When we think of witchcraft, we think of a time, long ago, when it provoked wild and insane persecutions which created ridiculous witch hunts, leading to the deaths of thousands of people. During the witchcraft trials of that time the criteria for conviction was often based on hearsay and non-existent evidence, and the penalties were cruel and unwarranted.
Most of the witchcraft frenzy subsided by the end of the 19th century, when it was nearly eradicated in the west by the end of the century. The hysteria, however, briefly resurfaced during the second world war.
There were few wartime cases in the British courts as bizarre as the 1944 witchcraft trial of Helen Duncan, just before the D-Day invasion. Helen Duncan was a spiritualist and medium from Scotland who traveled the UK during the war performing seances.
Her clients have included George VI and Winston Churchill, making her one of the most widely known mediums of the day. In 1941, she was able to tell the parents of a missing sailor that he had died when his ship HMS Barham had been sunk by the Germans.
The ship had, in fact, sunk with a loss of 861 men, but was kept a secret to mislead the Germans who weren’t aware that the ship had gone down. The information about the ship’s fate was also kept a secret because it would’ve been disastrous to the already poor moral present in England. Nothing else came of Helen Duncan’s involvement, and she continued with her seances.
In January, 1944, with the D-Day invasion being planned amid top secrecy, Helen Duncan was in Portsmouth performing a seance for 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, it was only the witchcraft charges that stuck and she was convicted and sentenced to nine months in prison.
At the time, most people thought the charges were ridiculous and she never had any malicious intent with her seances, as her own sons were in the military, and it wasn’t very likely that the Germans would’ve paid attention to her claims anyway.
Winston Churchill repealed the Witchcraft Act in 1951, calling the whole thing “tomfoolery”, however, this was a little late for Helen Duncan. The case of Helen Duncan is often referred to as the last witchcraft trial in Britain.