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Usually in discussion of blue laws, those very Draconian regulations which have so aroused the ire or the respect of moderns, depending upon which way they look at it, the debaters confine themselves mostly to New England Puritan forms, or those of New York, Pennsylvania or New Jersey.

In the days the Puritans formulated the blue laws, Virginia was looked upon as the home of high living and frivolity. Even to this day few would look for such measures among that old aristocratic colony.

 

As a matter of fact, the Virginians of the seventeenth century, had a habit of enacting indigo-tinted laws, and likewise enforcing them, which might have made the Puritans sit up late at night to beat them.

Aside from the stern and vindictive intolerance which finds utterance in the acts of the Virginia Assembly between the years 1662 and 1680, the most striking element in them is the tremendous premium placed upon spying and informing. In most every case in which such a reward is possible the law encouraged the man to spy upon his neighbor.

If the Virginia husbands agreed with Kipling that "a woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke," the following act must have been the occasion of much domestic infelicity.

  "If a married woman shall slander a person the woman shall be punished by ducking, and if the damages shall be adjudged more than 500 pounds of tobacco her husband shall pay, or the woman receive a ducking for every 500 pounds so adjudged against her husband if he refused to pay the tobacco."

Unless a man was well stocked with the divine weed it was worth while to attend church with promptness and regularity:

  "Enacted that the Lord's Day be kept holy and no journeys or work done thereon, and all persons inhabiting in this country shall resort every Sunday to church and abide there quietly and orderly during the common prayers and preaching, upon the penalty of being fined fifty pounds of tobacco."

Devices for public instruction and amusement were not to be neglected with impunity, even by the courts of the colony, as witness the following:

  "The Court in every county shall set up near the courthouse, in a public and convenient place, a pillory, a pair of stocks, a whipping post and a ducking stool. Otherwise the Court shall be fined 5,000 pounds of tobacco."

There is no record of the Court ever having been mulcted of tobacco for depriving the people of the opportunity to watch the sufferings of their friends and neighbors.

Severe laws were directed against Quakers. Prior legislation had attempted to put a damper on being any kind of a "separatist," which meant any fellow who didn't agree with the Established Church. Evidently a little further law on the subject was thought necessary, for in 1663 the Virginia Assembly passed the following act:

  "Any person inhabiting this country, and entertaining a Quaker in or near his house, shall, for every time of such entertainment, be fined 5,000 pounds of tobacco, half to the county, half to the informer."

Even Virginia hospitality might well have paused in the face of such a flying start toward bankruptcy.

That a stowaway might prove costly is demonstrated by the following:

  "Every master of a vessel that shall bring any Quakers to reside here after July 1 of this year shall be fined 5,000 pounds of tobacco, to be levied by distress and sale of his goods, and he then shall be made to carry him, her or them out of the country again."

Evidently a little thing like a couple of years in servitude did not deter the lovers of pork chops from appropriating their neighbors' swine, for in 1679 the Assembly delivered themselves of the following act:

  "The first offense of hog stealing shall be punished according to the former law; upon a second offense the offender shall stand for two hours in the pillory and shall lose his ears, and for the third offense shall be tried by the laws of England as in case of felony."

As the English law of the period usually prescribed hanging for a twice convicted felon, it is presumed that the third dose of justice proved an efficient remedy.

Not only in the stringency of their laws did the gray cavaliers of the Old Dominion run neck and neck with the grim-visaged gentry of Plymouth Rock, but the doubtful honor of being the last to relinquish the gentle art of witchcraft persecution probably belongs to them as well.

The witch baiters around Salem and throughout New England generally ceased to a considerable extent their punishment for alleged witchcraft before the eighteenth century, but the Virginian records show the arrest and persecution of Grace Sherwood, of Princess Anne County, for witchcraft in 1706.

For six months this young woman was imprisoned, being brought time and again before the court in an effort to convict her. Finding no evidence in her actions to justify the persecution, the Attorney-General caused the Sheriff of the county to impanel a jury of women to examine Grace Sherwood physically and instructed them to find something to indicate that she was a witch. This the women failed to do and they were threatened with contempt of court for their failure.

Everything else having failed, it was decided to put Miss Sherwood to the water test, which consisted in tying her hands and feet and throwing her overboard in the nearest lake or river. If she sank she was innocent, but if by her struggles she managed to keep afloat for a few moments, she was guilty of witchcraft.

The full account of this trial is preserved by the Virginia Historical Society, and the last two court orders in the case are of interest as marking the close of witchcraft persecution in the colonies.

  "Whereas, Grace Sherwood, being suspected of witchcraft, have a long time waited for a fit opportunity for a further examination, & by her consent & approbation of ye court, it is ordered that ye sheriff take all such convenient assistance of boats and men and shall be by him thought fit to meet at Jno. Harper's plantation, in order to take ye Grace Sherwood forthwith and BUTT her into the water above a man's debt & try her how she swims therein, always having care of her life to preserve her from drowning, & as soon as she comes out that he request as many antient and knowing women as possible he can to search her carefully for all spots & marks about her body not usually on others, & that as they find the same to make report on oath to ye truth thereof to ye court, and further it is ordered that some woman be requested to shift and search her before she goes into ye water, that she carry nothing about her to cause further suspicion."

On the afternoon of July 10, 1706, the court and county officers and populace assembled on John Harper's plantation, and the arrangements being completed, Grace Sherwood was carried out to a nearby inlet of Lynnhaven Bay. The official court reporter tells quaintly the rest of the story:

  "Whereas, on complaint of Luke Hill in behalf of her Majesty, that now is against Grace Sherwood for a person suspected of witchcraft, & having had sundry evidences sworn against her, proving many circumstances, & which, she could not make any excuse or little or nothing to say in her own behalf, only seeming too rely on what ye court should do, and thereupon consented to be tried in ye water, & likewise to be searched again with experiments; being tried, and she swimming when therein & bound, contrary to custom and ye judgments of all ye spectators, & afterwards being searched by five antient women who have all declared on oath that she is not like them; all of which circumstances ye court weighing in their consideration, do therefore order that ye sheriff take ye said Grace Sherwood into his custody & commit her body to ye common goal of this county, there to secure her by irons, or otherwise there to remain till such time as he shall be otherwise directed."

The woman was finally turned free, and thus ended the last legal prosecution for witchcraft in the colony.