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:

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

From the June 2014 issue

The Guantánamo “Suicides,” Revisited

A missing document suggests a possible CIA cover-up

No Comment March 28, 2014, 12:32 pm

Scott Horton Debates John Rizzo on Democracy Now!

On CIA secrecy, torture, and war-making powers

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2014

The End of Retirement

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Octopus and Its Grandchildren

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Francis and the Nuns

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Return of the Strongman

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
“From the nerd squabbles of Internet discussion threads rose an urban legend that culminated in a film that hinges on digging through my town’s trash.”
Illustration (detail) by Timothy Taranto
Article
Return of the Strongman·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If Tunisia is where the Arab Spring began, Egypt seems poised to become its burial ground.”
Photograph (detail) © Ahmed Ismail / Getty Images
Article
The Seductive Catastrophe·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The world’s leaders were moved by a populace fused into a forward phalanx, were shaken by a tidal wave of militancy jubilantly united.”
Photograph courtesy Mary Evans Picture Library
Article
Me, Myself, and Id·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The one defining trait of the narcissist is that it’s always someone else.
Painting (detail) by Gianni Dagli Orti
Post
The Many Faces of Boko·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“People want education. Open a school and they will rush.”
Photograph © The author

Average number of sitcom laughs an American hears during a prime-time season:

12,000

Czech and German deer still do not cross the Iron Curtain.

British economists correlated the happiness of a country’s population with its genetic resemblance to Danes.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today