It will be 70 years this month since the last prosecution in Britain under the Witchcraft Act 1735. Curiously it was not an offence under the act to produce spirits – only to pretend to do so.
Many people think the last unfortunate woman was Helen Duncan, who received nine months in May 1944. She had a previous conviction in Edinburgh in the 1930s and was making a substantial sum from her séances in Portsmouth. Over the years her supporters, and there have been many, have tried to obtain a pardon for her.
In fact the last to be convicted was 72-year-old Jane Rebecca Yorke from Forest Gate in East London, who appeared at the Old Bailey later the same year. Yorke’s alleged spirit guide was a Zulu and she also frequently claimed to have Queen Victoria along to give advice and comfort.
During séances with Yorke, undercover police were told to ask about non-existent family members. She provided elaborate details on them that she claimed had been provided by her spirit guides, telling an officer that his non-existent brother had been burned alive on a bombing mission. She also terrified a genuinely hysterical woman who said she had seen the spirit of her dead brother, by warning that her husband might also be killed.
However, on a more optimistic note, Yorke predicted that the Second World War would end in October 1944.
She was arrested in the July that year and at her trial in September claimed she did not know what she said while in a trance and, in a display of pre-political correctness, certainly did not call her spirit guide ‘a Zulu’. There was no charge for her séances but the audience dropped coins in a suitably placed bowl.
She was found guilty on seven counts. Because of her age, Sir Gerald Dodson, the recorder, fined her £5, saying it was necessary to ‘protect women who had gone to her in their sorrow and bereavement to get some spurious comfort’.
The Witchcraft Act was replaced by the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951, which was itself replaced in 2008 by the rather more prosaically named Consumer Protection Regulations to comply with EU directives.
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor