicted at a trial that saw her thrown into the Lynnhaven River with her thumbs tied to her feet, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine pardoned her. The rules of the trial were simple: If you floated, you were guilty of being a witch; if you sank, you were cleared. And dead.

Sherwood floated.

She served more than seven years in jail, was released and lived until she was 80. She is the only person convicted in Virginia by a "witch ducking trial."

The news from Richmond was greeted in Virginia Beach -- which today includes the rural section of Pungo -- with a great amount of revelry because the legend of Sherwood is so deeply ingrained in the city's folklore, serving as both a somber and cheeky reminder of its past.

In the Virginia Beach area, the tale of the Witch of Pungo is told to schoolchildren. The annual Pungo Strawberry Festival features a parade led by an honorary Pungo mayor and his wife, who plays the role of the Pungo witch. There's even a popular children's book written by a Norfolk woman titled "The Witch of Pungo."

And every year, a reenactment of Sherwood's trial takes place near the spot where she was thrown in the water -- now Witchduck Point -- with residents on boats playing the roles of sheriff, witch and town residents.

At this week's reenactment -- held on land to maximize the crowd -- Virginia Beach Mayor Meyera E. Oberndorf read a statement from Kaine and delivered a proclamation pronouncing July 10 Grace Sherwood Day.

"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 pardon was perfectly timed for an uncommonly monumental anniversary that might not have been so smoothly choreographed were it not for the bulldogged nature of resident Belinda Nash. It was Nash, 59, a former pig farmer who, out of her zeal for truth and love of research, investigated the life of Sherwood, scouting records from old church vestries, historical societies and libraries, and then learning how to lobby a governor for a pardon. (She initially had no idea that governors were responsible for such matters and first called a Virginia Beach magistrate to get the job done.)

"People have asked me why didn't I give up when I came up with so many obstacles. For Grace, I would go as far as I could," Nash said yesterday, juggling phone calls in her Tidewater home from reporters as far away as Britain. "I just like to find out the end result, the truth of the story. I have to be here for a reason, don't I?"

In her quest to obtain the pardon, Nash became a guilt-free nagger, a consistent caller in recent days to Kaine's office to make sure he would do Sherwood right by issuing a rare pardon.


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