For many Witchcraft trials invoke images of a distant past, a time of persecution, fear and superstition that has long since become a regrettable part of history, yet successful convictions for Witchcraft and mediumship have been achieved in UK courts in living memory, the conviction of Helen Duncan being a prime example of this.
In November 1941 Helen Duncan, Housewife, factory worker and medium reported that a spirit of a sailor informed her that the Royal Navy ship HMS Barham had been sunk off the coast of Egypt days earlier, information that was known to a select few until its official release in January 1942.
On the 19th of January 1944, Duncan was arrested after two Navy Officers attending a Séance reported Duncan to the Police, perhaps fuelled by concerns of her somehow obtaining and releasing information on the D Day landings planned for later that year.
A search of Duncan’s house revealed a Naval issue hat band carrying the inscription of H.M.S Barham, Duncan claimed she was given this band by the spirit to validate her claims, despite Royal Navy hat bands only carrying the inscription H.M.S, without specific ship identification since 1939.
Duncan was initially charged with multiple offences including vagrancy, a minor offence that normally would only result in a 5 shillings (roughly $5) fine, Duncan was subsequently charged under Section 4 of the Witchcraft Act 1735 making it illegal to falsely conjure the spirits of the dead.
Her case became famous throughout the UK, especially among the Spiritualist community who were convinced her claims were genuine and raised funds for her defence. Duncan was convicted and sentenced to nine months in Holloway prison, London, on her release on the 22nd of September 1944 she vowed never to give another Séance.
On the 6th of December 1956, Duncan died after collapsing during a Séance the Police had raided. Spiritualists claimed that her death was the inevitable result of being touched while in a trance but her medical records indicated that she had a long history of ill health, obesity and heart trouble.
Duncan’s relatives and supporters have sort a posthumous pardon through by maintaining a website, and petitions to the Scottish Parliament in 2001, 2008 and 2012, which have to this date been unsuccessful.
One possible explanation for Duncan’s knowledge of HMS Bahram’s loss was that while the ships loss was a secret, known by about 2000 people, it was a secret that wasn’t very well kept, family members may have passed the word of an individual crew members death to friends and family, who in turn may have told their friends and family, making it plausible that Duncan could have heard of the loss of the ship directly or indirectly through the crew member’s family, rather than any paranormal source.
While Churchill was deemed the Duncan trial an inappropriate use of court resources the Witchcraft Act remained on the Statute books until being repealed in 1951, with its replacement the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1954 (resulting in five successful prosecutions between 1980 and 1995), which was repealed and replaced with European Union regulations on consumer protection in 2008.