Petitioners seek pardon for "witch" jailed in 1944

Petitioners in Scotland are seeking a pardon for one Helen Duncan who was jailed for nine months in 1944 for holding a séance in which she revealed that a certain warship had sunk. The military had kept the news secret in order to keep morale up. Another petition aims to pardon all victims of Scotland's "witchcraft legislation." From the BBC News:
Although not convicted for being a witch, Mrs Duncan was jailed for pretending to use witchcraft.

The crime of being a witch was abolished by the 1735 Witchcraft Act.

Roberta Gordon presented the signatures to Frank McAveety, convener of the public petitions committee, at Holyrood.

Mrs Gordon, who has been a medium for more than 28 years, said: "I feel that at the time the country was paranoid about security with D-Day coming up and the evidence used against her wasn't accurate. Link
And from Scott Horton's analysis at the Harper's Magazine site:
It looks like prosecutors faced a dilemma. The medium actually did discover a tragedy that the Government wanted to keep secret from the people. And there was no legal tool available to silence her. So they turned to the witchcraft statute in order to lock her away. (Let’s hope the Bush Administration doesn’t get ideas, but these days it hardly has need for a witchcraft statute, it already has plenty of them.) Link (Thanks, Vann Hall!)


  1. Helen Duncan’s supporters seem to be overlooking the fact that she had already been tried as a fraud in 1933 and had been caught faking on a number of occasions. However she found out about the sinking (and it can’t have been that deep a secret, especially for someone living in a naval port city), she didn’t seem to have a problem with blabbing about something that the government wanted to keep quiet. It seemed like flaunting her skills as a medium was more important than national security. The Witchcraft conviction may have been absurd but I’m not sure I have a problem with jailing con artists.

  2. The delicate part is how to do this without making the government look soft on witchcraft.

  3. The Barham was a battleship – it was a big ship with 14 inch guns – since the sinking could not be confirmed by the Germans, they had to keep a lot of resources tied up to protect themselves from it – the families of the sailors were notified of their deaths but asked to keep it a secret. Gordon didn’t do the world much of a favor by spreading the word.

  4. Gee I can’t wait till next year when people don’t feel the need to invoke Bush in half the comments. Is he the new Godwin?

  5. Nanuq is spot on: Helen Duncan was an out-and-out fraud, who was quite correctly convicted. I posted a photo of her a while back which I posted here. I think you’ll agree it looks a bit dubious.

    THe trouble is, because the Witchcraft Act was given that name, people tend to assume it was an ancient law against witches, when it was in fact a modernising, Enlightenment law against superstition.

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