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Witches Pond: The legend and the truth

© Leesburg Today - 10/31/2015

As the legend goes, 18th century villagers put a witch to death in the woods near a swampy pond and Colonial-era cemetery off Aquia Creek. Her name, it's said, was Edith, and her body was tossed into the water.

Ever since, according to lore, the pond water turns blood red in the spring. Trespassing thrill-seekers say they've seen the figure of a woman hovering just above the water, or along the nearby foot path. Sometimes, she's seen standing by the altar - wrongly called a sacrifice table by some - in the graveyard nearby.

In the inky dark, many say they've heard splashing noises from the pond, like large stones - or bodies - being dropped into the water. There are also reports of shrieks in the night that seem to get closer and closer.

Then there are tales of the crazy caretaker, who runs folks off with his shotgun, and to frighten folks away impales small animals on the spiked fence that surrounds the old cemetery.

To local residents, the swamp and cemetery hidden in the woods behind the Crucifix Monument along U.S. 1 in Stafford County is known as ""Witches Pond."" It's hard to say where some of the legends come from, but at least one truth about Witches Pond is even more sinister than the lore.

A skeleton covered by leaves

The Brent Family Cemetery behind the pond - just off U.S. 1 along Telegraph Road in Widewater - is the resting place for members of the first English Roman Catholic settlement in the New World. The oldest grave there dates to 1681.

In recent years, the area has been associated with curious trespassers, vandals and those dabbling in devil worship.

Manassas attorney Claude Compton owns the pond and 75 acres of woods surrounding it. He says he won't acknowledge the moniker ""Witches Pond,"" but admits trespassers are a thorn in his side.

""We get a lot of people fishing, and Halloween trespassers have been a problem,"" he said.

For one woman, a trip to Witches Pond was the last thing she ever did.

The cemetery's self-appointed caretaker, a Widewater native named Russell Lewis, was hunting about 400 feet from the pond on Nov. 7, 1998, when he came across a skeleton. The bones, covered by fall leaves, belonged to a woman. She was estimated to be between 28 and 45 years old, with brown hair in braids.

She wore a Redskins shirt, shorts, dark pantyhose and blue jeans.

Her shoes were size 8 1/2, canvas platforms with buckles. Near or with the remains, detectives found a yellow metal earring shaped like a leaf, dark brown oval-shaped sunglasses, a small plastic teddy bear trinket, a gold ring with black stones and a black onyx ring with a design in the shape of a pentagram.

The medical examiner's office could not determine how she died, but forensic scientists said she'd been in the woods for at least a year. Who she was and what happened to her remain a mystery.

""Her clothes had not been removed, there was nothing remarkable about the skeletal remains,"" said Capt. William Bowler of the Stafford County Sheriff's Office. ""She was found almost 400 feet from the pond, near the road that goes back to the cemetery.""

Despite exhaustive efforts to identify her, from running her information through the National Criminal Incident Database to tracking down dozens of missing persons report along the East Coast, detectives were never able to find out her name. Investigators even had a recreation of her face made in clay, but it turned up no clues.

Her DNA is on file, along with her remains, at the state medical examiner's office.

""You would think someone, somewhere misses her,"" Bowler said.

For months, the unidentified woman's body lay in the woods, unseen by those looking for a scare at Witches Pond, her grave of leaves as silent as those long-buried under the ground at Brent Cemetery.

Pioneers in a New World

Five generations of the Brent family are buried in the old graveyard behind the pond. The cemetery, surrounded by a brick enclosure and spike-topped fence, is owned by St. William of York Catholic Church, which traces its roots to 1647. It was then that Sir Giles Brent, an English Catholic nobleman, moved from Baltimore to the Virginia wilderness to escape religious intolerance. Giles Brent settled with his Piscataway wife near the mouth of Aquia Creek, and was soon joined by his sisters, according to the Stafford Historical Society. One of those sisters, Margaret Brent, was a landowner and attorney who has been called North America's first feminist.

Over the next four decades, the Brent family was granted 30,000 acres by King James II, and a patent that ""included a royal mandate assuring the Brents and later inhabitants of Virginia free exercise of their religion,"" according to a history of the church.

Known first as Brenton and later Aquia, the Catholic pioneers thrived for more than a century - building their ranks to more than 200 - before disappearing from mention in local history. Then, in 1897, the lost community of Aquia was rediscovered, along with the cemetery.

Among the tombstones was an old stone tablet paying tribute to Spanish Jesuits massacred by Native Americans near Williamsburg in 1571. One of those killed was said to be a member of the Brent family.

In the 1930s, the Catholic Archdiocese of Richmond had the stone-and-brick altar built at the cemetery in memory of the Brent family.

""That the memory of the brave Catholic pioneers of Aquia might be preserved, this altar of sacrifice has been erected by his fellow priests of the Diocese of Richmond, Oct. 29, 1933.""

Three years earlier, artist Georg J. Lober created the Aquia Crucifix Monument to commemorate the first English Roman Catholic settlement in Virginia.

Every October, the parish of St. William of York holds a public mass at the Brent Family Cemetery.

Frightening, but true?

The history goes back centuries, but where the legend of Witches Pond began is anyone's guess. There's very little verifiable truth to the long-told stories.

There are no records of a witch ever being tried and put to death in the colony of Aquia. But witchcraft was a pervasive fear in Colonial America, and Virginia - like Salem, Mass. - had its share of witch trials. Accused witches were often dunked in water to see if they floated. If they did, they were condemned.

There's also no evidence that the pond ever turns the color of blood, though fish kills in Aquia Creek are not uncommon and turn the water red or brown.

There are eerie stories, lots of them, posted on online ghost and haunting sites by visitors to Witches Pond, and many report similar experiences: Screaming and shrieking in the woods, being rushed by a shadowy figure, a woman hovering above the ground and the pond, strange lights, loud splashes in the water.

""When we got down to the graveyard, we looked around and tried to figure a way in,"" one person wrote on Shadowlands.com. ""We heard a loud shriek off in the far distance, and we kept hearing it, each time closer. Something came charging in through the woods. We could hear the leaves and sticks rustling, but no footsteps.""

On strangeusa.com, a poster reported seeing a figure hovering over the pond.

""Then we heard what we believed to be a woman screaming and the figure was gone. As we were leaving we heard the screams again and saw the figure again, but it was closer. It stopped in the center of the trail. It was like a foot off the ground,"" the person wrote.

Another poster on strangeusa said he saw a black figure in the distance as he and his friends stood near the altar. ""A few minutes later we heard a weird shrieking sound that wasn't very loud but it definitely came from the same spot we saw the black figure.""

Yet another poster on Shadowlands summed up his experience at Witches Pond with this: ""It is the coolest looking place I have ever been, it was like something straight from a Nightmare on Elm Street movie. It's unbelievable, but I will never return to that place again. I feel as if I brought something out with me.""

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