Lair of the Spider Witch
In North America, most people think of Salem when witch trials are mentioned, but Virginia has the dubious honor of holding the first such trial on the continent in 1626. Before then, the Powhatan priests were often regarded by the English as witches. In 1613, Reverend Alexander Whitaker stated in ‘Good news from Virginia’: "Their priests (whom they call Quiokosoughs) are no other but such as our English Witches are." Though witchcraft cases in Virginia were less common and the sentences less severe than the more famous witch trials of Salem, evidence exists that about two dozen such trials took place in Virginia between 1626 and 1730.
Esther Grace was a seamstress by trade, but also a noted midwife and herbalist. During 1627, love was in the air; Esther sewed 6 dresses for weddings in the small community. In a year's time she was helping the same women deliver their first born. All said that a bountiful life and good fortune was guaranteed for those that had Esther sew for them. Soon she was swamped with requests for wedding gowns, dresses, and baby blankets and clothes by newlyweds and expectant mothers.
But in the spring of 1630, all the children that Esther had helped deliver had gone missing. Whispers of speculation that Esther, widowed and childless was involved, and soon accusation of witchcraft were rampant. Jane Pritchard, one of the mothers of a missing child, Ruth, fueled the hysteria when claiming to have seen Esther leaving the village one night with a large sack on her back. Following Esther deep into the woods, Jane discovered a small shack. When spying through a window she saw no sign of the children but many items of children’s clothing, including Ruth's baby blanket. Jane quickly sprinted home and told her husband who at first did not take her seriously. When Jane herself disappeared a week later her accusations were taken more gravely. Joseph Pritchard gathered a search party to find his missing wife. They soon came upon the cabin described by Jane. Upon breaking through the locked door they were horrified to find the cabin full of unnaturally large spiders, some described as being as big as a hound, eggs sacks, and cocoons hanging from the rafters. The men retreated from the shack when several were bitten by the aggressive arachnids.
Esther had gained the name, 'The Spider Witch'.
At her trial, Esther denied her involvement in the disappearance of the children or Jane Pritchard and refuse to divulge any further information. She was convicted and hung on April 30th, 1630. Before her death, the seamstress declared that the unfair judgment and death of an innocent would not go unpunished. The tree where Esther was hung soon lost it leaves and never flowered another -though the tree was not dead and continued to grow, its bark blackened and jagged. That summer, drought and blight destroyed all of the townspeople crops. That winter, no animals found on hunts.
Paranoia reigned in the years that followed. Any misfortune that befell a member of the town or strange news coming in from around the area was attributed to the dark dealings of the Spider Witch.
Writing about the event, Puritan minister William Crashaw reported that "Satan visibly and palpably reigns [in Virginia], more than in any other known place of the world."