Family seeks pardon for last convicted witch

Woman was jailed for 9 months during World War II as threat to Britain

LONDON - The granddaughter of Britain’s last convicted witch has launched a fresh campaign to gain a posthumous pardon for Helen Duncan, jailed at the height of World War Two as a threat to the nation.

“I will carry on fighting to clear her name,” said Mary Martin who still vividly remembers being taunted in the playground in 1944 as “witch spawn.”

“The memories are still fresh. It was so unfair. She was totally innocent. It was ludicrous she was ever taken to court,” the 72-year-old told Reuters.

Duncan, a medium who conducted seances across Britain, was arrested at a time when officials feared details of the upcoming D-Day landings in France could be revealed.

She disclosed -- allegedly through contacts in the spirit world -- the sinking of two British warships long before the news was officially made public.
She also told the parents of a missing sailor that his ship, HMS Barham, had sunk. That was true, but to preserve morale, the sinking was not announced.

Found guilty of witchcraft, Duncan was jailed for nine months.
Martin said wartime leader Winston Churchill called the conviction “tomfoolery.”

When re-elected in 1951, Churchill repealed the 1735 witchcraft act but Duncan’s conviction was never quashed. She died in 1956.

'A real stigma'
Martin petitioned Britain’s Home Secretary (Interior Minister) in vain in 1999. Now she is determined to try again, bolstered by support from Gordon Prestoungrange, holder of a medieval Scottish barony.

In 2004 he used his position as the local baron in the coastal town of Prestonpans to pardon 81 women and men executed for witchcraft in the 16th and 17th centuries.

“When Mary Martin was growing up as a youngster, it was a real stigma,” he told Reuters. “The wound is still open today.”

He said the campaign on had taken on an international dimension with backing from the Witch Museum in the Massachusetts town of Salem, where in 1692 20 girls, men and women were executed for witchcraft.

Prestoungrange says the time is right for a pardon in Britain: “The 300 soldiers executed for cowardice in the First World War have been pardoned... we are now also apologizing for the slave trade...

“This was a bizarre decision. They were looking at some way of silencing the lady. They actually thought she was on the inside as a spy with information from somewhere. They were fearful she had access to official secrets. The case was ridiculous.”