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A Legal Note on Helen Duncan's Conviction

Significant Legal Issues to be Clearly Understood

The publicity surrounding Mary Martin's Campaign to gain a Pardon for her grandmother Helen Duncan, the last person convicted in the UK and imprisoned in 1944 under the Witchcraft Act 1735, has elicited considerable correspondence and also extensive e-comment from those signing up here on the web in support.

In particular we have been asked to emphasise, and are pleased here to reiterate, that the legal conviction of Helen Duncan was not for being a witch, but for 'pretending' to be a witch. This is of course a very significant legal point but one the media in March 1944 and since have not been precise about. And of course as Mary Martin and her mother readily attested the public at large certainly never made the distinction. They, and Helen Duncan, have all gone through their lives with the Witch Stigma attached.

The precise offence under the Witchcraft Act 1735 was: pretending to exercise or use any kind of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or conjuration or undertake to tell fortunes.

Helen Duncan was indeed the last to be Imprisoned but ....

It is certainly true that Helen Duncan was the last person to go to prison under the Witchcraft Act 1735. However Jane Yorke aged 72 was indeed prosecuted subsequently, found guilty but simply fined £5 whilst being bound over for three years to keep the peace - as reported in The Times September 27th 1944. And finally the President of Redhill Spiritualist Church was given an even later Warning under the Act but not prosecuted.

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[Editors' Note: We are most grateful to those who have clarified these points of fact since to achieve success in Mary Martin's Campaign for a Pardon we must all be wholly correct in such matters. Where we were imprecise on these points at this website earlier, amendments have been made.]

Published Date: January 16th 2007


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