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Relative seeks a posthumous pardon for Briton jailed on witchcraft charge

Mary Martin, holding a photo of Helen Duncan, said her grandmother was 'simply a woman with a gift.' Mary Martin, holding a photo of Helen Duncan, said her grandmother was "simply a woman with a gift." (Martin Cleaver/Associated Press)

LONDON -- She's 72 and a great-grandmother, but she still remembers how her classmates labeled her "witch-spawn" and "evil eye" -- because her grandmother was one of the last people jailed in Britain on witchcraft charges.

At the height of World War II, medium Helen Duncan was convicted under an 18th-century anti witchcraft law and jailed by authorities who accused her of compromising Britain's safety.

Now, more than 50 years after Duncan's death, granddaughter Mary Martin is campaigning for a pardon.

"I was only 11 years old when the name-calling started," recalled Martin, who lives near Edinburgh. "People said, 'Your grandmother was a witch.' "

"But she was simply a woman with a gift, and she never endangered anybody."

Martin has written to the Home Office asking for a meeting with Home Secretary John Reid and has given interviews to the media to raise her campaign's profile. Several hundred people have signed a petition asking for a pardon.

The campaign has the support of experts on the 1692 witch trials in Salem, Mass., where 20 people, men and young women, were convicted of witchcraft and executed. A full pardon for all was given in 2001. Alison D'Amario of the Salem Witch Museum said there were parallels between Duncan's case and that of the victims in Salem. Duncan "was very much the victim of a witch hunt," D'Amario said.

In the 1940s, Duncan was a well-known medium, and her clients reportedly included Winston Churchill and King George VI. She ran into trouble after reportedly telling the parents of a missing sailor that their son had gone down on the HMS Barham , a ship whose 1941 loss had not yet been reported to the public in hopes of keeping morale high.

Military authorities grew jittery as the war went on, particularly fearing that plans for the D day landings of Allied forces in northern France could be compromised. They accused Duncan of endangering public safety.

In January 1944, police broke into a seance in Portsmouth, in southern England, to arrest her, and she was charged with "pretending to be a witch" under a 1735 law.

Duncan was convicted and jailed for nine months in London's Holloway Prison. In 1951, Churchill's government repealed the 1735 law, but her conviction remained. Duncan died in 1956.

In 2004, Gordon Prestoungrange , holder of Prestonpans's baronial title, used feudal laws still in effect to pardon 81 other "witches" convicted under laws that dated to 1604, when King James I made witchcraft a capital offense. Prestoungrange could not pardon Duncan because she was convicted outside Prestonpans under modern laws.