Paulo Coelho

Stories & Reflections

And the witch-hunt goes on…

Author: Paulo Coelho

A year and a half ago I transcribed here in this column a piece of news from the CNN saying that on 31 October 2004, resorting to a feudal law that was abolished in the following month, the town of Prestopans, in Scotland, granted official pardon to 81 people – and their cats – executed for practicing witchcraft in the 16th and 17th centuries.

According to the official spokesperson for the Barons of Prestoungrange and Dolphinstoun, “most of them had been condemned without any concrete evidence – based only on witnesses for the prosecution who claimed they felt the presence of evil spirits”.

The oddest thing about this news item is that the town and the 14th Baron of Prestoungrange and Dolphinstoun are “granting pardon” to people who were brutally executed. Here we are plump in the 21st century, and those who killed innocent people still feel they have the right to “pardon”.

To my surprise, that did not bring the matter to an end.

At least according to the highly respected Reuters news agency, there still exist witches to be pardoned by the system. In a piece of news published recently, the grand-daughter of one of them has just launched a campaign for the “posthumous redemption” of Helen Duncan, a woman accused by the English during the Second World War. Duncan’s crime was to have answered, during a séance of spiritualism, a question asked by a mother desperate to know the whereabouts of her son, a member of the crew of the ship HMS Barbham. The medium stated that the ship had just sunk and that the entire crew had died.

This was true, but the fact was being kept secret so as not to affect the morale of the soldiers. The news soon spread, and reached the government. Based on a law dating from 1735, Winston Churchill ordered her arrested until the war was over.

Helen Duncan died in 1956, without ever being pardoned. Her grand-daughter, Mary Martin (now aged 72) has already even managed to have an audience with the Minister of the Interior of the Tony Blair government, but to no avail.

As I write these lines, the Baron of Prestoungrange, the same man who succeeded in obtaining the official pardon of the town of Prestopans, is directly involved in the matter, and has even opened a site on the Internet ( to raise international support.

In the words of the Baron:

“The 300 soldiers executed for desertion during the First World War have already been pardoned. The denunciations that caused the death of a group of 20 innocent young people in Salem, Massachusetts, have already been treated with due respect. We have already apologized for trading in slaves and adopting piracy as a noble way to make the United Kingdom prosperous. What has to be done to pardon Helen Duncan?”

It is simple. In the beginning, Duncan was accused of spying. A massive investigation carried out by the government concluded that it was impossible for a woman to have access to official secrets and secret information. How, then, could she have known what had happened to the frigate HMS Barbham?

The only explanation that remains is: witchcraft. And what purpose is served by the old laws, even if they have been forgotten by a civilization that deems itself enlightened and immune to the superstitions of yore?

Their purpose is to be applied.

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