Monday, July 10, 2006

Background for The Witch Of Pungo

By DENISE WATSON BATTS, The Virginian-Pilot
© May 14, 2006
VIRGINIA BEACH - Neighbors at the annual Witchduck Civic League picnic bundled tightly against a blustery Sunday afternoon as they nibbled on chicken and community news. Belinda Nash stood with Chuck Plimpton, oblivious to the wind tugging at her frilly Colonial mobcap. She was staring at the sparkle of an inlet between pine trees, and the water's pulse carried her back to an unforgiving July day 300 years ago."When you see the waters," Nash said, "these are the waters that the people would've come from to see the trial." Plimpton chuckled and pulled Nash close in a one-arm hug."This lady is on a mission!" he howled.She is. Nash is fighting to clear the name of Grace Sherwood, the Witch of Pungo, and she recently appealed to the governor for vindication. During the past 20 she has spent so much money and time telling Sherwood's story that she wonders if, in more ways than one, she has become the voice Sherwood lost long ago.If such a long-departed soul would have a modern champion, Nash figures it would be her: an outsider with fresh ears for the story. Nash grew up in Canada and moved to Virginia Beach with her husband and children in 1982. From her past life as a swine consultant, and sideline work as a baker, Nash obsesses over facts, whether it's pinpointing what ailed a brood of sick piglets or sculpting an accurately scaled cake of George Washington.So when Nash first heard of "Witchduck Point" on the western branch of theLynnhaven River, she had to ask. She heard tales of hangings and burnings that history told her were not true. She wanted the real story."I like to prove the point," Nash said. "All the time with history, you have to prove something three times in writing or it isn't so."She began taking early morning treks to Richmond, where she'd comb through archives. Researchers would not-so-quietly clear their throats to shoo her out at closing time.She tracked down Sherwood descendants and located Sherwood property in Pungo. There, she discovered rosemary, which one legend says Sherwood sailed to England to gather and actually introduced to the area. Nash clipped a little and planted it in her yard, where it has taken on a new life. She had divorced and remarried, and her husband, Herb, marveled at her tenacityShe goes and goes like that little bunny," he said. "If I don't want to do something, I just won't mention it to her."The more Nash read, the more she felt a connection to Sherwood - and the more she felt that Sherwood had been wronged.Sherwood had gone to trial not once, but several times, mostly of her own prodding. Years before the famous trial, neighbors accused her of witchcraft, and she and her husband responded by charging them with slander and defamation. When Sherwood's husband died in 1701, she did not remarry as many would have, but worked the land with their three sons, tending her herbs, which she grew for medicine.Sherwood lived near the water and could swim, Nash said. She often wore pants, which made sense to Nash, but was likely scandalous in Colonial times. She is described as having English features, a slender woman with flowing hair.In Nash's interpretation, she was probably a babe, with prime real estate and jealous neighbors.So, on July 10, 1706, Sherwood was cross-bound, her thumbs tied to her toes, and thrown into the river. The theory, Nash said, was that an innocent would sink, and the waters would cast out an evil spirit. Sherwood floated.Records of Sherwood's life after the trial are scarce. It appears that she might have been jailed for eight years. Later papers show that she returned to her land, instead of leaving in shame, and lived a quiet life until her will was submitted to the courts in 1740. Culling the research, Nash saw herself."If we were back in those days, I know I would've been called a witch," Nash said, "because I love to poke around." Nash carried photocopied documents to schools to tell Sherwood's story, dressing as her on occasion, reciting the words Sherwood spat at the 1706 trial. Nash loves this line, and it rolls off her tongue with such satisfaction - "Before this day be through, you will all get a worse ducking than I!" Nash has read that a torrential thunderstorm rolled in after Sherwood was pulled from the water.Nash began volunteering at Ferry Plantation House, a museum in the Old Donation Farm subdivision, that she helped rehabilitate. She brought Sherwood along, creating a room in her name, with records and a table top model of what could be Sherwood's home, including cotton bales and a pewter plate hanging on a wall.As Nash became more enmeshed with Sherwood, friends would comment that she was Sherwood incarnate. Nash admits she'd rather talk about Sherwood than herself. Often, she refers to "we," and you know who the partner is.A friend, Gerry Richter, said Nash is passionate about everything - history, grandchildren and family, Ferry Plantation - but there's a particular link between Nash and Sherwood."I'm not sure that there isn't a deeper connection there," Richter said. "Let's say we're going to have a function that we've planned. The weather man says it's going to pour, and she'll say, 'I'll have a talk with Grace, ' " he said."And it will be a beautiful day." If there are forces beyond the physical realm, Nash could certainly use them now. The governor's office has received her request for the exoneration of Sherwood but can't say how long it will take to settle. Nash would love it in hand by July 10, the 300th anniversary."A pardon is a unique power of the governor's and something not issued lightly," said Bernie Henderson, senior deputy secretary of the commonwealth. Of the roughly 1,000 requests the former governor received, he pardoned less than 50.
Henderson said his office typically has lawyers, judges and breathing subjects to interview."I don't think there's a whole lot typical with this one," he said.Nash started planning a statue of Sherwood seven years ago in anticipation of the anniversary; it will cost more than $90,000, and the fundraising is a third of the way there with less than two months to go. The statue does not have a home yet. This week, the homeowners' association voted against erecting it at Ferry Plantation, concerned about the traffic it could attract. Nash had tried her church, Old Donation Episcopal, but the vestry rejected it. Sherwood was married in the first church of that same parish.Rector Bob Randall said many thought it did not fit into the aesthetics of the church grounds, which have no statues."We have nothing against Grace," Randall said. "She is part of our heritage." Nash said she feels like Sherwood at times, struggling to right wrongs. Centuries later, it breaks her heart that Sherwood still isn't wanted."I feel for Grace," Nash said. "I have put myself in her shoes. A young woman who had three sons, and she lived with that day to day. And I … believe she's no more a witch than I am." At the close of the Sunday picnic, Plimpton quieted the crowd. Nash had spoken to the group before, so she needed little introduction. Her costume had drawn the attention of the children all afternoon, and she had regaled them with Sherwood stories.Nash told the group of the re-enactment scheduled for July 10 and of her hopes for the statue. She held up a photo of the cast, which will be a 5-foot-6 bronze woman carrying a bundle of garlic and rosemary, with a raccoon to represent her love of animals."I would like you to support us by buying a brick or by coming out that day," Nash said. "I think this woman deserves a statue, and you all live on her old stomping grounds. Thank you!" The group applauded as Nash walked to Barbara Henley, recently elected to the Virginia Beach City Council. Nash clutched her arm and told her of how she'd walked to the water's edge earlier."Oh, it brought back so many memories of 1706," Nash said, laughing loud and long, her voice carrying toward the water.

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