By Toni Guagenti
Pirates and witches and ghosts, oh my!
In Revolutionary City, any time of year brings a thrilling tale of pirates on the prowl, witches on trial and ghosts on the loose.
Nightly events highlight all three for visitors who dare to find out more about Revolutionary War-era Virginia, and why life for colonists was rife with superstitions, fears and the paranormal.
For starters, Ghosts Amongst Us is an hourlong tour that spans three sites where the curious can hear eerie yarns spun by three different ghosts.
The subject has a long history here, starting many years ago as a program called Legends, but people wanted something scarier, according to John Hamant, a Colonial Williamsburg evening program performer and former director of evening and special programs.
Eventually one program became two: One geared for adults and another suited for younger children, Hamant says.
Those didn’t last either, so “we decided to go full-bore and change the title to Ghosts Amongst Us.”
Colonial Ghost ‘History’
These stories are by no means modern sightings, Hamant says, but tales that have been around and documented since the 1930s.
“We expand upon them and make them as scary as possible,” he says.
Visitors meet at the Greenhow Lumber House, where they’re divided into groups of 25, paired with a leader. Then the groups set forth and are treated to three stories. Performers have 15-18 stories in their repertoire, and the stories are chosen depending on which performers are on the schedule, Hamant says.
You may meet people like Lady Anne Skipwith.
The dear Lady met an untimely demise after witnessing her husband being unfaithful in the garden of the Governor’s Palace — as the ghost story goes.
Like a twisted tale of Cinderella, the Lady lost her shoe at the top of the stairs in her haste to get away from the unfaithful scene.
At the top of the stairs, she hanged herself in despair.
The thud from the lost shoe still resonates today.
The story is told at the George Wythe House on Palace Green, where the Lady is said to have been staying. Visitors get a precursor to the story from the group leader, then experience the story from a performer.
Eventually, though, they get the truth behind each of the ghosts.
All accounts indicate that Lady Anne and her husband were actually happily married, and she really died in childbirth, as was common during the time, Hamant says. Her husband eventually married her sister, a commonplace event during the Colonial era, he says.
Ghosts Among Us is “the most popular of all the evening programs,” Hamant says.
‘A Plague of Piracy’
If “Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum” is more your speed, then Pirates Amongst Us should float your boat.
“We have a lot of pirate history in Virginia – pirates were a big threat to Virginia,” says Carson Hudson, an evening program manager with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
At the time, Gov. Alexander Spotswood said Virginia “‘suffered a plague of piracy,’” because pirates not only anchored their ships off the coast, they often made not-so-pleasant visits ashore.
Like the time they burned and robbed plantations in Gloucester County, Hudson says.
The crew and quartermaster of the famed pirate Blackbeard were imprisoned, tried and eventually hanged in the Virginia capital in the 18th century, Hudson says. Blackbeard himself lost his life off the coast of North Carolina; his head eventually made its way to Hampton where it was displayed as a deterrent to the pirating way of life.
During the tour, visitors hear from two actors who portray the ghosts of people who knew Blackbeard and can attest to his pillaging nature.
Visitors also hear the tale of Martha Farley, a female “pirate” who wasn’t a real pirate at all. She was accused of being one because she was aboard a pirate ship with her husband. After pleading ignorance about the ship’s mission, Farley was pardoned.
Then there’s Black Bart, or Bartholomew Roberts, who threatened Spotswood after he heard of the hanging of Blackbeard’s crew.
“ ‘If I catch you, I will hang you,’ ” Hudson says Black Bart promised.
Skipping from ghost and pirate lore, tourists can take on the dramatic story of Grace Sherwood, the famed Witch of Pungo.
Hudson wrote Cry Witch, a dramatic re-enactment, for Colonial Williamsburg; it’s been being performed since the 1980s.
Witchcraft “catches people’s imaginations,” Hudson says.
“Here in Virginia, we are Southern, we are old-fashioned,” he says. “We have a lot of legends and superstitions because they’re fun.”
During the hourlong trial, tourists become the jury during a candlelit inquiry into the charges of witchcraft brought against Sherwood in 1706. “Ask questions of the witnesses, weigh the evidence, and determine the guilt or innocence of ‘the Virginia Witch,’ ” a description on history.org says.
Sherwood lived in Princess Anne County, now Virginia Beach in southeastern Virginia, during the time of the accusations. She was tried in Princess Anne County, where the case was sent to General Court in Williamsburg, but, Hudson says, there is no evidence she was convicted in either locality.
In Virginia, during the 18th century, Hudson says, two dozen people were accused of being witches.
But unlike Salem, Mass., where witch hunts took on epic, ultra-religious proportions, people in Virginia were much more grounded in their pursuit of the truth, he says.
If you attended a witch trial in the 1700s, it’d be more like the traffic court of today, Hudson says.
People found guilty were typically whipped and sent home. No one was ever hanged after a conviction, Hudson says, although one woman lost her life off the coast in the Chesapeake Bay when an angry mob punished her without a trial, he says.
What if someone accused a person of witchcraft and was wrong?
A lot of the cases involved people being charged with slander for accusing someone of being a witch, Hudson says.
“If you charged someone with witchcraft and you lied, you would be punished,” he says. In Virginia, people were “more realistic about what they were doing.”
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Tavern Ghost Walk: Learn of the ghosts that still haunt the taverns and historic buildings of Colonial Williamsburg. This family-friendly program is suitable for all ages and is wheelchair- and stroller-friendly. Enjoy spirited and interactive 21st-century folklore of the Revolutionary City. Tours leave from Shields Tavern at 7 p.m. nightly. $12 adults; $7 children (under 12)
Something Wicked; Coming this fall to Colonial Williamsburg, a new program about the real historical story of witchcraft in Virginia. Stay tuned for the bewitching details.