By Bob Ruegsegger
For more than 20 years, Colonial Williamsburg patrons have flocked to witness and participate in Cry Witch, an interactive evening program written by Carson Hudson.
Although the program has been extremely popular, no visitor has yet ever offered to exchange his or her soul for tickets. Securing tickets has never been a piece of cake — especially when the production is being staged in The Capitol. The performances at The Capitol are invariably sold out.
“The demand for the program became so huge that they created a stage version at the [Williamsburg] Lodge where we have 450 seats and we fill them practically every night,” said Program Director Karen Clancy. “So the demand has increased over the years with the intrigue of the subject matter — witches.”
Cry Witch was based upon the ordeal of Grace White Sherwood, a Princess Anne County (now Virginia Beach) woman who was accused of witchcraft by her neighbors in 1706. **photo caption below
When Luke Hill, Sherwood’s neighbor, failed to obtain satisfaction in the local county court, he brought his petition charging Sherwood with witchcraft to Virginia’s attorney general in Williamsburg. Attorney General Thompson — perhaps sensing a political “hot potato” — referred the matter back to the Princess Anne County Court for resolution.
After further “examinations and hearings” were held in May and June of 1706, the Sherwood home was searched by the local sheriff for objects that might be related to witchcraft. No such items were found. Throughout the proceedings ordered by the local court, Sherwood remained silent, except to laugh at her accusers. She seemed to be enjoying her celebrity — which probably enraged her accusers. The county court, weary of the case, sentenced her to a “trial by water.”
Trial by water was essentially a no win situation as far as the accused was concerned. Basically, the accused witch was cross-bound (right thumb to left toe and left thumb to eight toe) and deposited into the water. If the suspect sank and drowned, she was found innocent of witchcraft. On the other hand, if the accused floated and survived, she was guilty of conspiring with the Devil.
Sherwood miraculously survived the trial and was subsequently deemed guilty of witchcraft by the local court. She was imprisoned and later allowed to return to her farm in an area of Princess Anne County called Pungo where she lived to a ripe old age. She was survived by three sons, and her will was probated at the Princess Anne Courthouse.
CW visitors gather for the courtroom drama in The Capitol on Wednesday evenings to hear the evidence, listen to the witnesses, and deliberate Grace Sherwood’s guilt or innocence on charges of felony witchcraft — a hanging offense.
Justice at the Cry Witch program is truly blind. Sherwood is convicted nearly as often as she is acquitted. Upon conviction, Sherwood plummets to the courtroom floor sobbing and proclaiming her purity of heart. When she is acquitted, Sherwood laughs maniacally as she is released from the sheriff’s custody. Program participants — some visibly troubled by the trial — often exit the courtroom debating the deficiencies of 18th century justice.
Deborah Miller from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania was among the program patrons that voted for acquittal. “I’m very glad I came. It certainly gave me a good insight in what went on back in those days,” said Miller. “It wasn’t fair how they handled things — that’s for sure,” she observed. “I didn’t think she was guilty because all the evidence just was not firm. They had no definite proof.”
“I thought the program was very well done. It explained some things about how these types of trials were conducted.” commented John Martin, a program participant from Columbus, Ohio. Martin seemed pleased that Sherwood was acquitted of witchcraft. “It was clear — using common sense rather than gossip, hearsay, and tales — that she was not guilty.”
Steve Holloway, the CW actor who portrays the delightfully pompous interim Royal Governor Jennings, presides over the witchcraft trial at The Capitol. Holloway and his persona, it seems, are far from impartial. “It’s running about fifty-fifty now. Last year, she was usually convicted,” he recalled. “We slammed her last year. She was convicted about two out of three times.”
If the patronage at CW’s interactive Cry Witch program is a reliable indicator, interest in the subject of witches and witchcraft appears to be climbing rather than waning. “This show opened in the mid-eighties, and we still sell out every performance,” observed Holloway.
NOTE: Colonial Williamsburg’s evening events require reservations and seating is limited. Programs and times are subject to change. Book early to ensure availability. Cry Witch is not suitable for young children. Tickets may be purchased at any CW ticket sales location or by calling 1-800-HISTORY.
**Photo Grace Sherwood in Chains Lucy Smith is among the CW actress / interpreters who portray the irascible Virginia witch. Smith prefers being convicted. For her, as well as for other cast members, a conviction is considered to be a compliment. “People say that I’m too nice to play the witch. I’m always trying to counteract that,” smiled Smith.