Witchcraft trials tend to conjure images of Salem or medieval Europe. This connotation implies that witchcraft convictions are a convention long abandoned by the vast majority of the world, a mere relic of ancient superstition. In fact, Great Britain persisted with witchcraft convictions well into the twentieth century.
Helen Duncan is known as the last British person to be imprisoned for witchcraft under the country’s longstanding Witchcraft Act of 1735. The purported medium was born in Scotland on November 25, 1897. She demonstrated precocity with the supernatural from an early age, and was best known for her ability to emit stringy white secretions from her mouth during trances, something which she claimed would facilitate her connections with spirits.
The authorities had been on Duncan’s heels for years, eager to put a known purveyor of mysticism behind bars. In 1933, she was prosecuted for being a fraudulent medium, which required her to pay ten pounds or face a month’s imprisonment. This did little to break her spirits (no pun intended), and she resumed communicating with the dead before long.
Then, in 1944, Helen Duncan was arrested along with three of her audience members. She was initially charged under the Vagrancy Act of 1824, the most common law used by Britain to prosecute mediums at the time. However, she was ultimately tried for violating the Witchcraft Act of 1735, under which she was convicted and sentenced to nine months in Holloway Prison. After leaving prison, Duncan largely stayed within the confines of the law, though police raided one of her seances in 1956, the year of her death.
While Helen Duncan was the last woman to be imprisoned for witchcraft, she was not the last person to be convicted. In the year of Duncan’s incarceration, a woman named Jane Rebecca York was convicted under the Witchcraft Act, but was fined without imprisonment due to her advanced age.
The UK later repealed its witchcraft law, and British mediums today can live without the fear of languishing behind prison walls. Supporters of Helen Duncan continue to advocate for her posthumous pardon to this day, but so far have been unsuccessful.
“Britain’s ‘Last Witch’: Campaign to pardon Helen Duncan.” BBC News. Accessed March 27, 2022. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-18456106.
“Scotland’s Last Witch.” BBC News. Accessed March 27, 2022. https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/scottishhistory/modern/oddities_modern.shtml#:~:text=Records%20show%20that%20the%20last,lenient%20sentence%20and%20was%20fined.