No Comment — March 5, 2008, 4:56 pm

Witching Moment

Dr. Matthew Happold of the law faculty at the University of Hull writes us with this considerably more detailed treatment of the pardon appeal on behalf of the Scots medium Helen Duncan:

As an English lawyer, I am, of course, always happy to traduce Scots law, but the situation was a little more complex than you suggested. A considerable number of prosecutions for witchcraft took place in early modern Scotland (some 3,837 people according to the University of Edinburgh’s Survey of Scottish Witchcraft) and torture was used up until 1704. However, in 1735 Parliament enacted an Act (long title: “An Act to repeal the Statute made in the First Year of the Reign of King James the First, intituled, An Act against Conjuration, Witchcraft, and dealing with evil and wicked Spirits, except so much thereof as repeals an Act of the Fifth Year of the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, Against Conjurations, Inchantments, and Witchcrafts, and to repeal an Act passed in the Parliament of Scotland in the Ninth Parliament of Queen Mary, intituled, Anentis Witchcrafts, and for punishing such Persons as pretend to exercise or use any kind of Witchcraft, Sorcery, Inchantment, or Conjuration”), which repealed the 1563 statute which had previously governed
prosecutions for witchcraft in Scotland.

The 1735 Act was premised on Enlightenment beliefs in the non-existence of witchcraft. It provided that, from its coming into force, “no Prosecution, Suit, or Proceeding, shall be commenced or carried on against any Person or Persons for Witchcraft, Sorcery, Inchantment, or Conjuration, or for charging another with any such Offence, in any Court whatsoever in Great Britain.” Instead, “for the more effectual preventing and punishing of any Pretences to such Arts or Powers …, whereby ignorant Persons are frequently deluded and
defrauded … any Person [who] shall … pretend to exercise or use any kind of Witchcraft, Sorcery, Inchantment, or Conjuration, or undertake to tell Fortunes,
or pretend, from his or her Skill or Knowledge in any occult or crafty Science,
to discover where or in what manner any Goods or Chattels, supposed to have
been stolen or lost” could be subject to criminal sanction. Possible penalties
were imprisonment for up to a year, exposure in the pillory and being required
to find sureties for good behaviour, but not death. Essentially, persons
claiming to have magical powers were to be treated as fraudsters.

It was under the 1735 Act that Helen Duncan was convicted. Indeed, much of
the
clamour by spiritualists against her conviction arise from their belief that
she
was not a fraud; that her powers were genuine, and that she was punished for
telling the inconvenient truth (although it’s also true that by the date of her
prosecution the 1735 Act had fallen into disuse).

Interestingly, in 1951 the 1735 Witchcraft Act was itself repealed and replaced
by the Fraudulent Mediums Act, which provides for “the punishment of persons
who fraudulently purport to act as spiritualistic mediums or to exercise powers
of telepathy, clairvoyance or other similar powers.” Some might say this was a
regression, rather than progress, as it could be interpreted to suggest that
some mediums are not fraudulent. That might, however, be simply because it is
considered that they delude themselves, rather than that they exercise genuine
powers.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

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

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

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

January 2015

Come With Us If You Want to Live

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Body Politic

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Problem of Pain Management

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Game On

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Love Crimes

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Body Politic·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“‘He wrote all these love poems, but he was a son of a bitch,’ said a reporter from a wire service.”
Illustration by Steven Dana
Article
Love Crimes·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If a man rapes a woman, she might be forced to marry him, because in Afghanistan sex before marriage is dishonorable.”
Photographs © Andrew Quilty/Oculi/Agence VU
Article
Game On·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union had posed a truly existential threat.”
Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Come With Us If You Want to Live·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I was startled that all these negative ideologies could be condensed so easily into a positive worldview.”
Illustration by Darrel Rees
Article
Christmas in Prison·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Just so you motherfuckers know, I’ll be spending Christmas with my family, eating a good meal, and you’ll all be here, right where you belong.”
Photographer unknown. Artwork courtesy Alyse Emdur

Acres of hemp grown by “patriotic‚” U.S. farmers in 1942 at the behest of the U.S. government:

36,000

A study suggested that the health effects of exposure to nuclear radiation at Chernobyl were no worse than ill health resulting from smoking and normal urban air pollution.

Greenpeace apologized after activists accidentally defaced the site of Peru’s 2,000-year-old Nazca Lines when they unfurled cloth letters reading “time for change” near the ancient sand drawings. “We fully understand,” the group wrote in a statement, “that this looks bad.”

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