Pardon sought for UK's last witch


Jan 19, 2007

LONDON, England (AP) -- Mary Martin is 72 and a great-grandmother, but she still remembers how her classmates labeled her "witch-spawn" and "evil eye" -- because her grandmother was one of the last people jailed in Britain over witchcraft charges.

At the height of World War II, medium Helen Duncan was convicted under an 18th century anti-witchcraft law and jailed for nine months by authorities who accused her of compromising Britain's safety.

Now, more than 50 years after Duncan's death, Martin is campaigning to secure her a pardon.

"I was only 11 years old when the name-calling started," said Martin, who lives near Edinburgh, Scotland. "People said, 'Your grandmother was a witch."'

"But she was simply a woman with a gift and she never endangered anybody."

Martin has written to the Home Office asking for a meeting with Home Secretary John Reid and has given interviews to the media to raise the campaign's profile. Several hundred people have signed a petition asking for a pardon.

The campaign has the support of experts on the 1692 witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, where 20 people, including a number of girls, were convicted of witchcraft and executed. A full pardon for all of them only came in 2001.

Alison D'Amario of the Salem Witch Museum said there were parallels between Duncan's case and that of the young women in Salem.

"(Duncan) was very much the victim of a witch hunt," D'Amario said.

In the 1940s, Duncan was a well-known medium and her clients reportedly included Winston Churchill and King George VI.

But she ran into trouble after reportedly having told the parents of a missing sailor that their son had gone down on the HMS Barham, a ship whose 1941 loss had not been reported immediately to the public in hopes of keeping morale high.

Though it was much later, military authorities grew jittery as the war went on, particularly fearing that plans for the D-Day landings of Allied forces in northern France could be compromised. They accused Duncan of endangering public safety.

In January 1944, police broke into a seance in Portsmouth, in southern England, to arrest her and she was charged with "pretending to be a witch" under a 1735 law.

"At the time of D-Day, there was a lot of paranoia around, just like there was in the 17th century," D'Amario said.

Duncan was convicted and jailed for nine months in London's Holloway prison. In 1951, Churchill's government repealed the 1735 law, but her conviction remained. Duncan died in 1956.

Her case won attention last year when a prominent art festival in the Scottish town of Prestonpans, which is near where Duncan lived, mounted an exhibit featuring Duncan by artist Andrew Crummy. Festival organizers then got involved in helping Martin try to clear her grandmother's name.

"There was a lot of interest, " Crummy said. "People were very sympathetic towards Duncan's cause."

In 2004, Gordon Prestoungrange, holder of Prestonpans' baronial title, used feudal laws still in effect to pardon 81 other "witches" convicted under laws that dated to 1604, when King James I made witchcraft a capital offense.

Church leaders in the 16th and 17th centuries regarded witches as heretics who worshipped the devil. Throwing the accused in a river and pronouncing them innocent if they sank was one method of meting out justice.

Prestoungrange could not pardon Duncan because she was convicted outside Prestonpans under modern laws -- though he said it was "hardly credible that a 20th century court would be prepared to convict someone of witchcraft."

But to Martin it is personal -- about clearing the family name.

"My grandmother really suffered, but she committed no crime," she said. "In the modern world, it is ridiculous that this conviction stands."