Thursday, 26 April 2012

Britain's Last Prosecution for Witchcraft

The last woman ever to be charged under the Witchcraft Act in the UK was a medium named Helen Duncan. The crime under this act was not so much witchcraft itself, but having falsely claimed superhuman powers that did not come from God. She was found guilty of this crime and imprisoned, despite having produced startling evidence of her genuine psychic abilities during her career as a medium. The most convincing example of this occurred during the troubled days of the Second World War.

It is reported that, during one of her séances, Duncan appeared to bring forth the spirit of a sailor who had died while serving in the Royal Navy. The serviceman, who bore the words HMS Barham on his hat, told the assembled people that the ship had been sunk while in combat with the enemy several days earlier. At that time, however, it was officially denied that the vessel had been sunk. Only later was the truth admitted, the ship had been sunk exactly as Duncan had revealed. The government had kept the facts secret in an attempt to fool the Germans.

Later that year, Duncan came under the scrutiny of the law. Fellow spiritualists have since alleged that this was due to the authorities’ concerns over the possible risk to military security posed by her extraordinary powers. Police arrived at one of her séances, interrupting proceedings and searching the scene. Although they found nothing, she was nevertheless brought to court, where a variety of fraud charges were levelled against her.

In a move that caused some consternation among the public, and outrage among Duncan’s community of fellow spiritualists, Duncan was prosecuted under the Witchcraft Act of 1735, and imprisoned. The fact that the authorities were willing to use such an outdated and draconian law suggests a sense of desperation on their part, or at least an ulterior motive. Interestingly, in 1951, the Witchcraft Act was repealed and replaced with the more modern and specific Fraudulent Mediums Act - almost certainly as a direct result of the Duncan prosecution.

Once freed from jail, Duncan immediately began working as a medium once more. Yet her involvement with the police was not over, as in 1956 they again raided her séance in Nottingham while she was in a deep trance. She seemed to react very badly from the shock of being interrupted while in this state, and a doctor had to be called to treat her. Within five weeks of the raid, she was dead.

To this day, there is a campaign to clear the name of Helen Duncan among the spiritualist community, who are enraged by the way she was treated and by the nature of her untimely death.

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