Girl History Month – Helen Duncan, Britain’s Last Jailed Witch

duncan and boat

Helen Duncan (1897-1956), was the last person to be imprisoned under the British Witchcraft Act of 1735.

Duncan, who had demonstrated psychic ability throughout her life, got into hot water when she performed a séance in Portsmouth, England in November 1941 and accurately revealed that a battleship, the HMS Barham, had been sunk.

Wartime censorship meant the catastrophe was known only to relatives of the casualties, so the authorities were particularly alarmed at Duncan’s “inside” knowledge. The authorities’ biggest fear was not of Duncan’s connection to the “other side” but that she might reveal military secrets.

The séance lead to the Scots-born spiritualist being charged under section 4 of the Witchcraft Act 1735 for fraudulent activity. She was also charged under the Larceny Act for taking money “by falsely pretending that she was in a position to bring about the appearances of the spirits of deceased persons”.

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An interesting misconception about the case is noted on a BBC website:

“… the Witchcraft Act was originally formulated to eradicate the belief in witches and its introduction meant that from 1735 onwards an individual could no longer be tried as a witch in England or Scotland. However, they could be fined or imprisoned for purporting to have the powers of a witch.”

The Old Bailey jury trial caused a stir in wartime London and attracted much media attention. During the trial Duncan was barred from demonstrating her power as part of her defense against the Larceny charges. She was eventually found guilty under the Witchcraft Act (but not guilty of charges under the Larceny Act) and sentenced to nine months in Holloway Prison.

After the trial, Prime Minister Winston Churchill complained to the Home Secretary Herbert Morrison about the “obsolete tomfoolery” of the charge and waste of court resources.

winston

She died at her Edinburgh home a short time later. A campaign to have her pardoned continues today.

Duncan was the last person in Britain to be jailed under the act, which was repealed in 1951 and replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act. However, she was not the last person convicted under the Witchcraft Act. Jane Rebecca Yorke received a lenient sentence due to her age (she was in her 70s) and fined in late 1944.

10 thoughts on “Girl History Month – Helen Duncan, Britain’s Last Jailed Witch

  1. How interesting, thanks for sharing!

  2. […] is likely convicted Scottish witch Helen Duncan enjoyed this traditional Scottish […]

  3. Interesting! So . . . it sounds like they were confused by their own Act. If you don’t believe in witches, why worry when someone is “purporting to have powers” of one? I like what Churchill had to say on the trial. Gotta love that guy!

  4. What a story. And, so recent when one would think it would be different, but then I live closer to Hollywood where such was not so out of the ordinary even back then. 1941 was not that long ago. Tks.

  5. Emily Heath says:

    Not something we get taught about at school. She sounds like a bit of a troublemaker, letting out all these military secrets to try and gain credibility.

  6. […] Girl History Month – Helen Duncan, Britain’s Last Jailed Witch […]

  7. This is interesting. I never think of witchcraft being tried like this, especially hundreds of years after the Salem Witch Trials.

  8. Thanks for the information. I enjoyed reading this. More evidence of how much damage closed minds and fear of what you don’t understand can do.

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