Stories of witches and their supernatural exploits have persisted around the world and across the centuries. In the late 1600s, women and men like Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Good and Elizabeth Howe were tried and executed for practicing the dark art. Just a few decades later, English witch hysteria led to the passage of the Witchcraft Act of 1735. A remnant of a simpler, more superstitious time, the Act was nearly forgotten to time, until it was used to convict a practicing medium more than 200 years later.
In 1944, undercover police in London were tasked with exposing a woman thought to be preying upon English wartime fears by defrauding the public through elaborate scam séances. Professed British medium Jane Rebecca Yorke relied upon an impressive stable of supernatural spirit guides — including a Zulu warrior and Queen Victoria — to contact the dead on behalf of the living.
Posing as grieving townspeople, the down low officers attended Yorke’s séances and requested intimate details of “dead” relatives who never really existed. For example, one officer, an only child, was shocked to learn that his beloved “brother” had died a horrible death by immolation during a wartime bombing mission.
Based on these fraudulent spirit sessions, Yorke was arrested in mid-1944 and tried in London’s Central Criminal Court that September. Found guilty on seven counts against the Witchcraft Act of 1735, Yorke got off far lighter than her Protestant co-defendants from 250 years earlier. Instead of being burned alive or crushed with stones, she was fined £5 and placed on good behavior for three years. She had to promise, however, that she would hold no more séances.
As a footnote, the Witchcraft Act was repealed in the UK in 1951. It is still on the books in Israel to this date, with a penalty of up to two years imprisonment for convicted witches.
For additional reading on the history of witchcraft, visit the Arca Noctis digital library’s Witchcraft & Occult Studies section.