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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 January 2008, 13:27 GMT
Petition to pardon last 'witch'
Helen Duncan
Helen Duncan was tried under the Witchcraft Act
An online petition has been launched calling on the Scottish Parliament to seek a pardon for the last woman to be jailed under the Witchcraft Act.

Medium Helen Duncan, who was born in Callander, was imprisoned using the law during World War II.

She was targeted by Winston Churchill's government after revealing during a sťance that a warship had sunk before the news was officially released.

Following a trial at the Old Bailey, Mrs Duncan served nine months in jail.

When HMS Barham was sunk by a German U-boat in November 1941, Mrs Duncan lived in Portsmouth, the home of the Royal Navy.

It has tarnished her name and left her family, her daughters, her granddaughters, feeling that she was branded a witch
Roberta Gordon

During the sťance, it was claimed that the spirit of a sailor from the stricken ship appeared.

The vessel was only officially declared lost several months later.

Mrs Duncan was arrested and convicted under the Witchcraft Act of 1735.

Michael Stratton-Brown, from the HMS Barham Association, said it was possible many of the survivors had contacted relatives before the official announcement to let them know they were alive.

He said: "The sinking was on the 25 November. Over 800 were killed and the news didn't get officially published until January.

"It was local knowledge at the time that the ship had sunk."

But historian of witchcraft, Dr Owen Davis believes the act used to convict Mrs Duncan may have itself been misinterpreted.

Profound effect

He said: "The very fact that the witchcraft act was used, that it had witchcraft in the title, has always been interpreted as though it was against witchcraft.

"What it was in fact meant for was those who pretended to have special powers and pretended to be witches.

"When there was a few cases where spiritualist mediums or fortune tellers were prosecuted at court, there was a great deal of confusion, even amongst judges, about what they were dealing with.

"Was it against witchcraft or was it pretending to do witchcraft."

The petition, currently on the Scottish Parliament website, is calling on the Scottish Government to lobby the Home Office to have Mrs Duncan posthumously pardoned.

Medium Roberta Gordon, who is backing the petition, said spiritualism was natural and branding it "witchcraft" had had a profound effect on Mrs Duncan's family.

She said: "It has tarnished her name and left her family, her daughters, her granddaughters, feeling that she was branded a witch."

Why Helen Duncan was prosecuted as a witch

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