The last execution for witchcraft in England took place in 1684 when Alice Molland of Exter was hanged though the last recorded witchcraft trial ending with a death sentence in England took place on 20 February 1712 when Jane Wenham, ‘the Witch of Walkern’, was found guilty and sentenced to death although the sentence was not carried out as she was given a Royal pardon by Queen Anne.
Witchcraft was not made a capital offence in Britain until 1563 although it was deemed heresy and was denounced as such by Pope Innocent VIII in 1484. From 1484 until around 1750 some 200,000 witches were tortured, burnt or hanged in Western Europe. The Witchcraft Act (9 Geo. II c. 5) was a law passed by the Parliament of the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1735 which made it a crime for a person to claim that any human being had magical powers or was guilty of practising witchcraft. The maximum penalty set out by the Act was a year’s imprisonment. Curiously it was not an offence under the Witchcraft Act of 1735 to produce spirits – only to pretend to do so!
It thus marks the end point of the period Witch trials in the Early Modern period for Great Britain and the beginning of the “modern legal history of witchcraft.” It is generally thought that the last unfortunate woman to be convicted under the 1735 Act was Helen Duncan (1897-1956), who received nine months in May 1944. She had a previous conviction in Edinburgh in the 1930s and was making a substantial sum from her séances in Portsmouth. Helen Duncan’s case though was not the last but the penultimate though more widely known conviction for witchcraft in Britain when one of her seances exposed a government attempt to cover up the deaths of 861 sailors. Over the years her supporters, and there have been many, have tried to obtain a pardon and to clear her name.
It started much the same as her other seances. With a chilling moan and strange white substance leaking from her mouth, Helen Duncan began communicating with the dead… But suddenly, the eerie calm was pierced by a police whistle and officers piled into the house, in Portsmouth, Hants, to arrest Britain’s top medium. The following morning Helen, known as Hellish Nell, was charged under section four of the 1735 Witchcraft Act. It was 1944, and, astonishingly, officials had ordered her arrest because they were afraid she would reveal top-secret plans for the D-Day landings. They had been monitoring her since she had revealed the sinking of a British battleship earlier in the war – even though the government had suppressed the news to maintain morale at home.
It took a jury just 30 minutes to find her guilty and she became the last person to be convicted of and imprisoned for witchcraft in Britain. As she was led away to start her nine-month sentence in London’s Holloway Prison, the housewife cried out in her broad Scottish accent: “I never heard so many lies in all my life!” Helen’s “gift” had long put her on a collision course with the authorities and led to one of the most bizarre chapters in British judicial history.
In 2006, exactly 50 years after her death, campaigners hoped to persuade Home Secretary John Reid to overturn the verdict. “Helen Duncan was one of the world’s top mediums, a woman who gave hope and comfort to many,” says Ray Taylor, editor of Psychic World. It was her gift that caused the government to hound her under an archaic law which eventually led to her death. It’s a scandal and it is time that her name was cleared.”
Helen Macfarlane was born into a poor family in Perthshire, central Scotland, in 1897. Growing up in Callander, Stirlingshire, she earned her nickname due to her tomboyish behaviour. Even as a teenager, she appeared to have a sixth sense, predicting the length of the First World War and invention of the tank. When the unmarried Helen became pregnant in 1918, she fled the village and settled in Dundee. There, she married an invalid soldier, Henry Duncan, and had five more children. During that period, Britain was still reeling from the devastating losses sustained in the First World War and many grieving families sought spiritual comfort. Seances quickly sprang up, conducted by people claiming to be in touch with the dead. Helen was among them and, by the 1930s, she was travelling the country, summoning up spirits before incredulous audiences. But while the seances were making her a celebrity, scientists were already questioning her abilities and, in 1931, she was invited with Henry to London to have her skills tested by psychic researcher Harry Price. He recalls: “She was placed in the curtained recess. In a few seconds, the medium was in a trance. The curtains parted and we beheld her covered from head to foot with cheese-cloth! Some of it was trailing on the floor, one end was poked up her nostril, a piece was issuing from her mouth. I must say that I was deeply impressed – with the brazen effrontery that prompted the Duncans to come to my lab, with the amazing credulity of the spiritualists who had sat with the Duncans and with the fact that they had advertised her ‘phenomena’ as genuine.” In a bid to reveal the contents of Helen’s stomach, Price asked if she would undergo an X-ray. “She refused. Her husband advised her to submit. But that seemed to infuriate her and she became hysterical. She jumped up and dealt him a blow on the face. Suddenly, she jumped up, unfastened the door and dashed into the street – where she had another attack of alleged hysterics and commenced tearing her seance garment to pieces. Her husband dashed after her and she was found clutching the railings, screaming.” Yet the researchers did not bring about Helen’s downfall. Instead, the seeds were sown in the Mediterranean, on November 25, 1941. HMS Barham, a 29,000-tonne battleship, was attacking Italian convoys when it was hit by three German torpedoes. The ship went down within minutes, with the loss of 861 lives. Already reeling from the Blitz, the British government decided to keep the news quiet, even forging Christmas cards from the dead to their families. But they never reckoned on Helen’s psychic powers…
Days after the attack, she held another seance and claimed that a sailor with the words HMS Barham on his hatband appeared and said: “My ship is sunk.” News of the apparition swiftly reached the Admiralty, which finally chose to act two years later, in January 1944, amid fears that Helen would somehow reveal plans for the D-Day landings five months later. When Helen was arrested, everyone expected a swift release. But such was the paranoia of the authorities, she was refused bail and told that she would stand trial at the Old Bailey. It was alleged she had pretended “to exercise or use human conjuration that through the agency of Helen Duncan spirits of deceased dead persons should appear to be present”. News of the case infuriated PM Winston Churchill. In a note to his Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, he wrote: “Give me a report. What was the cost of a trial in which the Recorder was kept busy with all this obsolete tomfoolery, to the detriment of the necessary work in the courts?” The trial lasted seven days. Mediums had rallied to her cause and their defence fund allowed her barrister to call 44 witnesses to testify she wasn’t a fraud. Yet it was to no avail. Helen served her sentence and emerged from prison that September a changed woman. At first she vowed never to hold another meeting but eventually relented, a fateful decision. The end came in 1956 when she agreed to give a seance in Nottingham. Though the Witchcraft Act had been repealed five years earlier and spiritualism was recognised as a bona fide religion, Helen was arrested and subjected to a strip search. She never got over the shock and, after being rushed to hospital, remained there for the next five weeks and died on December 6. Whether a gifted psychic or a charlatan who exploited people’s griefs, the strange tale of Helen Duncan continues to attract controversy.
The last conviction under the Witchcraft Act of 1735 was against 72-year-old Jane Rebecca Yorke from Forest Gate in East London who appeared at the Old Bailey later the same year. Yorke’s alleged spirit guide was a Zulu and she also frequently claimed to have Queen Victoria along to give advice and comfort.
During séances with Yorke, undercover police were told to ask about non-existent family members. She provided elaborate details on them that she claimed had been provided by her spirit guides, telling an officer that his non-existent brother had been burned alive on a bombing mission. She also terrified a genuinely hysterical woman who said she had seen the spirit of her dead brother, by warning that her husband might also be killed.
However, on a more optimistic note, Yorke predicted that the Second World War would end in October 1944.
She was arrested in the July that year and at her trial in September claimed she did not know what she said while in a trance and, in a display of pre-political correctness, certainly did not call her spirit guide ‘a Zulu’. There was no charge for her séances but the audience dropped coins in a suitably placed bowl.
She was found guilty on seven counts. Because of her age, Sir Gerald Dodson, the recorder, fined her £5, saying it was necessary to ‘protect women who had gone to her in their sorrow and bereavement to get some spurious comfort’.
The authorities of the time had not seen Bedknobs and Broomsticks, clearly!
The Witchcraft Act was replaced by the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951, which was itself replaced in 2008 by the rather more prosaically named Consumer Protection Regulations to comply with EU directives.
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