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New attempt to win pardon for jailed Helen Duncan … one of the last to be prosecuted under the Witchcraft Act

Helen Duncan   

SCOTTISH materialisation medium Helen Duncan (left) has probably inspired more publicity than any other 20th-century Spiritualist medium.

Following recent changes in the law, campaigners have fresh hopes that Duncan, who in 1944 was tried and imprisoned under the 1735 Witchcraft Act, could receive a posthumous pardon.

There is no proof that she was a fraud and she was certainly not a witch! Yet this Stirlingshire mother of a large family was prosecuted under a law that is now obsolete.

Helen Duncan is widely described as the last person to be convicted under the ancient Witchcraft Act but, according to archivist and historian Leslie Price, that dubious honour rests with Jane Rebecca Yorke, a 72-year-old London medium convicted a short time after Mrs Duncan in 1944.

New optimism has arisen following the posthumous pardon of wartime code-breaker Alan Turing who was convicted for gross indecency in 1952 and subsequently committed suicide.    

In 2009, British prime minister Gordon Brown spoke publicly about Turing’s “inhumane treatment” and said, “I’m proud to say sorry to a real war hero”.

The Queen granted Turing a posthumous pardon in 2013. And last month justice minister Sam Gyimah announced that thousands of gay and bisexual men who, like Turing, were convicted for sex offences under a law that has since been abolished could now all be posthumously pardoned.

Graham Hewitt, trust property coordinator at the Spiritualists’ National Union’s head office, has been asked by the Duncan grandchildren to fight for a pardon. He is hopeful that the Turing case has set a precedent.

He told the Telegraph: “Like Turing, Helen was convicted under legislation now long since repealed. We are writing to the Scottish Government demanding their support.”

The Scottish Parliament rejected a 2008 petition to pardon Helen Duncan but a spokesman for the Scottish Government said, “Scottish Ministers have a power to consider a posthumous pardon under the Royal Prerogative for Mercy. In the event that an application was received on behalf of Helen Duncan, they would give it due consideration.”

Are you descended
from a witch?

THE long outdated Witchcraft Act was repealed in 1951 but the persecution of so-called witches will never be forgotten.

What’s more, a 350-year-old book listing those accused of witchcraft in Scotland in 1658 has now been published online, thanks to the Wellcome Trust, making it possible for curious individuals to check if they are descended from a witch.

It is estimated that between 3,000 and 5,000 Scottish women were publicly accused of being witches during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Witch-hunting was rife and the victims included some men. Many were not witches – casters of evil spells – but healers or distributors of natural medicines.

Although people flocked to Helen Duncan’s demonstrations during World War Two, sceptics were not impressed. Matters came to a head during one of her séances in Portsmouth.

A sailor returned and said he had lost his life at sea when his ship, HMS Barham, was torpedoed. It sank in the Mediterranean with the loss of 800 lives.

The ship’s fate had not yet been made public, so the authorities had to ask how this woman knew the details. The government decided she could be a security risk. She was arrested and held initially on the old charge of “vagrancy”.

Two months later, when the case reached the Old Bailey in London, she was accused under the Witchcraft Act of 1735 and imprisoned in Holloway for nine months.

An appeal against conviction was launched during the time of the London Blitz. As the Law Courts had been hit by a flying bomb, the appeal was heard in an air raid shelter. As it dragged on, prime minister Winston Churchill became impatient and demanded: “Give me a report of the 1735 Witchcraft Act in which the Recorder was kept busy with all this obsolete tomfoolery to the detriment of the necessary work in the courts.”

Despite arguments and supportive evidence from leading Spiritualists of the day, Helen Duncan was returned to prison to complete her sentence.

‘Ectoplasm’ goes on show in Cambridge

By a strange coincidence, the seeking of a pardon coincides with an exhibition entitled “Curious Objects” which opened in Cambridge University Library on 3 November and runs through to 21 March 2017.

On view is an example of “ectoplasm” said to have been produced during a Helen Duncan séance. It is part of the archive of the Society for Psychical Research, and takes its place in the exhibition together with a spirit trumpet used to amplify spirit voices and a plaster cast of famous medium D.D. Home’s left hand.

The exhibition describes ectoplasm as “sometimes vaporous, sometimes viscous, sometimes a mass of fine threads or cloth-like substance. It supposedly disintegrates when exposed to light or human touch.”  

© 2015 University of Cambridge




Helen Duncan at the start of a materialisation séance

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