Following on from my 55 Flash Fiction on friday, I read a report recently that a petition has been handed to the Scottish Parliament calling for a pardon for all those convicted under witchcraft legislation. An estimate of 4,000 people, mainly women, were prosecuted and often put to death under the Witchcraft Act of 1735. If truth be known, these women would now be following such occupations as herbalism and alternative therapies such as Reiki, which I myself practice. The petitioners want the state to apologise and grant those convicted a pardon.
In the Middle Ages the first Act of Parliament directed against witchcraft was the act De heretico comburendo (1401), specifically naming witchcraft as sorcery or divination, and therefore heresy. As such it was an ecclesiastical offence, not a felony in common law, and the accused were tried before an ecclesiastical tribunal, something akin to the Inquisition. Unless the witch renounced their belief in such things they would be burnt at the stake, which was prescribed for ecclesiastical offences only, as the Church tried to avoid the shedding of blood.
Subsequent Acts of Parliament by Elizabeth I (1563) and James I (1604) made witchcraft a felony, which meant that witches would be tried by common law, which meant they would no longer be burnt at the stake, they were hanged instead! By making witchcraft an ‘ordinary’ crime all the penalties involved were invoked, including ‘escheat’ which forfeited the convict’s land and goods to the crown. This gave local officials a financial stake in finding witches to convict and led to the most persuasive witch-hunts in English history conducted by the Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins.
Matthew Hopkins began his career when he overheard various women discussing their meetings with the Devil in 1655, a result of which nineteen alleged witches were hanged and four more died in prison. Soon he was traveling round eastern England claiming to be the ‘Witchfinder General’. Torture was technically unlawful in England so he used other methods to extract confessions. One well known test was the ‘swimming’ test to see if the accused would float or sink in water, the theory being that witches had renounced their baptism, so that all water would supernaturally reject them. He had helpers called ‘witch prickers’ employed to prick the accused with knives and special needles, looking for the Devil's mark that was supposed to be dead to all feeling and would not bleed. It was believed that the witch's familiar would drink their blood from the mark as milk from a teat. It was a lucrative occupation - Hopkins and his helpers were paid £20 from one visit to Stowmarket, Suffolk – more than a year’s wages for most people. It is reported that villagers caught Hopkins and subjected him to his own ‘swimming’ test and that he floated and was hanged for witchcraft, however historians believe he died from illness in 1647.
The majority of the unfortunate’s burnt at the stake or hanged for witchcraft were probably mediums, psychics etc. The last person to be convicted and jailed under the Witchcraft Act was the Scottish medium Helen Duncan, who was imprisoned for nine months, in Holloway prison in London, for allegedly disclosing World War II secrets. She gave information to a sitter in a Séance regarding a sailor, who was at that time serving on the HMS Barham, suggesting his ship had sunk. This information was being kept secret by the authorities and Helen Duncan was accused of using her powers as a spiritualist medium to reveal the secret thereby endangering the war effort. Their fear was that details of the imminent D-Day landings might be revealed and the news of the sinking of HMS Barham was not disclosed until months later. Although this confirmed the information given by Helen, no apology was ever given. Winston Churchill, a great believer in Helen’s gift, is reported to have told her he would do something about what had befallen her. He wrote to the Home Secretary on the subject of Helen’s trial saying "Let me have a report on why the Whitcraft Act 1795 was used in a modern Court of Justice. What was the cost of this trial to the state, observing that witnesses were brought from Portsmouth and maintained here in this crowded London for a fortnight, and the recorder kept busy with all this obsolete tomfoolery, to the detriment of necessary work in the courts?"– see below. Churchill had many experiences where he maintained that his sixth sense had saved his life.
In 1956 the police raided a séance in Nottingham, grabbing the medium Helen Duncan, they strip searched her looking for masks and shrouds but found nothing. The police had committed the worst possible sin of physical phenomena; a medium in trance should never be touched, this can cause ectoplasm to return to the medium’s body too quickly and cause immense – sometimes fatal – damage. A doctor examined Helen and found two second degree burns on her stomach and she was so ill she was immediately rushed back to her home in Scotland, where she died five weeks later. Helen Duncan is still remembered as the ‘last witch’ and her family is still campaigning to clear her name.
The Witchcraft Act was repealed with the enactment of the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951, at the instigation of Spiritualists, specifically Thomas Brooks (Labour Party MP). Brooks was an ardent spiritualist himself and led delegations on behalf of the Spiritualist National Union regarding what they believed to be heavy-handed policing with respect to the Witchcraft Act. In 1943 he obtained a concession that action would only be taken in the most extreme cases of misrepresentation. However, after the prosecution of medium Helen Duncan in 1944, the Spiritualists decided to campaign for a change in the law. It was not until 1950 that they got the opportunity to present a Bill to repeal the Witchcraft Act. In 1954 Spiritualism was officially recognised as a proper religion by formal Act of Parliament. Spiritualists everywhere knew why and they rejoiced that whilst frauds would be properly prosecuted the authorities, especially the police, they would stop harassing true working Mediums.
I doubt whether a blanket pardon for all those convicted of witchcraft will ever be granted, but certainly in the case of Helen Duncan I think it is warranted.