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Pungo is a rural community at the southern end of Virginia Beach. It is no doubt an off-beat destination to explore while in the popular beach town. Several centuries ago, a wrongful accusation and subsequent conviction occurred in Pungo, which was a tragedy but also the last of its kind. For a deeper look at the dynamics of witch hunts and the legacy of European folklore, the story of The Witch of Pungo is a valuable source of insight.

The Last American Witch

In the late 1600s, Virginia was largely settled by farmers. Among them was John and Susan White, a protestant couple who had fled England for the green pastures of the New World. They had a daughter, Grace, who was described as precocious and self-possessed. She was born in the Lynnhaven Parish Church, which is still active today, and the oldest Episcopal Church in Virginia Beach. It is a quaint building and certainly worth visiting while in the area.


By the age of 20, Grace had grown up to be remarkable in appearance and personality, a fact that brought her many suitors. She married James Sherwood, a farmer, and all-around decent man. Grace's father gifted the newlywed couple 50 acres of land, which they used to grow food and crops. An avid reader, Grace taught herself botany and medicine and used her family's land to experiment with horticulture.

When John White died, he left the couple a further 145 acres of land. Despite owning almost 200 acres of land, the Sherwood family was considered poor by vintage standards.

The couple had three sons, all of them healthy and stout. Life on the farm was a good and free life without the frills of high society. Grace pursued her interests and eventually came to be known as a prominent midwife in her community.

She also grew her own medicinal herbs that she used to treat people and animals.

As life on a farm goes, Grace dressed the part of an outdoor woman, which offended the sensibilities of the ladies who fancied themselves a finer breed owing to their thoughtless and helpless adherence to the latest fashions and trends of society.

They resented Grace, not only for being different but also for using her feminine intuition to bring value to the community. She was much adored by the young and the elderly, and she was notably respected as a modest and intelligent individual by the husbands and fathers of Pungo.

According to biographer Belinda Nash, Grace Sherwood's defamation was driven by the neighboring women who were possessed by insecurity, jealousy, and spite.

Threatened by Grace's grace and lack of vanity, the cult of mediocrity used its influence to destroy Grace by any means possible.

Related: Massachusetts Isn't The Only Place That Saw Witch Trials, There Was A 'Salem' In Italy, Too

Pungo, Virginia: A Hotbed Of Paranormal Scapegoats

Among the various accusations hurled at Grace Sherwood, some of the most libelous included murder, transfiguration, black magic, and spreading plagues.

One neighboring woman went to the authorities insisting that she witnessed Grace Sherwood transform into a black cat. Some of the women swore on their Bibles that Grace had cast malevolent spells on the cows and hogs that got sick.

Others cried convincing tears at recounting the horrible scenes they witnessed of Grace communing with the devil himself.

Perhaps there really was some paranormal activity occurring in Virginia at the time. There was a formal council set up in Jonestown to investigate and prosecute the progenitors of evil.

Unlike New England and Massachusetts, Virginia was not known to execute witches and instead kept prosecuting individuals who threatened the social order of the community, no matter what form it took.

If anyone snubbed the pervading maxims: "Do what everyone else is doing" and "Dress how everyone else is dressed," they were likely to be accused of witchery and tried.

Grace Sherwood, with the support of her equally independent-minded husband, used what little money they had to fight the accusations with lawsuits.

Not one lawsuit was won, but the fact that Grace had the gall and conscience to push back was ill-received by her ill-tempered, vane, and preening accusers.

The women of Pungo escalated their appeals to the authority of the men with the biggest guns until the governors had no choice but to appease them in order to stop the screeches and crocodile tears. They decreed that Grace be tested as a witch by means of 'ducking.'

  • Trivia: Dunking was a way to determine if a person was a witch or not. The accused was hogtied and submerged in a river. If the accused sank to the bottom, they were designated human beings, and if they floated, they were considered supernatural.

It was as good as a death sentence had Grace not somehow floated to the surface. The prosecutor, a local husband to a scornful woman who hated Grace, tied a bible to her neck and submerged her once again.

Grace freed herself and floated up to the surface. This, in addition to the troves of eyewitness testimony, was enough to convict her and imprison her.

Related: Salem's Witch Trials Started At This Danvers Archeological Site

The Legacy Of Grace Sherwood

Grace was snatched away from her family and imprisoned for around eight years. By the time she was released, her husband was dead, and her sons were living far away. She spent the rest of her life living in solitude and died at the age of 80.

She was buried in an unmarked grave in town.

The next generation of Pungo residents, the descendants of her accusers, mindlessly continued to spread libel against her.

They claimed to see the devil collect her body, and it was said that black cats would roam around her grave site. As a result, the men of Pungo slaughtered every feline they came across, which led to an explosion in the population of rats and mice, which was also blamed on Grace Sherwood.

Today, Pungo is rife is artifacts and signs of this unfortunate era. Visitors can visit a statue of Grace at the Sentara Bayside Hospital and relive past horrors at the Witch Duck Bay, where she was ducked. Travelers can also head to her old herb plantation by the Church, which is commemorated by a sign. It is said that the rosemary that grows all around town originated from a single plant Grace Sherwood planted many centuries ago.

Next: Spooky Places: 10 Destinations For Fans Of Witches