29 November 2006
Britain’s last witch
As ever my thought processes can flit from one thing to another. In response to a comment left by a regular and well liked visitor to this blog I mentioned that the last witchcraft trial took place in 1944. This is no joke, but needless to say nobody got burned for their troubles: in England witches were hanged rather than burned when the death penalty was in place.
Helen Duncan has gone down in history as the last person in Britain to be tried as a “witch”. Born in Callender, Scotland in 1897 Duncan displayed an early gift as a medium, apparently being able to make spirits of the dead appear and talk to their relatives. This gift is of course in doubt: in1934 she was found guilty of fake mediumship in Scotland after a sitter at one of her séances made a grab at one of her materialisations and found it to be an under vest!
By WWII Duncan lived in Portsmouth. She attracted attention in December 1941 when she “summoned” the spirit of a sailor who had died when the Battleship HMS Barham. The Barham had been sunk by a German U boat the previous month but the news had not been released at the time of Duncan’s séance.
Duncan remained under surveillance until January 1944, when one of her séances was broken up by police (allegedly because authorities feared she may reveal details of the D Day landings). Initially charged with vagrancy, a crime that attracted a maximum fine of five shillings (25 pence), she was refused bail and was taken to London to face more serious charges. prosecutors charged her with violating the 1735 Witchcraft Act. (Note: the witchcraft Act of 1735 did not provide for the death penalty, rather it allowed fraudulent mediums to be punished as a vagrant or a con artist and fined or imprisoned accordingly).
Duncan’s trial at the Old Bailey court in March 1944 lasted a week and, given the unusual nature of the charge, attracted significant press coverage. She was ultimately found guilty of conspiracy to violate the Witchcraft Act and was sentenced to nine months imprisonment.
The conviction did not please everyone. Winston Churchill wrote to the Home Secretary to complain about the resources wasted on what he described as “absolute tomfoolery to the detriment of the necessary work of the court.” When he was returned to power in 1951 his government repealed the Witchcraft Act, replacing it with the Fraudulent Mediums Act.
Helen Duncan was released from prison on the 22nd September 1944. She died in 1956
The Barham Conspiracy by Jason Stevenson
Official Helen Duncan website
Scotland’s last witch
Helen Duncan medium witch