The Last Witchcraft Trial in Britain

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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Winston Churchill repealed the Witchcraft Act in 1951, calling the whole thing “tomfoolery”, however, this was a little late for Helen Duncan.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.

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12 thoughts on “The Last Witchcraft Trial in Britain

  1. Thank you for this bit of history…I hadn’t heard of it. The spirit world is real and she certainly could have come up with the information from a demonic source! No wonder they were worried she might get some information! Too bad for her about being locked up!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed my article and took the time to comment. I love when my readers take the time to engage in interesting conversations about the articles I write. I enjoy hearing the views of my friends. Yeah, it really didn’t go very well for her at all. I definitely believe that the spirit world is real. I believe in God, so why wouldn’t I believe that there is also a complete opposite to good.

      However, in this case, while I was researching information for this article, I couldn’t help thinking there was more to the story than just plain witchcraft or a person who had the gift of seeing into the future. I wanted to keep the article unbiased so I didn’t share my feelings with the readers, but I was interested to see if anyone else would have the same feelings I did.

      I bet the crime of witchcraft was only used to be able to arrest the lady with a “legitimate” charge. Think about it, this was wartime and she knew about the sinking of a ship the government was trying to keep secret because the moral of the British must have already been at rock bottom because of the unbelievable pounding they were receiving at the hands of the Germans.

      It had to be just a relentless bombardment that they were on the losing end of so to hear a ship with over 800 souls on it was sunk by the enemy would have only made matters so much worse. I don’t know that’s just my thought, what do you think?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Who really knows except for the people involved. I read a good book about Spies of WWI. It was very interesting. Perhaps she was a spy or at least consorted with the enemy. There were lots of German sympathizers in England at that time!

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      2. That is so true. I once read the story of Mata Hari who was convicted of being a spy during the WWI and there is still a lot of controversy about whether or not she was, so who knows. Thank you for taking the time to read my article.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I read about her in the bookazine, History of Witchcraft. It was a thorough read uncovering the truth behind all the trials that occurred in Europe and in Salem. Very interesting.

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    1. That sounds like a very interesting read. Would you share the link if you still have it? Are you interested in the subject? I am, I can’t say I’ve done a lot of research on it, just what I’ve needed to write the few pieces I’ve included on my blog but the paranormal has always been interesting to me. I would love to hear some of your thoughts, as I am sure our friends would as well.

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      1. Unfortunately, there’s no link to it. I bought it at Costco. It’s a magazine (bookazine) from the UK, the makers of All About History. It’s a great read if you can get a hold of it. I’m always interested in the topic, been researching it a lot as I am basing my current manuscript on the history. I’d say Helen Duncan had it pretty “easy” considering other women had been treated so unfairly and cruel without justice. At least she wasn’t killed! Interestingly, the Knights of Templar were even accused of witchcraft and the men who were captured had been tortured and hanged as well.

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      2. Thank you for taking the time to visit my blog. I did find the fact that Duncan did have it “easy” compared to other people accused of witchcraft. While researching the article, I figured the reason for this was because of the time when the actions were brought. People began to frown on killing or torturing others for most accusations. I also think the charges were bogus and I also believe the government felt the same about them at the time.

        I think they were just grasping at anything to punish this lady for knowing and revealing what they didn’t want her to.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I know right! I wonder how many innocent people wound up being charged with the crime of being a spy. However, I love the thought of the people we never hear about because they were so slick they got away with it and no one is the wiser. Or maybe the government was too embarrassed to admit to being duped.

        I often wonder if real life is sometimes like an action movie, what are your thoughts?

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    1. Thank you I’m really happy to hear you found my article interesting. I’ll tell you the research for this article was awesome and as you said very interesting. Now, do you believe in the supernatural? Whether you do or don’t please share your input with the rest of the readers and myself. I would enjoy hearing your thoughts on the subject.

      Liked by 1 person

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