Friday, February 25, 2005

Britain's last witchcraft trial

The idea of witchcraft trials summons up images of The Middle Ages, of old women, perhaps versed in ancient lore and herbal remedies, being run out of ignorant villages. However, the last prosecution under The Witchcraft Act was in 1944, involved a medium called Helen Duncan, and makes for one of the strangest stories of WW2.

Helen was born in the Scottish town of Callendar (I went there once, it's nice). Her father was a slate worker or cabinet maker, depending on which account you read. They were a working class family and money was tight, although they were by no means destitute. Helen was a rather difficult child by all accounts, and by the age of 16 was pregnant and married, living in Dundee. From the accounts that I have read, the order of those events is not clear, but I stand to be corrected by any of Helen's many present day supporters.

Helen's husband Henry was a disabled former woodworker from an extremely poor background, who was not always well enough to work. Helen took a number of menial, exhausting jobs in Dundee, working for a time in the textile factories. No easy task, as she underwent 12 pregnancies, resulting in 6 surviving children. Helen also suffered from many health problems, including diabetes. Life was a struggle.

Helen did have a way out of this lifestyle. Since childhood, she claimed to have the gift of mediumship, that is, she could communicate with the dead. In the early half of the twentieth century, there was an extensive belief in spiritualism, and respectable figures such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who had lost a son and several other relatives in WW1, was a believer. Henry had read widely on the subject, and Helen started to give readings, with Henry as her manager.

Once her children were older, she began to develop her career as a medium. The medium performances of the past were very different from the more verbal events seen today. Mediums were expected to materialise spirits via ectoplasm, a white, cloth-like substance which has disappeared from the modern spiritualist world. Many of these psychics were frauds, using a panoply of dolls, actors and sheets. This was an unsophisticated audience. Helen's materialisations were famous. Helped by her spirit guide Albert, she would discharge ectoplasm from her person which would take the shape of a deceased relative. You can giggle at a photo taken at one of her seances here. To be fair to those who believe in psychic powers (and I'm open minded), people who came to such sittings expected materialisations and ghosts, and it's possible that a genuine psychic might feel the need to compete with the frauds and charlatans by jazzing things up a bit. It's not like now, when people will be content with a verbal reading. Helen gradually became more famous, and travelled the country.

Helen's downfall came at a reading in Edinburgh in 1941, at which she correctly told the relative of a sailor that HMS Hood had ben sunk, and then in a 1943 Portsmouth event at which she correctly told a relative of a sailor on HMS Barham that the ship had gone down. This was true, but the fact was not released by the government until several months later, for security reasons.

On January 19th 1944, one of her seances was raided by police. She was arrested and charged with vagrancy. Although the maximum fine for the offence was tiny, she was refused bail. Instead, she spent four days at Holloway Prison in London. The charge was changed to conspiracy, a hanging offence in wartime. When Helen came to The Old Bailey she was charged with contravening The Witchcraft Act of 1835. Her defence counsel wanted her to prove her powers by holding a seance whilst in the witness box. The prosecution decided against this.

There is widespread speculation that the reason for Helen's persecution was a suspicion that she had access to sensitive information and could therefore reveal plans for the D Day landings. Perhaps her knowledge of the sinking of The Hood and The Barham were from inside knowledge, which she used to promote her mediumship, and which she could have used irresponsibly. Perhaps she just overheard pieces of gossip in naval towns. Perhaps she was skilled at reading the expressions of people who hadn't had communication from their relatives for a while. Or perhaps she was psychic.

Helen was sentenced to 9 months in prison. It is reputed by some that she was visted by Churchill, but there is no real evidence for this. However, Churchill did comment on the case. He called it "obsolete tomfoolery to the detriment of necessary work in the court" and asked why it had ever been pursued. In fact, the idea that Churchill believed in Helen seems a little far-fetched; he merely thought the whole thing irrelevant and daft.

In any case he bore this in mind, and had The Witchcraft Act repealed in 1951, to be replaced with The Fraudulent Mediums Act. This didn't stop Helen being hounded. At a performance in Nottingham in 1956, police raided the stage. According to traditional psychic teaching, it is very dangerous to disturb a medium in a trance. Helen became ill shortly afterwards and died five weeks later. There were two unexplained burn marks on her stomach. However, Helen was a 22 stone diabetic with kidney problems, who had undergone 12 pregnancies and suffered poverty, imprisonment, and had also been a smoker since a young age. There is no need to suppose her death at almost 60 was unusual.

There are several accounts of the story on the internet. This is a good account by people who believe in her powers, and are trying to oganise a pardon for her. I prefer the sceptical but sympathetic Hilary Mantel article.

You might also like to know that there are a few accounts of Helen getting in touch from the other side. Who knows?


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I think this is a fabulous article that helps to clear up the myths of witchcraft and honour those women murdered by the catholic church for believeing in a religion dating far beyond christianity. Well done for openeing the door

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