Monday, October 27, 2008

Was Helen Duncan Framed?

David ComplexSystems Soul has been reading a new book about the Helen Duncan case, called The Strange Case of Hellish Nell.

In 1944, Helen Duncan was convicted and imprisoned of fraud under the 1735 Witchcraft Act. Many people (possibly including Winston Churchill) have misunderstood this prosecution: she is wrongly thought to be the last person imprisoned for witchcraft; to this day, her followers perpetuate this story and campaign for a posthumous pardon - see her official website. But the 1735 Act was the product of an Enlightenment disbelief in witchcraft; it repealed all earlier legislation against witchcraft itself, and its purpose was to prevent people claiming to have magical powers in order to exploit and prey upon vulnerable and ignorant people, especially those recently bereaved. That was why Helen Duncan was prosecuted under the Act. See commentary by Vanessa Chambers (Guardian January 2007).

However, Helen Duncan's prosecution was controversial. She had revealed the sinking of HMS Barham (a fact that had been concealed from the general public) and claimed her knowledge was based on information from spirit sources. The authorities were convinced she had got her information from a more mundane leak, but were unable to trace the source of the leak, so they prosecuted her instead for her fraudulent spiritualist claims.

Churchill complained to Herbert Morrison about the case. Some people think Churchill was himself sympathetic to spiritualism. Duncan's fans in the spiritualist movement lobbied against the Witchcraft Act, on the grounds that it was unfair to genuine spiritualists, and Thomas Brooks MP, himself a spiritualist, managed to get the Witchcraft Act replaced by the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951, which was designed to permit genuine witches and spiritualists to ply their trade without fear or hindrance. So much for Enlightenment then.

An earlier book about the case, by Malcolm Gaskill, took the opportunity to enquire more broadly into "how we know the things we know" and how what we can know or choose to know is circumscribed by our culture. See review by Hilary Mantel in the London Review of Books (via Guardian)

For David Soul, the case brings to mind why old laws of "no possible use" should be taken off the books least they be used in unreasonable ways by minions of the state. But in which frame is the prosecution of Duncan unreasonable? Is it right to legislate and regulate and act against superstition, or against the exploitation of the superstitious, or does ultra-liberalism allow a voice to every strange belief and every ghost?

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