Archive for April, 2008

If she weighs the same as a duck…

April 5, 2008

The ad-hoc witch trial in \

I see that a recent petition to have Britain’s “last witch” pardoned (not, as this piece claims, all those convicted as witches), has been summarily dismissed by the Scottish Government. Although the petition itself attracted only 206 signatures, the comment from the politicians that the attempt “has no purpose whatsoever“, this might seem callous. Why not show compassion? Surely such people were innocent victims of superstition? Or perhaps even harmless self-identifying “wise women” or “cunning men” persecuted for their unorthodox beliefs? Well, many burned in Scotland before the 1735 Witchcraft Act was enacted were (the former at any rate). There is a separate petition (by the same man, to give him his due credit) to pardon those people. They are not who we are talking about here.

“S.-4 Whereby ignorant persons are frequently deluded and defrauded, if any person shall pretend to exercise or use any kind of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or conjuration, he shall be exposed to penalties.”
from The Witchcraft Act 1735 (sounds reasonable to me)

I can’t emphasise this enough. Those prosecuted under the 1735 Witchcraft Act were not witches, and they were not unfortunate victims of gossip and personal vendetta, either. They were self-proclaimed mediums and clairvoyants; the Sylvia Browne and Colin Fry equivalents of their day. They weren’t “real” witches, they didn’t think of themselves as witches, and they weren’t seen as such either. At least, not until the tabloid press of the time got hold of the story. No, they were, according to sceptics such as myself, con-artists and charlatans. As, after more than 100 years of searching, there is no evidence whatever that contacting the dead or seeing the future is even possible, I feel that anyone claiming to be able to do so and charging to do so, must be able to put up or shut up. Preferably, with a hefty fine or custodial sentence. These people are preying on the bereaved, after all. As such, I feel any pardon for a person convicted under the original Act would require some sort of retrial, which would be extremely difficult to accomplish these 60 years later.

As you might have guessed, Full Moon Investigations, the paranormalist group that organised the petition, consists mostly of psychic mediums – Spiritualists. This was, as this Independent article suggests, a political move by a religious group; an attempt to legitimise what they do. And as far as I’m concerned, what they do is to take money from the vulnerable and bereaved using simple fairground tricks. The clear intention was to obtain a pardon for medium Helen Duncan as a validation of not only their religion (which shouldn’t even be at issue here) but more importantly, of their primary income stream. Parallel efforts to have all “witches” convicted under the act also pardoned can be seen as a way to appeal to the emotion of a public who will assume that this has to do with the unjust “witch mania” I refer to above. To re-iterate, people convicted under the act were not convicted of witchcraft – this was no longer possible in law as of 1735. They were convicted of pretending to engage in what was still at that time (1735) referred to as witchcraft. The Witchcraft Act was actually a successful reformation of the horrific acts of the preceding 200 years, carried out under the 1536 Witchcraft Act that gave its name, but not its contents, to the later Act. For more on this see Vanessa Chambers’ piece here.

Duncan with a \

“Medium” Helen Duncan with a wholly convincing materialised “spirit”

Back to the case of Helen Duncan, who had already been convicted of fraud in 1933. The evidence against her in the 1944 case was damning. A good account of her story is on the BBC website. Much is made of her alleged prediction in 1941 (post-sinking but pre-announcement) of the sinking of HMS Barham. This is usually claimed as the materialisation (in the manner common to the time) of the ectoplasmic form of a sailor with the ship’s name visible on his cap. I think even believers in the paranormal today would struggle with the notion that this might be possible, especially given all that we now know about physical mediumship (check out this BBC documentary on the subject). Duncan was not especially good at it (or at least, wasn’t worried about sceptics seeing photos of her cheesecloth ectoplasm). Perhaps the name on the prop hat-band she made for the seance was indeed the Barham’s. Perhaps she had really did have a hotline to the spirit world and just decided for some reason to fake the materialisation to get that information across? Perhaps she simply chose a lucky name? Or more likely, perhaps she had been told by a survivor or other sailor? Many other ships witnessed the Barham’s loss, and Portsmouth was the biggest naval base in the UK. It’s even possible that a loved one told her – next of kin were officially informed in December that year – the same month that Duncan’s seance occurred. However she actually became aware of the incident, Duncan must have known that to pre-empt the news would enhance her credibility. Oh, and remember that cap-band? Well, Royal Navy sailor’s caps post-1939 were not permitted to bear the name of the ship. They simply read “H.M.S.” as can be seen in this photograph of one of the sailors tragically lost when the Barham went down. Duncan may well not have appreciated this fact when she fabricated the cap used in the seance. All of this assumes that the claim is accurate in the first place. It seems there may be some doubt that a cap-band was even seen at the seance, and that Duncan may simply have used cold reading techniques to recover the ship’s name from the widow present:

Mrs Duncan did not give the name of the ship, but extracted it from the sitter.
From “Spiritualism a critical survey” by Simeon Edmunds, via this pdf.

In any case this Barham claim is a somewhat of a red herring as far as the safeness of her conviction is concerned, even if Duncan’s propensity for “loose lips” did attract the attention of the authorities. It wasn’t the Barham “leak” that got her busted; her arrest did not take place until three years later. It’s interesting also to note that Churchill himself (understandably) thought the case a waste of resources at a crucial tipping point in the War;

I would hope that the Prime Minister at time of war would have been in the loop regarding the need to stamp out dangerous gossip if that was the goal of the prosecution. Perhaps as mediums claim, he was simpy sympathetic to her cause. Regardless, her conviction was NOT for revealing state secrets, but for taking (a lot!) of money (from bereaved people) for non-existent occult services, which is exactly what the Witchcraft Act was designed to restrict, and certainly what it was interpreted to mean by the 1940s. With the rise of the Spiritualist movement, the Witchcraft Act was in danger of criminalising a large number of people. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle helped ensure that mediums perceived as genuine could practice without threat of prosecution by backing a change in the law; the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951. The shift of emphasis that this created meant that mediums, as long as they played it safe and did away with the spirit cabinets and muslin of the old days, were home free. Today, psychic mediums positively rake in the cash and the adulation using techniques that though obvious, are not possible to prove as fraud under the 1951 act. This month, this act will itself be repealed, by the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations Act 2007. This is an umbrella piece of legislation intending to stop people being misled into parting with their money. Who could object to this? Well, the Spiritualists are justifiably concerned that they might once again be unable to charge money for their “services”. Of course, they are playing this down and crying “religious persecution”, as they frequently and loudly do, regardless of the facts in evidence. This petition was clearly part of this agenda to head off any curtailment of this multi-million pound industry.

It remains to be seen whether this will be better or worse than the Witchcraft or Fraudulent Medium acts, and for whom. Until we find out, I can’t put it any better than this, from Emma-Louise Rhodes of;

The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2007 will hopefully bring such acts of deceit to light and bring to justice those who have cruelly sought to exploit the bereaved and suffering for their own personal financial satisfaction.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 86 other followers