Today would have been the birthday of Helen Duncan, a woman widely known as the last person to be convicted of witchcraft in Britain – Google her name and that’s what you’ll see. However, despite this modern myth, there are two things wrong with this assumption.
Helen was born in a small Scottish town in 1897. Once married, she supplemented her income from a part time job in a bleach factory by holding séances during which the dead allegedly appeared, walked and even spoke to their relatives. Helen apparently achieved this through producing copious amounts of ‘ectoplasm’ from her mouth from which the dead would emerge.
However, photographs of the séances show ‘spirits’ made of sheets, coat hangers and masks. A sample of ‘ectoplasm’ was analysed by Harry Price, director of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research, and found to be made from cheesecloth. You may think that those who paid Helen for her ‘gifts’ should have been more sceptical and that her activities would be a cause for concern, but it was not for this that she found herself in trouble.
During the Second World War, Helen held séances in Portsmouth. On one occasion, she claimed that the spirit of a young sailor appeared and told her that he had died when the HMS Barham sank. The details of the ship’s loss had not yet been made public and had only been revealed to the relatives of the injured and deceased. It is possible, though, that these relatives told others and that Helen could have heard about it. It was this incident that drew the attention of the authorities – understandably they were concerned that confidential information could find its way into the wrong hands.
Helen was initially arrested under the Vagrancy Act. However, her actions were thought to be more serious than the act allowed for. The authorities turned to Section 4 of the 1735 Witchcraft Act – which, rather than being used to convict witches, was actually used to prosecute fraudulent spiritual activity. So Helen was not actually convicted of being a witch, or practising witchcraft; in fact she was convicted of completely the opposite – the act makes it a crime for someone to claim that anyone (including oneself) has magical powers or practises witchcraft. So Helen served nine months in prison not for being a witch, but for pretending to have magical powers.
The second issue with the claim that Helen Duncan was the last person to be convicted of witchcraft is that she wasn’t, in fact, the last person to be tried under the Act. In September 1944, 72-year-old medium Jane Rebecca Yorke was found guilty of seven counts under the Witchcraft Act. Due to her age she was fined rather than imprisoned. Her trial was brought because it was feared that she was defrauding concerned friends and relatives of those fighting in the war by claiming to be able to contact their loved ones. The Witchcraft Act then, rather than being a tool for persecuting witches, was an act that was set up in order to supress the superstitions and ignorance that had led to the deaths of hundreds of innocent people. Neither Helen Duncan nor Jane Rebecca Yorke were accused of witchcraft and their stories have nothing to do with the terrible history of intolerance and superstition that cost many innocents their lives.
Harry Price. Leaves from a Psychist’s Case-Book (Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1933)
Harry Price (1931) Regurgitation and the Duncan Mediumship (Bulletin I of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research, 120pp with 44 illustrations.)