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Saturday, January 31, 1998 Published at 19:18 GMT


Spell broken for 20th century witch
image: [ The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, will review the case ]
The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, will review the case

The last woman jailed in Britain for witchcraft may receive a posthumous pardon from the Home Secretary.

Helen Duncan was convicted at the Old Bailey in 1944 under the 1735 Witchcraft Act. During the trial it was alleged that she had pretended to raise the spirits of the dead.

Her supporters, who include the Conservative MP for Devizes Michael Ancram, have been campaigning for 50 years to clear her name.

Mrs Duncan was jailed for nine months after the court was told that she claimed to have conjured up a dead sailor at a seance in Portsmouth.

According to Mrs Duncan, the head band on the dead sailors hat identified him as working on a ship called the HMS Barham.

This information led to her downfall. No one outside of military intelligence was supposed to know that the HMS Barham had been sunk by the Germans. Its loss was still a military secret.

The authorities decided to prosecute for witchcraft because they were very worried that Mrs Duncan might also be able to reveal details of the D-Day landing plans.

But the case, which appeared to belong more to the 16th century than the 20th century, was said to have annoyed the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. It helped to cause of the repeal of the Witchcraft Act in 1951.

After her release from prison Mrs Duncan returned to spiritualism and held many meetings around the country. She died died at the age of 58 in 1956.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission has examined the case and rejected a plea to refer it back to the Appeal Court.

The Home Office admitted it had received correspondence about a pardon for Mrs Duncan and said Jack Straw would consider it once a formal request was made.

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