This section discusses the Witchcraft Acts of 1604 and 1735 which served to delineate the changing perception of witchcraft, at least in Great Britain.
The Witchcraft Act of 1604; full title, An Act against Conjuration, Witchcraft and dealing with evil and wicked spirits; broadened earlier Witchcraft Acts to bring the penalty of death without benefit of clergy to any one who invoked evil spirits or communed with familiar spirits.
Practicing witchcraft had already been made a felony, moving accused witches from the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts to the courts of common law. On the surface this appeared to give some protection for the accused due to the application of ordinary criminal procedures. Burning at the stake was eliminated as a penalty, except in cases which also involved petty treason. Most were hanged. Those convicted were also subject to the penalty of escheats, by which those convicted forfeited all of their property and possessions to the crown. Providing local officials this financial incentive to find and convict witches led to some of the worst witch hunts ever. From 1604 until 1735 there were 133 documented executions in England and Scotland.
The Witchcraft Act of 1735, which replaced the Witchcraft Act of 1604, revealed a complete reversal in attitudes towards witchcraft. No longer were people to be hanged for consorting with evil spirits. Now anyone pretending to have the power to call up spirits, foretell the future, cast spells, or discover the whereabouts of stolen goods was to be punished as a vagrant and/or con artist and subject to fines and imprisonment.
This did not stop the killing. Before this Act was repealed in England in 1951, there were at least six (6) documented deaths. Two (2) named Osborne on April 22, 1750 by a mob. Mary Bateman, cause unknown, and Alice Russell, by a mob in 1808. In 1865, someone known only as “Dummy”, again by a mob. Ann Turner, was murdered in 1875.
In 1944, Helen Duncan was jailed under the Witchcraft Act on the grounds that she had claimed to summon spirits. After being caught in the act of faking a spiritual manifestation, she was arrested during a séance and indicted with seven counts: two of conspiracy to contravene the Witchcraft Act, two of obtaining money by false pretenses, and three of public mischief (a common law offense). She spent nine months in prison.
Jane Rebecca Yorke was convicted under the Act later that same year. She was prosecuted by police because of claims she was defrauding the public by exploiting wartime fears. During séances with Yorke, undercover police were told to ask about non-existent family members. She was arrested in July 1944. At her trial in September at London’s Central Criminal Court she was found guilty on seven counts against the Witchcraft Act of 1735. Yorke was fined £5 and placed on good behavior for three years, promising she would hold no more seances. The light sentence was to her age of 72.
The Act remained legally in force in Ireland until May 1983 although it was never actually applied.
The tragedy represented by these deaths was that few of the accused practiced witchcraft in any form. They were victimized by the superstitions and fears of their fellow citizens and encouraged, by church and political leaders who were seeking financial or political gain for themselves, or to find scapegoats.
Hoping to survive, those who did practice witchcraft, became secretive and hid.