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A Witch in Our Midst
(Women’s History Month)
By Nancy E. Sheppard

WitchH imageFor those of us from southside Hampton Roads, our beloved folk heroine, Grace Sherwood, the alleged "Witch of Pungo,” is highly revered and somewhat tragic figure in Virginia’s early history. Her 1706 case rocked the community and was the last major case of witchcraft to occur in the colony. But where did this fervor begin in Virginia? That would be the case of Mrs. Joan Wright of Kecoughtan.

"Witchcraft fever” never reached the same apex as it did in our New England counterparts. There was a far healthier dose of skepticism in Virginia regarding witchcraft and the prosecution therein than in Massachusetts. Furthermore, Virginia was founded as a colony for profitable gain rather than religious freedom. In fact, clergy had no bearing witchcraft trials in Virginia.

Kecoughtan resident, Joan Wright, is the first known case of criminal witchcraft in the English colonies. She was married to Robert Wright they had two Virginia-born children. Sometime around 1626, the family moved to Perry Plantation. Joan was known as midwife of whom local women would consult on matters of birth and relationships. This ability to freely speak on relationships would have caused a stir in a culture that required women to be chaste and subservient creatures. Furthermore, Joan was left-handed. This recessive trait was something commonly attributed to witches.

In 1625, neighbor Giles Allington asked Joan serve as his wife’s midwife. When Mrs. Allington discovered that Joan was left-handed, she rejected her asked Rebecca Gray to deliver her child. Joan angry over the unfair dismissal. Their child died within two months of birth and Mrs. Allington took to bed with a mysterious and painful lump in her breast. This spearheaded the grieving father and husband to bring criminal charges of witchcraft against Joan.

At the trial in Jamestown on September 11, 1626, several witnesses claimed that Joan had accurately predicted their spouses’ impending deaths and another neighbor accused her of bewitching him so that he was a poor hunter. Furthermore, Mrs. Isabell Perry (of the plantation the Wrights lived on) accused Joan of using magic to seek restitution from Elizabeth Gates, a servant girl accused of stealing firewood.

Despite the law not being in her favor to do so, Joan fervently defended herself at trial and several testified to her good nature. The evidence against Joan was not compelling enough and thus not convicted. Considering that colonial law called for the execution on more than one witchcraft conviction, it is understandable why Joan would have defended herself so fearlessly.

While Joan was the first, Grace Sherwood was the last criminal witchcraft case in Virginia. Between them spanned sixteen other people accused and tried, fourteen of whom were women. And while there were convictions, no person in Virginia was ever executed for witchcraft.

The early colonial period in Virginia was the furthest thing from a world that embraced feminism and fiercely independent women. If you stepped the slightest bit out of line from the rigid societal standards of the day, you were the target for your neighbors. Joan Wright was the first in a long line of Virginia women who helped lead the charge in the changing perceptions of women throughout our state’s history.

On behalf of Virginia’s women, thank you, Joan Wright, for speaking up, speaking out, and defending yourself in a time where you were not supposed to have a voice.


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InBrief 13dec18

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