While not widely known for witches, the Commonwealth state of Virginia is historically the legal birthplace of witchcraft in the states.
The first individual legally accused of performing witchery in the states was Joan Wright of Surry County. The case of Joan Wright is reported as the earliest allegation of witchcraft on record in North America. Joan Wright, a midwife by profession, was accused by neighbors of casting witching spells that resulted in the decay of crops and livestock and predicting the deaths of various fellow colonists throughout the community. Most shocking is the claim that the midwife caused the death of a newborn out of revenge for being denied services. Based on the claims of the accusers, the court was forced to hold a trial and follow the witch statute passed in 1604 titled “An Act against Conjuration Witchcraft” when dealing with the accused (more on this statue in an upcoming prompt).
The official court proceeding for the persecuted commenced in September of 1626. The court heard all detailed accounts of the accusation. In the end, the accused witch’s husband swore to the court that his wife had not been involved in any crime. However, Joan eerily admitted to having knowledge of witchcraft practices – even so, she was not convicted and acquitted of the legal accusation. The accusers were ordered to pay for related court costs. Fraudulent cases were deemed as costing by the courts and the false accuser was typically required to pay a fine of 1,000 pounds of tobacco.
Below is an image from the transcript documenting heard evidence against Joan Wright:
The collection of witchcraft cases in early Virginia reflects the trend of scapegoating midwives, unmarried, or infertile women for misfortune. Many believe that Joan Wright became a target for witchery in part because of her interest, and inability to become qualified, in medicine and herbal treatments. Colonists commonly attributed mysterious circumstances to the supernatural, making midwives a more than likely culprit for unexplainable phenomena. Still, Joan Wright admitted to practicing witchcraft.
It is within reason to conclude that early colonists embellished their accounts to shame Joan Wright. However, is it within the realm of possibility to conclude that the midwife did, in fact, cast spells on colonists and vengefully cause the death of a newborn?
Some things are never what they seem.
Stay tuned for a series on witches in Virginia.