Britain's last witch


Britain's last witch

Britain has a long history of labelling people as witches, and has legislated accordingly to deal with them. Scotswoman Helen Duncan (1897 – 1956) is best known as the last person to be imprisoned under the Witchcraft Act of 1735 when she was convicted in 1944.

She was raised in Callander, Perthshire with a Presbyterian family, and would alarm her mother, and her schoolfellows, with bleak prophecies on her way to becoming a medium.

In 1926 Duncan began offering séances, wherein she claimed to be facilitating the materialising of recently deceased persons’ spirits. She purported to be producing the spiritual bodily energy substance ectoplasm from her mouth – although it was later proven to be cheesecloth, assumed to be swallowed prior to the séances, and then regurgitated.

The authorities began to take note of her activities after a séance in which she revealed confidential information about the 1941 sinking of the Royal Navy ship HMS Barham. Policemen consequently attended a séance undercover, and arrested her following the manifestation of a ‘spirit’, which was then proved to be Duncan herself.

Her activity was taken seriously due to the sensitive nature of the information in which she was dealing, and she was found to be breaching section 4 of the 1735 Witchcraft Act, for practising fraudulent ‘spiritual’ activity. She was imprisoned for nine months in 1944. On conviction, she cried out ‘I have done nothing; is there a God?’.

When she was released she promised to stop practising witchcraft, but was arrested for facilitating another séance in 1956, shortly before she died..

Further reading

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