TODAY is the anniversary of the death of Helen Duncan (1897-1956), the last person to be imprisoned under the British Witchcraft Act 1735.
Helen Duncan was one of the most controversial psychics of all time.
Duncan, who had demonstrated psychic ability throughout her life, got unstuck when she performed a séance in Portsmouth in November 1941 and accurately revealed that a battleship, the HMS Barham, had been sunk.
Wartime censorship meant the catastrophe was known only to relatives of the casualties, so the authorities were particularly alarmed at Helen Duncan’s “inside” knowledge. The authorities’ biggest fear was not of Duncan’s connection to the “other side” but that she might reveal military secrets.
The séance lead to the Scots-born spiritualist being charged under section 4 of the Witchcraft Act 1735 for fraudulent activity. She was also charged under the Larceny Act for taking money “by falsely pretending that she was in a position to bring about the appearances of the spirits of deceased persons”.
An interesting misconception about the case is noted on a BBC website:
… the Witchcraft Act was originally formulated to eradicate the belief in witches and its introduction meant that from 1735 onwards an individual could no longer be tried as a witch in England or Scotland. However, they could be fined or imprisoned for purporting to have the powers of a witch.”
The Old Bailey jury trial caused a stir in wartime London and attracted much media attention. During the trial Duncan was barred from demonstrating her power as part of her defence against the Larceny charges. She was eventually found guilty under the Witchcraft Act (but not guilty of charges under the Larceny Act) and sentenced to nine months in Holloway Prison.
After the trial, Prime Minister Winston Churchill complained to the Home Secretary Herbert Morrison about the “obsolete tomfoolery” of the charge and waste of court resources.
She died at her Edinburgh home a short time later (on this day 55 years ago).
Duncan was the last person in Britain to be jailed under the act, which was repealed in 1951 and replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act.
However, she was not the last person convicted under the Witchcraft Act. Jane Rebecca Yorke received a lenient sentence due to her age (she was in her 70s) and fined in late 1944.