As today is Black Cat Appreciation Day, I salute Salem from Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
In 1944, Helen Duncan became Britain’s last witch, jailed under the archaic Witchcraft Act 1735.
Duncan was a medium who had been obsessed with the spirit world from childhood. Even as a young girl she claimed to be able to communicate with ghosts and dead people, earning her the nickname “Hellish Nell.”
She was not your average medium. Her “powers” meant she could summon dead relatives by producing ectoplasm from her mouth. This ectoplasm would then mould into physical beings of the spirits who would then be able to touch and communicate with their families and friends. Word soon spread of Helen’s amazing gift and, by the 1930s and 1940s, she was travelling the length and breadth of Britain, hosting séances and bringing comfort to grieving families who could speak to their dead loved ones in the spirit world.
Not everyone shared her devotees’ faith in her supernatural powers. In 1928, she agreed to be photographed by Harvey Metcalfe. His pictures revealed the so-called ghosts to be dolls and paper cuttings. It was then that the London Spiritualist Alliance decided to test the “ectoplasm” that Duncan produced from her mouth—it was found to be nothing more than a mixture of cheesecloth, egg white and paper.
In 1941, she claimed during a séance that the spirit of a sailor told her that HMS Barham had been sunk. She said she knew it was HMS Barham because of the band on the sailor’s hat. But the sinking of the ship had only been revealed in strictest confidence to the families of those lost, and was not announced to the public until January 1942. It was these revelations that prompted the authorities to take a closer interest in her activities.
Undercover policemen arrested Duncan at a séance when a white-shrouded figure appeared and was found to be Duncan herself in a white cloth.
It was later proven that there had been a leak concerning HMS Barham, so Duncan could have easily found out about the tragedy. She was initially arrested under the Vagrancy Act 1824, but the authorities regarded the case as more serious and eventually discovered section 4 of the Witchcraft Act that covered fraudulent spiritual activity. She was convicted on one of seven charges and was sent to Holloway Prison for nine months.
After the verdict, Winston Churchill wrote to the Home Secretary questioning the use of the Witchcraft Act in prosecuting Duncan. On her release in 1945, Duncan vowed not to conduct any more séances, but she was arrested during another one in 1956. She died at home in Edinburgh a short time later.
As a result of Helen Duncan’s case, the Witchcraft Act was repealed in 1951 and spiritualism was recognized as a religion three years later.
A woodcut from a 1720 history of “witches and wizards” from Wellcome Library.
Also from Smithsonian Magazine’s How New Printing Technology Gave Witches Their Familiar Silhouette.
I was bummed to learn that Netflix’s Sabrina series will air its final season later this year:
“The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina will end with a part four on Netflix later this year. Netflix and showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa made the announcement on Wednesday night.
“The final installment promises a spooky, sexy and supernatural series finale — but not before Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) reveals a few more tricks up her retro-chic sleeve. Over the course of the final part’s eight episodes, the Eldritch Terrors will descend upon Greendale. The coven must fight each terrifying threat one-by-one (The Weird, The Returned and The Darkness, to name a few), all leading up to The Void, which is the End of All Things. As the witches wage war, with the help of the Fright Club, Nick (Gavin Leatherwood) begins to slowly earn his way back into Sabrina’s heart, but it may be too late.”
“It is likely you have heard this name from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, but like many other characters in the play, Tituba was inspired by a real person. Although it’s unclear which South American country she originated from, Tituba was brought to the American colonies as a slave to Samuel Parris. During the 1692 Salem witch trials, Tituba was the first person accused of witchcraft by Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams.
“Initially, Tituba denied any involvement, but like so many of the accused, her will was quickly broken. Tituba admitted to the participation of an occult ritual, saying that she had baked a witchcake in an attempt to help her mistress, Elizabeth Parris. Tituba embellished her confession by adding details about her service to the devil, riding on sticks, and being told by a black dog to harm the children. Her testimony was both bizarre and frightening, as Tituba stated that she pinched the girls and had signed a devil’s book. Tituba, along with many others, was imprisoned for nearly a year, but managed not to be one of the women hanged for witchcraft.
“Tituba languished in prison for a year, as her [slave owner] would not pay her jail fees. Eventually, in 1693, an unknown individual purchased Tituba from the prison for the price of her jail fees. After this, the woman’s path disappeared from history.”
Baba Yaga is one of the most famous characters in Slavic mythology. The old crooked-nosed hag is as evil as she looks. She is both a force of nature and a cruel old woman who eats people who dwell into the deep forest. Her name comes from the Slavic word for grandmother “Baba.” The meaning of the word “Yaga” is not certain but some think it means “wicked.”
In some myths, Baba Yaga gives tasks to her victims and, depending on the successful completion of their mission, they are either eaten or rewarded. She is not only an evil villain but, in many cases, she could even help them, like in the Russian story of “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” where Baba Yaga gives Vasilisa tasks to accomplish in trade for help.
Read more about Baba Yaga at Baba Yaga – The Mythical Forest Witch from Slavic Folk Tales.