Australia: Think our laws are dumb? Wait until you hear the one about the Witchcraft Act 1735

Do you ever feel caught out by a silly or obsolete law?

If so, consider yourself lucky that you were not in the unenviable position of Ms Helen Duncan, a celebrated medium who was one of the last people convicted under the Witchcraft Act 1735 following a trial which took place in England during World War II.

Famous medium continued to hold séances despite attempts to discredit her

Helen Duncan (nee MacFarlane) was born on 25 November 1897 in Scotland and quickly came to recognise her supernatural talent. By 1926 she had developed into a medium offering séances in which she summoned spirits.

Controversy followed her career throughout the 1920s and 1930s, with several attempts to discredit her through use of x-rays and scientific examination of the ectoplasm that she would regurgitate, amongst other things.

By the close of the 1930s there had been concerted efforts to establish her as a fraud, and she had been prosecuted and fined on a number of occasions. However, Ms Duncan had a large number of supporters and continued hosting séances.

Unexplained knowledge of wartime events draws attention of authorities

Ms Duncan came to the notice of the authorities in 1941, following the sinking of the HMS Barham during wartime. The sinking had supposedly been kept secret, with only relatives of casualties having been informed (some 861 people), before the general public in late January 1942.

However, in November 1941 Ms Duncan held a séance in Portsmouth during which a spirit of a sailor materialised and told her (and the audience) that the HMS Barham had been sunk.

On the night of 19 January 1944, police raided one of Ms Duncan's séances and she was arrested.

Possible fear of authorities that medium would reveal wartime secrets

Ms Duncan was initially arrested under section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1842, which was a relatively minor offence. However, the authorities regarded the matter more seriously, perhaps because they were afraid that Ms Duncan might reveal classified information, particularly with the D-Day Normandy landings approaching, regardless of the nature of her source.

Eventually Ms Duncan was prosecuted with offences relating to the Witchcraft Act 1735 which made it a crime, amongst other things, for a person to claim that any human being had magical powers or was guilty of practising witchcraft. The maximum penalty set out by the Act was a year's imprisonment.

Medium barred from demonstrating her powers during trial

The trial itself was a major affair lasting seven days, despite its wartime setting. It drew the attention of Mr Winston Churchill himself, who expressed his dismay at what he saw as the misuse of resources of the court in the circumstances.

During the course of the trial Ms Duncan was barred by the judge from demonstrating her alleged powers as part of her defence against being fraudulent. Most evidence was given by way of witness testimony, much of which was supportive of Ms Duncan.

Ms Duncan herself was asked to give evidence so that the prosecution could cross-examine her. However, her defence lawyers pointed out that as Ms Duncan was in a trance during the séances, she would not be able to answer questions about what transpired.

Guilty verdict a triumph of superstition over science

Despite the best endeavours of her defence team, the jury found that Ms Duncan had contravened the 1735 Witchcraft Act. She was ultimately sentenced to nine months imprisonment, being released on about 22 September 1944.

The Witchcraft Act was finally repealed in 1951.

Iain Miller
Medical negligence
Stacks Goudkamp

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