When would you guess the last witch trial in Britain? As the witch-hunting hysteria in Europe was finally waning? 1780? 1820?
In 1944, professional medium Helen Duncan, affectionately known as “Hellish Nell”, was arrested during a séance in Portsmouth, Hants, and charged under section four of Britain’s 1735 Witchcraft Act.
Examination of a Witch, by T.H. Matteson 1853. Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum
The jury deliberated only half an hour before declaring her guilty. Happily, though the court used a law written in 1735 to convict Duncan, at least the punishment for witchcraft had been reformed. Her sentence was nine months in London’s Holloway prison…a step up from the traditional Scottish burning or hanging of witches.
But how in the world did Helen Duncan end up on trial for witchcraft as recently as 1944?