Suzanne Fields

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- Whether you sink or swim in Virginia Beach has sometimes been a matter of life or death. You could commune with the late Grace Sherwood to find out why even Gov. Tim Kaine thought it prudent to make it a matter of state.

To "commune" may be an archaic way to communicate in the age of instant Internet communication, but you have to get an e-mail address before Internet communicating, and if Ms. Sherwood has an e-mail address, no one knows what it could be. Her neighbors accused her of using sorcerer's powers 300 years ago to poison crops, kill livestock and conjure storms. (Talk about female power.)

She could prove her innocence only through trial by water. If she sank when thrown into the Lynnhaven River, she was deemed innocent, although she could expect to drown before she could enjoy exoneration. If she floated, she was guilty and could expect to die as compliments of the state. Such was justice by Catch-22.

Witchcraft may appeal to a child's imagination around a campfire, but this is not "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" nor "Sabrina the Teenage Witch." It's a cruel part of American history. Belief in witchcraft grew out of the superstitious side of religion, reinforced by the courts. Expert witnesses, like psychiatrists today, were called on to supply reasons why a particular person was thought to be a witch. She -- nearly all witches were women -- might have suffered from madness, but the terminology was theological, with references to Satan or demons inhabiting her body. Witches were burned in Europe from the 15th through the 18th centuries, even after the Enlightenment wrought by such thinkers as Kepler, Descartes and Copernicus.

Different kinds of ordeals determined guilt. One was the tear test. If a suspected witch couldn't cry on hearing a sad and tragic story, usually about the Crucifixion, this was taken as proof she lacked remorse, even though she might be suffering from what is still known as "dry eye." "Witch-prickers" prodded for insensitive spots, warts or moles where the devil might have entered the body. The water dunking test for sinking or floating was particularly popular in America.

An all-female jury found that Grace Sherwood had two suspicious moles, "not like theirs or like those of any other woman," and she was sentenced to trial by water. (An accusation by a neighbor that she had become a cat and silently crept though a keyhole into her home was dismissed.) Grace was something of a nonconformist who wore trousers before pantsuits became fashionable. She succeeded at growing crops. To the river with her.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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