Many of us like swimming. Very few of us want to swim with the fishes – at least not for any extended period in time, as reasonably this would mean we are very, very dead. Or mermaids.
These days, a majority of the children in the Western world are taught how to swim. Not so long ago, the swimmers were in minority, and immersing yourself in water was considered dangerous to your health. (Think Louis XIV of France, this magnificent 17th century king, who is supposed to have said that he only ever bathed twice: upon his baptism and on the eve of his wedding. The man lived to the hearty age of 77, so one can assume all that perfume was a necessity to cover the stench of grime and bodily fluids….) Anyway: today I’d like to share with you the rather sad story of Grace Sherwood. Now, if you’re from Virginia, you may have heard of Grace, but if you’re from somewhere else (and let’s admit it; the vast majority of the world’s population is from somewhere else than Virginia) I bet you’ve never heard of the lady in question – unless you’re into witches. Aha, the discerning reader says, Gracie was a witch. Umm…
Personally, I don’t believe in witches – not if by witch you mean a lady who flies about on her broomstick with a black cat balanced behind her. But a witch defined as someone who knew her herbs and knew how to use them, yes those I believe exist(ed).
It was a difficult existence to be one of these herbal experts. Imagine your neighbour pops by and wants a remedy to help his wife who is constantly short of breath. The discerning witch may insist on visiting the lady in question, and may decide not to treat her, thereby being accused of purposefully withholding a remedy – i.e. she’s a bad, bad witch. The more optimistic – and lazy – witch decides that probably what the neighbour’s wife needs is a nice combination of various herbs – and she adds a pinch of foxglove to the mixture, seeing as she knows for a fact that the old lady has had heart palpitations recently. Too much foxglove, it turns out, and the neighbour’s wife dies. Bad, bad witch.
Grace was a healer. She was a midwife. She was accused of being a witch on several occasions, so one must assume she wasn’t the best at socialising with her neighbours and keeping everyone happy. Maybe she was a grumpy lady who had no tolerance for uppity females who talked down to her. Maybe she wasn’t the best of midwives. Maybe a young lady whispered and begged for a remedy to help her get rid of the child she was carrying, but when Grace complied, the husband had already found out about the coming baby, and the young woman had to blame the resulting miscarriage on someone – on Grace.
In 1706, Grace was brought to trial for witchcraft. At the time, she was probably in her late forties, and the accusations levied against her covered everything from having transformed herself into a cat to the far more serious one of causing a lady by the name of Elizabeth to miscarry. This was not the first time Grace faced her accusers in court – there’d been a case some years back involving a bull she had spelled, causing its death, and another case in which she’d been accused of killing someone’s hogs with magic. Neither of these cases led to conviction, but the miscarriage accusation was serious, so serious that the court decided that there was only one way to ascertain her innocence: the swimming test.
The swimming test – or ducking – was an ingenious little test whereby the person accused of being a witch was tied up and thrown into the water. If she (and it was mostly a she; 75% of the people who died as witches were women) floated, she was a witch, as the water had “repudiated” her, thereby proving she’d repudiated the Christian baptism. If she sank, she was innocent. Problem was, if she sank she was probably dead by the time they managed to pull her out of the water…
Grace does not seem to have been much liked – at least not by other women. From what little we know, she was tall and well-made and in 1706 she was since some years a widow – and an attractive widow at that, a woman with a loud sense of humor and a capacity to attract men. Not something that endeared her to her female neighbours… Still, being accused as a witch seems somewhat harsh even for a femme fatale, and there seems to be other motivations behind the 1706 accusations, notably that the accusers wanted revenge on Grace for having had to pay her damages the year before.
A swimming test was not simply a matter of being asked to put on your bikini and dive into the water. Oh no, it was much more terrifying and humiliating that that. First, Grace was led down to the water where she was stripped naked and inspected thoroughly by five other women. These women (headed by one of Grace’s former accusers) were looking for the Devil’s mark, which could manifest as an odd birthmark, a flat wart or any other potential minor disfigurement. Every single square centimetre of Grace’s body was studied and assessed. After this ordeal (and one can imagine the comments, the nails scratching at your skin, fingers pinching and hurting) Grace was tied up in the classic ducking position, her right hand to her left toe and vice versa.
In some cases, the potential witch was then draped in a sack – ostensibly to preserve modesty, but possibly because a large sack would trap air and cause the accused to float. It seems Grace was not put in a sack. Instead, she was put in a boat and rowed out some distance from the shore. Remember we’re talking 1706. Women and men rarely saw other women and men than their own spouses naked. For a woman to be so exposed before the interested eyes of hundreds of spectators must in itself have been a terrible experience.
At present, Grace was probably beyond the humiliation, because she must have been in a sheer panic as to the next part of her ordeal. Some way out from the shore, Grace was pushed out of the boat. If you’re tied up the way she was (and I would not recommend trying it, but next time you go for a swim, clasp your arms around your calves and see what happens) you’d end up floating face downwards. And as an aside, people rarely sink immediately upon hitting water – there is too much air in our lungs for that to happen.
Grace floated. She bobbed like a cork in the water, and people yelled “witch”, they stamped and clapped. The witnesses in the boat pulled her up, tied a huge Bible round her neck and threw her back in. Now Grace did sink – like a stone. Somehow, Grace contrived to rid herself of the Bible and succeeded in making her way back to the surface – I suppose the ropes must have loosened. She was hoisted back onto the boat, rowed ashore, and submitted to yet another extremely humiliating inspection by the five women. And this time they proudly proclaimed to have found some very odd marks on Grace’s privates. Conclusive evidence, people: the lady floated and she had the Devil’s mark. The witch had been found out, and the good people of Princess Anne County could draw a relieved breath or two. Evil had been vanquished, and the enchantress would soon be gone.
Happily for Grace, by 1706 very many people in position of authority had serious doubts as to the existence of witches. Some muttered that all that ducking and inspecting proved nothing, and poor Grace was the victim of a smear campaign. Others did not quite know what to do: the woman could be a witch, but from there to hang her seemed excessive. The consequence of all this was that Grace was thrown in jail, where she languished for several years, but by 1714 she was out and about again, seeing as she paid taxes on her property that year.
Grace was to live for very many more years, dying at the ripe old age of eighty or so. I guess she never forgot her ordeal on that July day of 1706. I guess she was also pretty glad that she floated, all things considered. After all, had she sunk as a rock, she might have died, and been left to swim permanently with the fishes – not, I believe, something anyone aspires to.