Thursday, October 6, 2016

...Agecroft, a witch trial, scapegoats & ponderings over a repetition of history...

 By the pricking of my thumbs,

Something wicked this way comes.

~ Shakespeare, Macbeth, 4.1

I find it a bit strange that I have not written about Agecroft more frequently. I have attended several events there including Richmond Shakespeare performances (I believe an outdoor Shakespeare performance was the first time that I attended Agecroft; it’s been so long that I cannot recall); one of my first dates with my fella was picnicking before a Shakespeare performance at Agecroft; and, the Scarecrow exhibit, which I’ve written about and attended a few times.  

Agecroft Hall has a 500-year-old past that begins in Lancashire, England. A good amount of the history comes from deeds, and royal letters dated between 1199 and 1926. Some of these documents are retained today at Agecroft.

Originally built on land not far from the city of Manchester, Agecroft was built over a period of many years with one of the largest expansions occurring in the mid-1500s.

When Sir Robert Langley died in 1561, he was the last of the male heirs in his family and left Agrecroft to his daughter, Ann, who married William Dauntesey of London and Wiltshire. Thus, the house became the property of the Dauntesey family.

At some point during the Industrial Revolution, a railroad track was built a little too close to the building. This helped deteriorate the grandeur of the place. There were a few attempts to modernize the building which only led to the further destruction of Agecroft and in 1897 a fire destroyed the east and south wings. 

The residents moved away and Agecroft was left unoccupied from 1904 until 1925. At that point, it was put up for auction.  Purchased by a wealthy Richmonder, the idea was for the home to be dismantled, brought to America, and then reconstructed not necessarily on the original floor plan but on the idea of establishing a functional home that was “reminiscent of its English predecessor.” Costing $250,000 for reconstruction, not to mention the purchase price and shipping, this was considered to be quite a large expense for the times. Completed in 1928, the Richmonder, Mr. Thomas Williams, only had the chance to live in Agecroft for one year. He died the following year. Like so many generous Richmonders of that time, Williams stipulated that Agecroft would become a house museum upon his wife’s death with the endowment for the museum coming from Williams’s siblings.

Today, the museum is administered by the Agecroft Association. It, along with its beautiful gardens, were opened to the public in 1969. 

My schedule has been so busy that this is the first time I’ve actually had time to sit down and share my recent Agecroft experience.

On September 22, 2016, I attended the event, “The Peculiar Case of Jane Wentworth: A Witch Trial Based on Historical Texts” at Agecroft Hall.  The description of the event includes:

Jane Wentworth is appealing her conviction of Witchcraft. Join us at Agecroft Hall to witness a witchcraft trial based on actual events from the time period. Hear from witnesses proclaiming the accused guilt or innocence.  See how those believed to be bewitched were afflicted.  Learn how hired witchfinders came up with their “evidence” against the accused.  Members of the audience will offer testimony and then decide the fate of the accused witch.

The interactive performance was based on several “historical documents” that the director altered, combined, and compressed the timeline. Although the documents which were used were not named, I found some of them after a bit of research.

The event began in one room that was by the visitor ticket sales desk. Participants were seated. There was a request for volunteers who would transform into witnesses and who would read from a script during the trial; and, then there was a brief lecture. We were told that the trial was based on trials in English and because during the time only gentlemen who were landowners could sit on a jury, we all had to channel being male for the evening. Unfortunately, they did not allow pictures so you have to believe me when I made the extra fussy face.

Much of the performance appeared to be from the play The Last Witch (2012) written by Kate Miller. Agecroft’s “Jane Wentworth” was actually Jane Wenham who died in 1730 and who had been on trial in England in 1712. The director noted that this was the second to last witch trial in England.

The story began when “Wentworth” asked a neighbor for some sticks and straw, which we later learned that she made into art and sold to other neighbors to hang in their homes. When she was refused, she left muttering; he perceived this to be curses which compelled him to pick reeds from a dung heap.

Other accusations were made by a young girl who was off in the woods far from home. When asked why she was not at home, she accused “Wentworth” of bewitching her.
These accusations led Wentworth to be put on trial. When she was unable to touch the Bible while being sworn in, her neighbors quickly noted that she had been unable to recite the Lord's Prayer on a previous occasion.

The accused was brought before Sir John Powell, an actual judge (1640-1713) in the case of Jane Wenham. When an accusation was made that “Wentworth” was seen flying on a broom, the judge remarked there was no law against doing so. Although Wentworth was convicted by the jury, Powell set aside her conviction, suspending the death penalty, and seeking a royal pardon from Queen Anne. This part of the performance came directly from the Jane Wenham trial.

What most likely did not happen in 1712 occurred during the performance: the judge gave a lecture regarding the accusations calling the neighbors lazy and confused. He blamed them for looking for a scapegoat when they did not do the work they were supposed to be doing. They blamed a widow whose only means of survival was panhandling.

The actor who played Jane Wentworth also got to speak out about the conditions of the time and how women whose husbands died and could then own land were often a target. Similarly, accusations of witchcraft were often made toward women who were outspoken.

While the Agecroft performance explicitly focused on trials in England that were somewhat connected to the house before it moved to the United States, Virginia has its own history of witchcraft cases.

Although most conjure up the Salem Witch trials when they consider colonial witchcraft, in 1626, Virginia was the first of the colonies to see a formal accusation of witchcraft of Joan Wright out of Surry County; and, in 1641, Virginia held the first trial with Mrs. George Barker out of Norfolk.

Two cases, to me, are particularly interesting. The first is with Katherine Grady who is considered the only person who was ever executed for witchcraft in Virginia. Even with convictions, Virginia officials were always hesitant about executing anyone convicted of witchcraft (perhaps one tiny aspect of Virginia history that isn’t so problematic). Ms. Grady’s case is particularly troubling because she had never even set foot on Virginia soil. Instead, she was traveling on a ship headed for the new colony from England when a fierce storm had the passengers seeking a scapegoat. For whatever reason, the elderly Grady became that woman and she was hung at sea. Because Virginia was the ship’s destination, the murder was under the Virginia colony’s jurisdiction and the captain had to report this when the ship arrived in Jamestown.
The second case came in 1698 when Grace Sherwood, who was considered a bit eccentric for the times, had rumors spread that she practiced witchcraft. Sherwood was a healer, an herbalist and a midwife who allegedly “wore men’s trousers when planting crops” (Strock). Later, she was accused of bewitching pigs and destroying crops. She was also accused of “riding” a neighbor before escaping through a keyhole.

After several other allegations, Sherwood had formal charges against her in 1706. She was searched for the marks of the witch. Although none were found, she was ordered to a water ducking trial. Basically, if her body floated to the surface she was guilty; and, if her body sunk being accepted by nature, she was proven innocent. She survived and thus was proven guilty of witchcraft. She was imprisoned for 8 years and then released to live out the remainder of her life.
Just ten years ago, in 2006, former Governor Tim Kaine (who is now running for the office of Vice President for my international friends) exonerated Sherwood on the 300th anniversary of her trial.

I cannot help but consider how the events of the past have a tendency to repeat themselves. We look for scapegoats. We always have and we still do. This season, there appears to be more of a focus on witches with “The Peculiar Case of Jane Wentworth: A Witch Trial Based on Historical Texts” at Agecroft Hall; and, then later my fella and I are going to Colonial Williamsburg for the “Curse of the Sea Witch” event.

If you consider our current political climate, you have to wonder if there isn’t some resonance. In my course on vampires, I repeatedly say, “It’s never about the monster.” This emphasis on witches, eccentric or simply working women who spoke up for themselves, isn’t actually about witches. Let’s be honest; this is about women. From Title IX cases where rape is considered acceptable based on a lack of jail time, to trying to ban access to birth control and health services for women, to even the negative portrayal of the feminist by a particular presidential candidate (God Help Us), there is a serious war on women.

So to the women who were executed for witchcraft, those who survived and lived in the woods, to those who survived and were ridiculed for the remainder of their days, we are very much trying to remember you. Even if these events are merely seen as entertainment, there is history there. Let’s not let history repeat itself this time.

Works Cited
"A Tale of Witchcraft at Hertford Theatre." Hertfordshire Mercury. Hertfordshire Mercury, 07 June 2012. Web. 06 Oct. 2016.
Bond, Edward L. "Source of Knowledge, Source of Power: The Supernatural World of English Virginia, 1607–1624." The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 108, no. 2 (2000): 105–138.
Burgess, Maureen Rush. The Cup of Ruin and Desolation: Seventeenth-century Witchcraft in the Chesapeake. Ph.D. Dissertation. U of Hawaii, 2004. Print.
"History." Agecroft Hall. Agecroft Hall, n.d. Web. 06 Oct. 2016.
Klein, Christopher. "Before Salem, the First American Witch Hunt." A&E Television Networks, 2012. Web. 06 Oct. 2016.
Miller, Kate. The Last Witch. directed by Richard Syms; produced by Pins & Feathers Productions; performed at Hertford Theatre and at Walkern Hall, Herts. 2012.
Ross, Jessica, and Jessica Hann. "Behind the Scenes: The Making of a Sea Witch." Making History: Inspiration for the Modern Revolutionary. Colonial Williamsburg, 22 Sept. 2016. Web. 06 Oct. 2016.
Strock, Anna. "These 14 Real Life Witches Show the 'Wicked' Side of Virginia's History." Only In Virginia. OnlyInYourState, 13 Dec. 2015. Web. 06 Oct. 2016.
Witkowski, Monica C. and . "Witchcraft in Colonial Virginia." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 30 May. 2014. Web. 4 Oct. 2016.
Woodall, Janet. "Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern." Walkern History Society. N.p., 24 Nov. 2011. Web. 06 Oct. 2016.


  1. As I get older I say whatever I want. Good thing there are no witch trails.

    1. I failed to mention that most of us, in another time, would probably be put on trial for sure!

  2. Haha, I'd have been in trouble even back in my early teens! Thanks, Sharon, I especially enjoyed this post. Women's struggles go on throughout history and on into the present. My oldest daughter is a prof of sociology at Mississippi State, and writes on gender and inequality; her focus is women in sports, but she reads all kinds of material relating to women in history. I think she would enjoy this post, and your blog in general.

  3. Haha, I'd have been in trouble even back in my early teens! Spookiest girl in town! Thanks, Sharon, I especially enjoyed this post. Women's struggles go on throughout history and on into the present. My oldest daughter is a prof of sociology at Mississippi State, and writes on gender and inequality; her focus is women in sports, but she reads all kinds of material relating to women's issues in history. I think she will enjoy this post also.