The age old practice of witchcraft has seen an explosive resurgence over the last few decades. In the past it provoked wild and insane persecutions that led to ridiculous witch hunts in which thousands died.
The criteria for conviction were often based on hearsay and poor evidence, and the penalties were cruel and unwarranted. Most of the madness subsided by the 19th century, having been nearly eradicated in the west by that centuries’ end. However, the hysteria surfaced again briefly during the second world war. In the midst of war, madness rules the day and invariably comes home, infecting legal matters. Few wartime cases in the courts of Britain are as bizarre as the 1944 witchcraft trial of Helen Duncan. It happened just before D-Day.
Helen Duncan – a medium that unfortunately got it right.
Helen Duncan was a spiritualist and medium from Scotland who traveled the UK during the war performing seances. Her customers are reputed to have included George VI and Winston Churchill, and she was one of the most widely known mediums of the day.
Channeling for the parents of a missing sailor in 1941, she revealed that he had died when his ship HMS Barham had been sunk by the Germans. The ship had indeed sunk with a loss of 861 men, but the admiralty had kept the affair secret to mislead the Germans who weren’t aware that the ship had gone down. The cover-up made sense, since the Germans would invariably spend resources on trying to track a ship that no longer existed. Plus it prevented an unnecessary blow to British public morale during the infamous blitz. The Germans found out in 1942 and the whole thing became public, but the fact remained that Helen Duncan had known about the sinking, allegedly through channeling the dead sailor, and had revealed information that could have been potentially damaging for the Admiralty’s cover up. Nothing came of it at the time, and Helen Duncan continued her seances.
Fast forward to 1944. The D-Day invasion was being prepared amid unprecedented secrecy. The British government was prepared to do anything to keep the invasion plans under wraps as the defeat of the Nazis depended on the success of the operation. In January, Helen Duncan was in Portsmouth performing a seance in the presence of two superstitious naval officers. The officers were alarmed that she might reveal secrets of the impending invasion that could get back to the Germans, so they arrested her. The authorities charged her under the British Witchcraft Act of 1735, along with charges of conspiracy and fraud. Strangely, only the charges of witchcraft stuck and she was convicted and sentenced to nine months in prison.
In fairness, at the time, most people thought the trial was ridiculous. She probably never had any malicious intent with her seances, as her own sons were in the military, and it isn’t very likely that the Germans would have paid attention to her claims. Winston Churchill called the whole thing “tomfoolery” and repealed the Witchcraft Act in 1951, a bit too late for Helen Duncan. The case of Helen Duncan is often referred to as the last witchcraft trial in Britain, and indeed the last in the western world. But that’s not entirely accurate.
Jane Rebecca Yorke – The last witchcraft trial
Another trial under the Witchcraft Act of 1735 happened later in 1944 when the medium Jane Rebecca Yorke was arrested and charged with fraud and witchcraft. Yorke was convicted in September of that year on seven counts of witchcraft, but unlike Helen Duncan, she got off light having been fined 5 pounds and released. Yorke may have been a fraud, or at least partly one, and does seem to have mislead families who were desperate to find out information about their loved ones in the war. Her conviction under the Act of 1735 was the last recorded trial of a witch in the western world, though threats of the use of the act continued in the British courts until 1950.
Hysteria Among Us
A more recent case comes from Oklahoma. While not a trial per se, a court case was filed by the ACLU in 2000 against school officials who suspended a girl who practiced wicca for allegedly casting a spell on a teacher. The ACLU claims that the girl was laughably suspended for fifteen days for making the teacher ill with her spell, and further undue disciplinary action was taken on the girl for other incidents, even though she had a perfect attendance record and no previous disciplinary actions.
While hardly at the level of the horrific witch trials of the 17th century, these cases show that the hysteria that can be brought against accused witches is still with us today. Nine months in prison is a long time for someone who simply channeled a spirit and got correct information, that sparked fear among a couple of naval officers who had the power to arrest her. Malicious witch trials continue unabated in the third world. Recent examples have come from Africa and India. In Tanzania, elderly women are sometimes killed as witches if they exhibit red eyes. Often, these trials are simply brought on by family members wanting their property. In Congo, children are sometimes accused of witchcraft, the most recent being a horrific period of hysteria directed against kids in 1999.
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In the modern world, superstition should never play a part in law. Hopefully, sufficient safeguards now exist to prevent a resurgence of witchcraft trials, but under the conditions of war a return to these bizarre days could still come. Only public vigilance will ensure that it never happens again.