In the 1930s, Helen Duncan conjured ectoplasm that spilled from her mouth as she spoke with the dead. Her spirit guide, Peggy, helped her lead séances, proving that Helen was one of the strongest mediums to live in Edinburgh. Even when suspicious patrons tugged on Peggy and revealed that the spirit messenger was nothing but torn material, it didn’t stop her fame from growing. Soon, other suspicious clients discovered her ectoplasm was egg soaked cheesecloth that had been swallowed and regurgitated, cinching her reputation as a fraudulent medium.
Yet Helen’s supernatural infamy came into question during one particular séance when she exclaimed that she saw the spirit of a sailor. This sailor told her he had died on an important ship, the HMS Barham, the fate of which was classified information of the British government.
Helen’s otherworldly fortellings had haunted the British government before. She’d spoken of classified sunken battleships, and with D-Day right around the corner, officials decided enough was enough. Helen was soon arrested as an alleged spy and accused of fraud, conspiracy, and tried under an old act that had already sent many witches to their death—the Witchcraft Act of 1753, which tied the practice of witchcraft to treason.
The belief that witchcraft was a crime against the state can be traced back the reign of King James I of Scotland. The monarch believed that witches were behind the tossing waves and thunder that kept him from his new wife.
King James and the Witches
Terrible storms had stranded the fourteen-year-old Queen Anne of Denmark in Norway. Lord Dingwall, who had been separated from Anne’s fleet, arrived in Scotland unscathed and informed King James IV of Scotland—soon to be King James I of England—about the predicament.
Fearful that his potential union to solidify central Europe would crumble, King James became determined to set sail himself. After sending his country into prayer for the safety of Denmark’s queen, James raised the funds to sail to Norway, and faced vicious storms of his own. Finally, he landed in Oslo, where he promptly married Anne and puddle jumped to Denmark. There, he became entrenched and fascinated with the accusations of dark arts that obsessed the Danish court.
The mysterious storms that had hindered Queen Anne’s initial voyage concerned the court, mainly because Lord Dingwall had successfully dodged the maelstrom and landed in Scotland. Rumors of witchcraft simmered beneath the surface. Pointed fingers accused the minister of finance for ill-preparation of Anne’s ships, but finally landed on Karen the Weaver. Karen was accused of being a weather witch who had sent small demons to cling to her ships’ keels and enrage a storm. Karen quickly succumbed to the guilty verdict, and then named other guilty tempestarii, specifically Anne Koldings. Anne Koldings confirmed Karen’s story and, who under torture, named more women, including the mayor of Copenhagen’s wife. Once the hysteria had calmed, twelve women were executed.
The domino effect wasn’t done yet. Now aware of the dark arts that lurked under his very nose, James IV brought the witchcraft tribunal concept back to Scotland, instigating the North Berwick Witch Trials.
With James IV at the helm as interrogator and persecutor, the tribunal arrested and interrogated hundreds of accused women. One of these grisly fates belonged to Gillis Duncan, a working woman whose attentive boss had noticed her mysterious nighttime rambles and a strange ability to heal quicker than a normal human should. Her boss, David Seaton, brought the matter to the witchcraft tribunal who promptly captured her and tortured her until she confessed. Not only did Gillis damn herself, but ticked off names of those belonging to her so-called coven, specifically the local herbal specialist and respected midwife, Agnes Sampson.
At Holyrood Palace, James IV personally interrogated Agnes, who continually declared her innocence until she was imprisoned with a bridle—a metal device with prongs that goes into the mouth and holds the tongue down. To top it off, she was tortured with sleep deprivation and humiliated by being led around her cell with a rope around her neck. It wasn’t long before Agnes declared her secret second life as a witch, an unfortunate turn of events since James wavered on whether she was guilty. Agnes was strangled to death and then burned.
The diabolical witches continued to haunt James, and soon Doctor John Fian was brought to the tribunal for plotting to kill the King and Queen with weather magic. While Fian’s torture ramped up in intensity when he refused to confess, it was the boot—a metal device that slowly crushed the shins—that broke him. He confirmed Gillis’ tale of a coven whose meetings he never missed, but also described a love spell he’d cast on a young woman from his town. The woman’s mother had her suspicions about Fian already, and somehow got her son to give cow hairs to Fian instead of the daughter’s for the enchantment. After the spell had been performed, the cow fell in love with Fian. This incident became evidence confirming Fian’s alignment with the Devil. Fian was burned at the stake after his legs were crushed.
In 1597, James wrote a thesis on the North Berwick Witch Trials entitled Daemonologie. The three parts analyzed and categorized certain magical studies, such as necromancy, as well as the practice and identification of witches and their rise to become masters in the black arts. He concluded with the classification of demons. Daemonlogie has been an incredibly influential piece and became the basis for Shakespeare’s penning of Macbeth.
A Wicked Legacy
While James’s writings laid the foundation for endless ghost stories, his Witchcraft Act, passed in 1563, went through many revisions and would have a lasting legacy. First, it declared practicing witches and any seeking their help worthy of execution. Soon, it was expanded to include anyone who did anything out of the ordinary. Saw a ghost? Told a friend? Death for you, my friend.
As James’s witch mania died down, he amended the Act to allow the accused to go through normal court proceedings, which still included execution, but imprisonment was a possible alternative. After James’s death, the Act got another makeover, becoming a catch all for those who preached about deities that weren’t associated with Christianity.
What happened to Helen Duncan, the last woman to be tried under the Witchcraft Act? Her fate was as mysterious as her séances. Refusing to stop communicating with the spirit world, she conducted séances until police raided her home to arrest her for otherworldly dalliances in 1956. She died days later. Some claim her poor, weak heart couldn’t recover from the raid. Others believe the shock of a disrupted trance ended her days.
As for the Act, new amendments transformed it into the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951, which targeted mediums attempting to swindle clients out of money. 2008 saw the Act overturned, leaving the government and royalty without legalities to prosecute witches, the supernatural, and the Devil.