Today, one of my favorite gothic and witch lore authors Catherine Cavendish, joins us! For many years Cat’s books have always been a go-to when I just need to be absorbed in a really good story. I’m a fan of the gothic and witch subgenres, so they usually fit the bill. She writes really atmospheric supernatural and ghost stories as well.
The Malan Witch was a fast read for me, broken up between an hour or so each night before bed. Probably not the best idea in retrospect to be reading in the dark, but I’ve made sure my horseshoe is in proper form above my doorframe and salt is sprinkled on my windowsills. The Malan Witch is such a fast read because Cat writes with a pace that propels you through the page, and though uses superb descriptions, also creates a story not bogged down by them. The ending really ignited some scary action and twists and turns, leaving me perplexed, but then easily wrapped it up for me in satisfying fashion. And it also opened the door for a child character to be a fully formed character in a series of books. I sure hope that’s in the works!
Check out her guest article today about a real life famous UK medium – what a story – who for conducting seances was tried with the witchcraft act!!
Then check out the details for her next book about two scary witches, burned in the Tudor times, and how they’re spirits have come back to haunt a grieving widow in the modern times who goes to spend time in the cottage on the site in which it occurred.
The Last Convicted Witch
by Catherine Cavendish, Author of The Malan Witch
To many, she was just another Scottish housewife, but Helen Duncan was regarded as a notorious charlatan by some and a martyr by others. So who was this unprepossessing lady who had Parliament in a spin right in the middle of World War II?
Helen Duncan was born in Callender, in Scotland on 25th November 1897 and, from an early age, was noted for her apparent ability to connect to the spirit world and, through the act of mediumship, convey their messages. She was also noted for her apparent ability to emit vast quantities of ectoplasm – an ability that later led to much ridicule and condemnation.
She married young – at the age of 20 – and her twelve pregnancies resulted in just six surviving children. Her husband, who was a cabinet maker, had been injured in World War I, so Helen was a much-needed breadwinner. She worked at the local bleach factory during the day and conducted Spiritualist sittings by night, earning a small amount of cash in the process. It is reported that she would often use these funds to help her friends and neighbours – who were in similar dire financial circumstances to herself – by paying their medical bills.
Helen gained a reputation for her accuracy and, by 1931, she was making her living conducting seances up and down the country. She was a minister to a number of Spiritualist churches. But things began to go badly wrong. She was publicly denounced as a fraud by the Morning Post and the London Psychic Laboratory. Then, in 1934, Helen was prosecuted by the Edinburgh Sheriff’s Court as a ‘fraudulent medium,’ for which she received a £10 fine and a month’s prison sentence.
Undeterred by this unpleasant experience, Helen continued to practice, but chose to transfer herself to Portsmouth during World War II. This was where the Royal Navy was based, and it led directly to trial at the Old Bailey.
During a seance, through her spirit guide Albert, she claimed to pick up the spirit of a sailor who announced that he had just gone down with HMS Barham.
The only problem here was that the sinking of that ship wasn’t made public until many months later and certainly wasn’t in the public domain at the time of her séance. Whether this was a product of genuine mediumship, or something more sinister (as some alleged), it was certainly enough to bring her to the attention of the authorities. On 19th January 1944, one of her séances was raided by police. She and three members of her audience were arrested.
Eventually, she was prosecuted under section 4 of the archaic Witchcraft Act of 1735, which carried a maximum twelve month prison sentence. At that trial, her supporters rallied round and raised funds to bring witnesses from all over the country – many of them pillars of the community – all prepared to testify to the authenticity of her séances. As to whether she produced ectoplasm, (or cheesecloth, as had been alleged by the prosecution), one witness stated that the substance could not possibly be cloth as, if so, its colour would have changed under the red light of a séance room. Far from it, attested Hannen Swaffer, respected journalist and co-founder of the Psychic News. In Helen Duncan’s case, the manifestations remained uniformly white.
The trial resulted in daily, sensational newspaper headlines and, it was even proposed (by the defence) to put Helen into a trance and let the jury see for themselves what transpired. This caused a furore among the prosecution lawyers. Supposing, somehow, she managed to pull it off? Or worse, if she didn’t, the whole British legal system would be held up to ridicule. They declined.
Helen was found guilty and, after some debate, her sentence was set to nine months incarceration under the Witchcraft Act, for pretending ‘to exercise or use human conjuration that through the agency of Helen Duncan spirits of deceased persons should appear to be present.’ She was also charged with offences under the Larceny Act for taking money ‘by falsely pretending that she was in a position to bring about the appearances of the spirits of deceased persons.’ She served her sentence in the notorious Holloway women’s prison.
So, she became the last person in Britain to be jailed under the Witchcraft Act of 1735, but not the last to be convicted under it. That dubious privilege was left to the septuagenarian Sara Rebecca Yorke, who was tried in late 1944, but was bound over and received a fine, in view of her advancing years.
Although she is often called ‘the last witch,’ Helen was never specifically tried as a witch. The Act of 1735 had done away with the barbaric practices of the past that had resulted in such travesties of justice as the Lancaster Witch Trials of 1612 (aped by those in Salem, Massachusetts eighty years later).
Helen’s infamous trial did, however, provide a catalyst for much needed change. A political campaign was begun, supported by Winston Churchill, who had described the charges against Helen Duncan as, ‘obsolete tomfoolery.’ Churchill himself had long held a serious interest in spiritualism, inherited from his American mother, the charismatic Jennie Jerome (who became Lady Randolph Churchill on her marriage to Winston’s father). Finally, the campaigners succeeded and the Act was repealed in 1951, to be replaced by the Fraudulent Mediums Act, which is still in place today.
As for Helen, she was released from prison in September 1944, but never managed to slip entirely under the police radar. In 1956, they raided a séance when she was in mid-trance. Generally regarded as a spectacularly dangerous thing to do, they manhandled her while in this trance-state and took her away. She was said to exhibit second degree burns and was bleeding from her mouth. As a diabetic, with a heart condition, she was sent back home but was later rushed to hospital.
Helen Duncan died thirty-six days later.
So was she – as some have alleged – a spy? Was she a genuine medium? Or was she a most accomplished clever fake? Opinions were, are, and will always be, divided. Those who believe will believe and those who do not, will never be convinced.
Read Cat’s latest work now!
‘Naught remained of their bodies to be buried, for the crows took back what was theirs.’
An idyllic coastal cottage near a sleepy village. What could be more perfect? For Robyn Crowe, borrowing her sister’s recently renovated holiday home for the summer seems just what she needs to deal with the grief of losing her beloved husband.
But behind those pretty walls lie many secrets, and legends of a malevolent sisterhood – two witches burned for their evil centuries earlier. Once, both their vile spirits were trapped there. Now, one has been released. One who is determined to find her sister. Only Robyn stands in her way.
And the crow has returned.
You can order The Malan Witch here:
Catherine Cavendish, Biography –
Following a varied career in sales, advertising and career guidance, Catherine Cavendish is now the full-time author of a number of paranormal, ghostly and Gothic horror novels, novellas and short stories. Cat’s novels include The Garden of Bewitchment. The Haunting of Henderson Close, the Nemesis of the Gods trilogy – Wrath of the Ancients, Waking the Ancients and Damned by the Ancients, plus The Devil’s Serenade, The Pendle Curse and Saving Grace Devine.
In addition to The Malan Witch, her novellas include The Darkest Veil, Linden Manor, Cold Revenge, Miss Abigail’s Room, The Demons of Cambian Street, Dark Avenging Angel, The Devil Inside Her, and The Second Wife
Her short stories have appeared in a number of anthologies including Silver Shamrock’s Midnight in the Graveyard, and her story The Oubliette of Élie Loyd will appear in their forthcoming Midnight in the Pentagram, to be published in October this year.
She lives by the sea in Southport, England with her long-suffering husband, and a black cat called Serafina who has never forgotten that her species used to be worshipped in ancient Egypt. She sees no reason why that practice should not continue.
You can connect with Cat here:
Editor’s Note: All photographs were supplied by the author.