Witchcraft during World War II

Helen Duncan and Jane Yorke both claimed to work as mediums, in Edinburgh and Portsmouth respectively. They were both convicted under the Witchcraft Act 1735, under which it was a crime to falsely claim to procure spirits.

Both Duncan and Yorke were felt to have exploited wartime anxiety and the loss of loved ones. Duncan, who was 46 years old, served a nine–month jail sentence; Yorke, who was 72, was treated less severely on account of her age – fined £5 and placed on good behaviour for three years, promising she would hold no more séances.

The 1735 Witchcraft Act was was used as a threat in several subsequent cases, the last in 1950, but Yorke was the last person to be convicted. The Act was repealed in 1951 by the Fraudulent Mediums Act. Helen Duncan, who had also promised not to hold any more seances, was arrested during another one in 1956. She died at her home in Edinburgh a short time later, aged 59. Her supporters have since claimed that her death was caused by her 'trance' being disturbed by the police; however, her medical records showed that she had a long history of ill–health. She was diabetic, and as early as 1944 she was described as an obese woman whose movements were limited by heart trouble.

Jane Yorke died in 1953, aged 81.

© Haydn Thompson 2020