When the Devil appears in court


I RECENTLY received an email from Angel as follows:
October is Halloween month and I recently watched a documentary on Discovery last Wednesday on witches being tried and burned at the stake in the Middle Ages.

This made me recall the famous Mona Fandey case in Malaysia and another case in Tambunan, which involved practices of the occult, where the accused had caused the death of a woman who participated in a ‘religious ritual’ of some sort.

Is it against the law to practise witchcraft and sorcery? Are there any penalties? With witchcraft on the rise worldwide and a revival in self-styled practices should our lawmakers enact laws to prevent such unhealthy practices?

“Even the well-known ‘Bewitched’ TV series and later movie starring Nicole Kidman, as well as Harry Potter movies and books together with the popular ‘Charmed’ and ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ TV series seem to promote witchcraft albeit in a very subtle, exciting and harmless manner. Has the Devil ever been sued in court?”

What a spine chilling request. I had to burn the midnight oil this week to search for cases involving the Devil or his agents in court.

London 1944

The last known case on witchcraft in England was in 1944. It was known as The Crown vs Duncan, Homer, Jones and Brown. There were three judges in the Court of Criminal Appeal. There were four lawyers appearing in the appeal, two for the Crown and two for the Appellants.

In the lower court, the four appellants were found guilty of a conspiracy to contravene the Witchcraft Act 1735 under the charge that they: Conspired together and with other persons unknown to pretend to exercise or use a kind of conjuration to wit that through the agency of the said Helen Duncan spirits of deceased persons should appear to be present in fact in such place as the said Helen Duncan then was and that the said spirits; were communicating with living persons then and there present. The appellants appealed against their conviction.

Shiny ectoplasm  from the mouth

The appellant Duncan was a professional medium, who was engaged at a substantial fee to give a series of seances in a registered church or temple, as it was called, at 30, Connor Road, Portsmouth, maintained by the appellant Homer over a chemist’s shop, which he had kept for many years. The appellant Jones, known as Mrs Homer, lived with him and had done so for some 25 years. The appellant Brown assisted Duncan and acted as her booking agent.

The evidence for the prosecution was concerned with dates in December 1943 and January 1944 and evidence was given for the prosecution of the happenings on these dates at the church, and of the parts played by the appellants.

After certain preliminaries, Duncan dressed in black was seated in a chair behind a curtain in a corner of the room. Homer and Jones sat near the front. The light was dim, being confined to a single red lamp at the back of the room. Duncan produced her spirit guide, who was called Albert, and he would say that he had a message for a person in a particular chair. Then, when the person indicated called out, there would appear in the dim light what was said to be the form of someone who claimed to be a friend or relative of one of those present. In some cases the material form was said to be that of a bird or an animal, such as a parrot or cat.

The  prosecution case was that the whole performance was an elaborate pretence, a fraudulent performance, a mere imposition on human credulity. This was sought to be established by evidence of: (a) messages going to the wrong seat owing to a change of occupant taking place by a mistake unknown to any of the appellants; (b) to messages purporting to come from relatives who had never existed; (c) to the attempted seizure by a witness of a substance said to be ectoplasm emanating from Duncan, but which felt like cheesecloth, and which did not return to her as ectoplasm, but was caught away by someone among the congregation. Ectoplasm is a substance supposed to be exuded from the body of a spiritualistic medium during a trance. (For examples watch some of the old ‘Ghostbuster’ movies) (d) to the fact that on one important occasion Duncan was said not to be seated in the chair behind the curtain, but to be standing between the curtain pushing a piece of white cloth down her front to the ground, a cloth which appeared to be a very flimsy substance like butter muslin — a thin fine cotton cloth.

Was it for real or just pretence?

It was a long trial towards the end of World War II. Forty-five witnesses gave evidence for the defence denying that there were any elements of pretence or deception. The evidence was given in great detail on all the matters alleged by the prosecution to be fraudulent or indeed suspicious. In addition to the witnesses called for the defence, who were present at the sittings, the defence called no less than 26 witnesses who were not present, but who gave evidence about Mrs Duncan’s performances as a medium over a long period of years, expressing their belief in her genuineness and informing the jury of the mysteries of the spirit world, the nature of ectoplasm, and a variety of matters of that kind.

Conjuring evil spirits? Or will any spirits do?

In the appeal, the convicted Appellants argued that there was no evidence of any acts by the Appellants constituted an offence under the Witchcraft Act 1735, and that the judge in the lower court had wrongly concluded that a pretence to hold conversation with spirits of deceased persons constituted an offence under that Act. The argument was that the proper reasoning was that only a pretence to hold conversation with wicked and evil spirits was forbidden by Section 4 of the Act of 1735.

The conspiracy of which the appellants were found guilty was a conspiracy to contravene the Witchcraft Act 1735, Section 4, and the material words in  the charge were: To pretend to exercise or use a kind of conjuration to wit that through the agency of the said Helen Duncan spirits of deceased persons should appear to be present in fact in such place as the said Helen Duncan then was in, and that the said spirits were communicating with living persons then and there present.