Witch Trials Of The Twentieth Century – Helen Duncan
Trials of witches are most associated with the witch hunts of the 17th century. They have happened quite recently though. The last convictions in England under the 1735 Witchcraft Act were made in the Twentieth Century. As he Second World War drew on, the final arrests, trials and convictions were made, in 1944. The Witchcraft Act has since been replaced with a Fraudulent Mediums Act which itself has been superceded by later legislation. In this post we look at the story of the last person to be sent to prison for Witchcraft: Helen Duncan.
One of the most famous wartime Witchcraft cases was that of Helen Duncan. Duncan was a medium and spiritualist. She held seances around the country and ha some very famous and influential clients. It is reputed that people such as Winston Churchill and King George VI attended some of her seances. During the war, Duncan revealed, at seances, things that were simply not known to the public. In one, she spoke of the deaths of sailors onboard HMS Barham. While it is true that HMS Barham had in fact been sunk, with the loss of over 800 lives, this fact had never once been released into the public domain. Quite the opposite, the Germans were being deliberately led astray as to the whereabouts of the vessel. For Duncan to mention this, raised several eyebrows from those ‘in the know’.
In January of 1944, Duncan was leading seances in Portsmouth. At the time, the area was a hive of activity as the Allies prepared for D Day. Two naval officers attending one of her seances became concerned that she may pass information to the Germans. They arrested her and she was subsequently charged with fraud, conspiracy and Witchcraft.
Duncan was found guilty of crimes under the Witchcraft Act – though not fraud or conspiracy. She was sentenced to and served 9 months in prison. Many websites state that this means she was convicted of being a Witch. That however, is incorrect. Duncan was initially arrested under vagrancy laws. Upon investigation, the authorities determined that more serious charges were required. Therefore, they turned to crimes under the Witchcraft Act of 1735. The Act made it a crime to claim that anybody possessed magical powers or practices witchcraft. It was her advertising of her ability to communicate with the dead, via seances, that led to a successful conviction on that basis that this would be a magical power. As part of her seance, she made use of cheesecloth to create fake ectoplasm.
The judge, when delivering his sentence, noted that it was not whether communication with the dead that was possible that was being questioned:
‘genuine manifestations of the kind are possible . . .this court has nothing whatever to do with such abstract questions’
This has led many to argue that her trial and conviction were simply done out of fear at a time of great suspicion.