Revisiting the Last Witch Trial This year marks the 300th anniversary of the last witch trial held in North America. Yale history professor John Demos tells Liane Hansen about the circumstances surrounding the last witch trial.
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Revisiting the Last Witch Trial

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Revisiting the Last Witch Trial

Revisiting the Last Witch Trial

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In the summer of 1706, Grace Sherwood was put on trial in a courtroom near what is today the city of Virginia Beach. She was charged with practicing witchcraft. Sherwood was subjected to what was known as the water test. She was tied up, tossed into the Lynnhaven River, she floated, which meant that the devil must be supporting her, and therefore she was guilty as charged.

Today, the site of her test is known as Witchduck Point. Grace Sherwood was the last known witchcraft trial anywhere in North America. A group of Virginia Beach residents are petitioning the governor to clear her name.

Historian John Demos is a visiting fellow at the Radcliffe Institute of Advance Study in Cambridge. And he is completing a book on witch hunts. He joins us now.

Welcome to the program.

Professor JOHN DEMOS (Radcliffe Institute of Advance Study): Thank you. Glad to be here.

HANSEN: How much is actually known about Grace Sherwood and her trial?

Prof. DEMOS: Most of the records from that trial have been lost. We have just brief summaries, including an account of her ducking, the water test that you mentioned. But we have no record of the testimony given against her. We really, to be honest, we don't know a great deal about her.

HANSEN: Give us a little bit of history, because I was intrigued by a recent article you wrote in the Wall Street Journal. And you posed some questions: who were these supposed witches, what did their alleged practice actually amount to, and why did their accusers turn so bitterly upon them? What answers have you found to those questions?

Prof. DEMOS: Well, let me just say that the Sherwood trial, which is, as you already said, the last known trial of its kind in this country's history, it was just the tag end, really, of a very long story going back to the earliest days of settlement in New England and in Virginia and elsewhere in the colonies too. And intensive studies have been made over the years of who these people were. The great majority were female, women of middle or older ages. Mostly they came from rather humble circumstances. They were housewives in relatively modest families.

They usually had been in some sort of difficulty in their communities with neighbors, and so on. They were involved in quarrels, such as boundary violations on their property, or other kinds of everyday disputes.

HANSEN: And so if there was an instance of, say, beer going bad on one person's farm, and it was next to land perhaps owned by a widow - a middle-aged widow that didn't get along with the neighbor, it was an easy step to then say perhaps this woman is in league with the devil.

Prof. DEMOS: That's pretty much the way it went. Witchcraft, after all, provided a very convenient way of explaining a great deal of everyday mischance, of various kinds of adversity that affected people's lives, which didn't perhaps so easily lend themselves to any other kind of explanation.

HANSEN: Belief in witchcraft continued after the trial of Grace Sherwood 300 years ago.

Prof. DEMOS: Oh, yes.

HANSEN: But it was never again brought before a court of law. What changed?

Prof. DEMOS: Well, gradually over time - I think it's fair to say - the idea of witchcraft became discredited. People at the upper end of the social spectrum - people with education, people with professional status of one sort of another, including ministers and magistrates, judges and so on - became increasingly doubtful; not so much in the first instance about the existence and the possibility of witchcraft, but about the difficulty of actually identifying individual witches.

Many people, including people in positions of real authority, were aware and convinced that something had gone seriously wrong and that many innocent people had been accused and convicted, and in some cases had their lives taken away.

HANSEN: Historian John Demos is a visiting fellow at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study in Cambridge, Massachusetts and is currently completing a book on witch-hunt.

Thank you so much for your time.

Prof. DEMOS: Thank you, pleasure talking to you.

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