No Comment — February 29, 2008, 9:58 am

Time for a Pardon

The Scotland and Tayside news service of the BBC brings us this gem. A compelling case for a pardon for a woman who was convicted and sentenced for witchcraft in Scotland during World War II is now being presented to Queen Elizabeth in her right as Queen of Scotland. It’s a fascinating tale of the “creative” use of an archaic statute for modern national security ends. Here’s the core of the story:

Helen Duncan spent nine months in Holloway prison after being found guilty at a trial in 1944. She had told a seance a warship had sunk before the news had been officially announced. A second petition calls for all those convicted under witchcraft legislation in Scotland to be pardoned.

Both petitions have been organised by a paranormal group, Full Moon Investigations. A petition to the Westminster Government last year failed to secure a pardon for Mrs Duncan. This new document calls on the Scottish Government to urge the Home Secretary to reconsider the case.

Mrs Duncan, born in Callander, Perthshire, held a seance at which the spirit of a dead sailor was said to have revealed the loss of the battleship HMS Barham with most of her crew. The sinking had been kept secret by the authorities to maintain wartime morale. Roberta Gordon presented the signatures to Frank McAveety, convener of the public petitions committee, at Holyrood.
Mrs Gordon, who has been a medium for more than 28 years, said: “I feel that at the time the country was paranoid about security with D-Day coming up and the evidence used against her wasn’t accurate.

(For those whose Scots geography is musty, Holyrood is the Royal Palace of Holyroodhouse, the nominal seat of the British monarch in Scotland, which sits at the end of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. It’s largely a museum but some residual government functions are conducted there.)

Legal historians will note that Scotland does not have the common-law legal system found in England, Wales and the United States, but its own peculiar Roman-based law, closely linked at points to Dutch law. The Scots legal system was notably cruel, accommodating torture, and recognizing and aggressively prosecuting witchcraft as a crime. Still, most of that ended with Lord Kames and the enlightenment reform of the Scots legal system in the middle and late eighteenth century.

salemwitchtrial-e

It looks like prosecutors faced a dilemma. The medium actually did discover a tragedy that the Government wanted to keep secret from the people. And there was no legal tool available to silence her. So they turned to the witchcraft statute in order to lock her away. (Let’s hope the Bush Administration doesn’t get ideas, but these days it hardly has need for a witchcraft statute, it already has plenty of them.)

Still, this is a case that cries out for redress through the pardon system. Can anyone question that? (The other question in my mind was this: if this medium was so effective, why didn’t the British intelligence service make use of her, rather than having her locked up? In any event, I want the movie rights for this one.)

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2016

Separated at Birth

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Priest in the Trees

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Lightness

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

With Child

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Standing Rock Speaks

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Prose by Any Other Name

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
With Child·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. 'Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.'"
Photograph (detail) by Lara Shipley
Article
Swat Team·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"As we shall see, for the sort of people who write and edit the opinion pages of the Post, there was something deeply threatening about Sanders and his political views."
Illustration (detail) by John Ritter
Article
Escape from The Caliphate·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"When Matti invited me on a tour of the neighborhood, I asked about security. 'The message has already been passed to ISIS that you’re here,' he said. 'But don’t worry. I guarantee I could bring even you in and out of the Islamic State.'"
Photograph (detail) by Alice Martins
Article
In This One·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. 'Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.'"
Illustration (detail) by Shonagh Rae
Article
“Don’t Touch My Medicare!”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Medicare’s popularity, however, comes with almost no understanding of what the program is and how it works."
Illustration (detail) by Nate Kitch

Estimated number of people who watched a live Webcast of a hair transplant last fall:

8,000

A rancher in Texas was developing a system that will permit hunters to kill animals by remote control via a website.

A man in Japan was arrested for stealing a prospective employer’s wallet during a job interview, and a court in Germany ruled that it is safe for a woman with breast implants to be a police officer.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Who Goes Nazi?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."

Subscribe Today