Witchcraft laws

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Witchcraft Act 1735

The Witchcraft Act of 1735 (9 Geo. 2 c. 5) marked a complete reversal in attitudes. Penalties for the practice of witchcraft as traditionally constituted, which by that time was considered by many influential figures to be an impossible crime, were replaced by penalties for the pretense of witchcraft. A person who claimed to have the power to call up spirits, or foretell the future, or cast spells, or discover the whereabouts of stolen goods, was to be punished as a vagrant and a con artist, subject to fines and imprisonment. The Act applied to the whole of Great Britain, repealing both the 1563 Scottish Act and the 1604 English one.[1]

In 1944, Helen Duncan was jailed under the Witchcraft Act on the grounds that she had claimed to summon spirits. It is often contended, by her followers, that her imprisonment was in fact at the behest of superstitious military intelligence officers who feared she would reveal the secret plans for D-Day. She came to the attention of the authorities after supposedly contacting the spirit of a sailor of the HMS Barham, whose sinking was hidden from the general public at the time. After being caught in the act of faking a spiritual manifestation, she was arrested during a seance and indicted with seven punishable counts: two of conspiracy to contravene the Witchcraft Act, two of obtaining money by false pretences, and three of public mischief (a common law offence). She spent nine months in prison.

Although Duncan has been frequently described as the last person to be convicted under the Act, in fact, Jane Rebecca Yorke was convicted under the Act later that same year.[2] The last threatened use of the Act against a medium was in 1950. In 1951 the Witchcraft Act was repealed with the enactment of the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951, largely at the instigation of Spiritualists through the agency of Thomas Brooks MP.[3]

It is widely suggested that astrology may have been covered by the Witchcraft Act. From the 1930s onwards many tabloid newspapers and magazines carried astrology columns, but none were ever prosecuted.

The Witchcraft Act remained legally in force in Northern Ireland,[4] although it was never actually applied.

The Act is still in force in Israel, having been introduced into the legal system of the British Mandate over Palestine and with Israel having gained independence before the law was repealed in Britain in 1951. Article 417 of the Israeli Penal code of 1977, incorporating much legislation inherited from British and Ottoman times, sets two years' imprisonment as the punishment for "witchcraft, fortune telling, or magic for pay".[5]


  1. Gibson, Marion. "Witchcraft And Society in England And America, 1550–1750", Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006, p. 7, isbn: 978-0-8264-8300-3
  2. Chambers, Vanessa. 'The Witchcraft Act Wasn't About Women on Brooms', The Guardian, 24 January 2007 (accessed 29 October 2010)
  3. Obituary of Thomas Brooks, The Times, 17 February 1958
  4. Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951 (c.33), UK Statute Law Database, Office of Public Sector Information (accessed 1 November 2010)
  5. Beit-Hallahmim, Benjamin. "Despair and Deliverance: Private Salvation in Contemporary Israel", State University of New York Press, 1992, p. 74, ISBN:978-0-7914-1000-4

{This page was extracted from Wikipedia as a portion of that page and has since been edited.}