Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Witch of World War Two

Helen Duncan (November 25, 1897December 6, 1956) was a Scottish medium best known as the last person to be imprisoned under the British Witchcraft Act of 1735.

During World War II, Duncan held a seance in Portsmouth at which she indicated knowledge that HMS Barham had been sunk. Because this fact had been kept from the public, the British Admiralty chose to attempt to discredit her. Police arrested her after another seance. She was initially arrested under section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824, a minor offence tried by magistrates. However, the authorities regarded the case as more serious, and eventually discovered section 4 of the Witchcraft Act 1735, covering fraudulent "spiritual" activity, which was triable before a jury. Charged alongside her for conspiracy to contravene this Act were Ernest and Elizabeth Homer, who operated the Psychic centre in Portsmouth, and Frances Brown, who was Duncan's agent who went with her to set up séances. There were seven counts in total, two of conspiracy to contravene the Witchcraft Act, two of obtaining money by false pretences, and three of public mischief (a common law offence).

The prosecution may be explained by the mood of near-paranoia surrounding the impending D-Day. The authorities were fearing that she could use her clairvoyant powers to reveal details of the D-Day landing plans. There were also concerns that she was exploiting the recently-bereaved.

Duncan's trial for witchcraft was a minor cause célèbre in wartime London. A number of prominent people, among them Alfred Dodd, an historian and senior freemason, testified that they were convinced that she was authentic. Duncan was however, barred by the Judge from demonstrating her alleged powers as part of her defence against being fraudulent. The jury brought in a guilty verdict on count one, and the judge then discharged the jury from giving verdicts on the other counts, as he held that they were alternative offences for which Duncan might have been convicted had the jury acquitted her on the first count. Duncan was jailed for nine months. After the verdict, Winston Churchill wrote a memo to Home Secretary Herbert Morrison, complaining about the misuse of court resources on the "obsolete tomfoolery" of the charge.

Duncan is often referred to as the last person to be convicted of being a witch, but this view is incorrect in two important aspects. Firstly, the Witchcraft Act 1735 under which she was convicted dealt not with witchcraft but with people who falsely claimed to be able to procure spirits. Secondly, there was a subsequent conviction under the act, of Jane Rebecca Yorke of Forest Gate in East Ham later in 1944; Yorke was bound over to keep the peace.

On her release in 1945, Duncan promised to stop conducting seances; however, she was arrested after another one in 1956. She died a short time later. Duncan's trial almost certainly contributed to the repeal of the Witchcraft Act, which was contained in the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951 promoted by Walter Monslow, Labour Member of Parliament for Barrow-in-Furness. The campaign to repeal the Act had largely been led by Thomas Brooks, another Labour MP, who was a spiritualist. However, her original conviction still stood, and a campaign to have her posthumously pardoned continues.

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