There is a secret society of Witches in every country,” said my grandmother. “An English witch will know all the other witches in England. They swap deadly recipes. Goodness knows what else they talk about. I hate to think.
Many people think that Helen Duncan was a witch and the last witch to be convicted in the UK. Both of these facts are wrong. She wasn’t a witch because by time of her crimes the Witchcraft Act of 1735 no longer recognised witches as real, and she wasn’t the last person to be convicted under the Witchcraft Act either: Jane Yorke was.
Today the idea of witchcraft sounds like superstitious nonsense but in the Sixteenth Century people commonly ascribed bad events, such as the death of a child or a bad harvest, to witchcraft and evil spirits. So, in 1542, while Henry VIII reigned, Parliament passed the first Witchcraft Act, which criminalised witchcraft and made it punishable by death, which in those days meant burning at the stake. The 1542 Act said that it was a crime to,
“… use devise practise or exercise, or cause to be devysed practised or exercised, any Invovacons or cojuracons of Sprites witchecraftes enchauntementes or sorceries to thentent to fynde money or treasure or to waste consume or destroy any persone in his bodie membres, or to pvoke any persone to unlawfull love, or for any other unlawfull intente or purpose … or for dispite of Cryste, or for lucre of money, dygge up or pull downe any Crosse or Crosses or by such Invovacons or cojuracons of Sprites witchecraftes enchauntementes or sorceries or any of them take upon them to tell or declare where goodes stollen or lost shall become”
The 1542 Act lasted just five years before it was repealed; however, it made a comeback early in Elizabeth I’s reign as the Witchcraft Act 1563. The 1563 Act was slightly more liberal in only calling for the death penalty in cases where somebody had been harmed by the actions of the witch; such an offence was a felony, which meant that such offences fell under the jurisdiction of the common law courts rather than the ecclesiastical courts that had tried Henry VIII’s offences.
Four decades later, James I was a king so intrigued by demons that he wrote and published a book on demonology. So, it will come as no surprise that during the first full year of his reign a third Witchcraft Act was passed. By now minor offences were punished by a year in prison, although a second offence meant death by hanging. In previous periods, witches were executed by burning but under the Witchcraft Act 1604 burning was reserved only for offences that were also acts of petty treason, essentially an aggravated form of murder involving the betrayal of a superior, e.g. a wife killing her husband, a clergyman his prelate or a servant his master or mistress.
The Acts passed under Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and James I all had one thing in common: they all assume that witches are real and by inference witchcraft, magic, conjuring and evil spirits are also all real. The last execution for witchcraft took place in Devon in 1685 while the last trials for witchcraft were in Leicester in 1717.
Attitudes had changed so much by the reign of George II that when a new Witchcraft Bill was introduced to Parliament it was met by laughter from MPs in the chamber. The Witchcraft Act 1735 stands out from its predecessor Acts because it starts from the position that witchcraft is impossible. Instead it criminalised pretending to be a witch and repealed all laws outlawing witchcraft itself. The new law defined the crimes thus:
“… if any Person shall, from and after the said Twenty-fourth Day of June, pretend to exercise or use any kind of Witchcraft, Sorcery, Inchantment, or Conjuration, or undertake to tell Fortunes, or pretend, from his or her Skill or Knowledge in any occult or crafty Science, to discover where or in what manner any Goods or Chattels, supposed to have been stolen or lost, may be found…”
Section 4 of the 1735 Act imposes a one-year prison sentence following conviction on indictment. During that year offenders were to be taken once a quarter to town on market day and made to stand in the pillory for one hour where they could be seen by everyone passing by. Where a court felt a person was likely to reoffend they could demand sureties be taken to ensure future good conduct and had the power to hold the offender in prison until suitable sureties were found.
209-years later, George VI sat on the throne, World War 2 was in its final stages in Europe and Helen Duncan was a successful medium earning a good living holding séances in Portsmouth. She had a previous conviction for a similar offence committed in Scotland in the 1930s. Ms Duncan was by all accounts a popular medium known for séances in which spirits would appear along with ectoplasm! The problem for Ms Duncan was that she was, of course, a fraud. Photographs showed that the spirits were puppets and scientific analysis showed the ectoplasm to be egg whites mixed with chemicals, swallowed before the show and regurgitated during each performance.
Ms Duncan caught the attention of the Royal Navy when in 1941 she claimed the spirit of a deceased sailor from HMS Barham, a Queen Elizabeth class battleship, had come to her to report that his ship had been sunk killing 862 men. The news of the sinking was not made public until 1942; however, the information had been leaked and relatives of those onboard were informed so it is likely that Ms Duncan heard the news from one of them. In 1944, two Navy lieutenants attended a séance and left so disgusted by what they saw that Lieutenant Worth made a complaint to the police. Initially arrested under section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 but was eventually tried under the Witchcraft Act 1735, which carried a heavier penalty.
Ms Duncan contested her trial on the basis that it was only an offence to be a false medium, Ms Duncan argued that she was not guilty as her powers were real. The trial judge barred Ms Duncan from demonstrating her abilities in the courtroom to the jury who quickly convicted her of a single count under the Witchcraft Act 1735. She was sentenced to nine-months imprisonment. The case caused Winston Churchill, then Prime Minister, to write to the Home Secretary complaining that court resources were being wasted on “obsolete tomfoolery”.
Many think that there ends the history of trials under the Witchcraft Acts in England but there was one more case to be heard: Jane Yorke. Ms Yorke was a 72-year-old woman who claimed to have a spirit guide who many people claim was a Zulu, although Ms Yorke herself did not use that term. Ms Yorke did not charge for séances, but participants were invited to make a cash donation should they wish to do so. Unfortunately, for Ms Yorke an allegation must have been made that she was a fraudulent medium because undercover police officers attended a séance and were told elaborate details about non-existent family members, e.g. a brother who had burned alive during a bombing raid. Tried at the Old Bailey in September 1944 Ms Yorke was convicted of seven counts under the 1735 Act. She was luckier than Ms Duncan and was sentenced to a fine of £5 and made to give an undertaking that she would conduct no more séances.
Ms Yorke was the last person in British history to be convicted under the Witchcraft Acts; the 1735 Act was finally repealed by the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951 after 216-years on the statute books. The 1951 Act in turn was repealed by Schedule 4 of The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, which gave effect to an EU directive designed to protect consumers from unfair sales and marketing practices.
Today we think of witchcraft trials as being things of ancient history but Ms Duncan and Ms Yorke’s cases remind us that the Witchcraft Acts survived into modern living memory, even if they were no longer focused on finding actual witches.