Roger writing the LAWmag

Hocus Pocus Law: Mock Not What You Understand Not

Although the mention of witches and witchcraft can today get a lawyer committed or disbarred, assuming there is a distinction, there is a solid body of common law which recognizes witchcraft (note that it's formally known as a craft).

As with many moral offences, we can blame the Bible for this one. Exodus 22:18 leaves very little wiggle room:

"Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live."

Some of what you may think about witchcraft has been influenced by dramatic Hollywood representations which seem to focus on the American experience of burning 20 witches at Salem in 1692. But the earliest American folk were religious kooks and don't just take my word for it: see Dale's Laws which was the code of law of the Colony of Virginia, circa Pocahontas (1611).

Initially, witchcraft was left to the exclusive purview of the ecclesiastic courts in England, greatly excited at the prospect of an exorcism.

young witch

But this all changed with Henry VIII who made witchcraft a felony (i.e. you could get hung by the neck and forfeited all your property to the Crown . Henry VIII was no dummy. See 33 Hen. VIII, Chapter 8).

This meant that common law judges had to recognize, without a smirk or twinkle in their judicial eye, this most egregious offense.

His grandson became so interested in witches and witchcraft that he wrote a book about it, which could have been ignored by the law were it not for his accession as King of England in 1657 as King James I (father of Charles I, who lost his head).

James I had his grand-father's witchcraft statute revised to make witchery a capital offence. The legal citation of this statute is 1 Jac. I, c. 12, in case there might be an opportunity to refer or rely on it although I've noticed that the law is changing and not always for the better.

For some reason, likely political convenience, there are no statistics on how many English devil worshippers were put to death or pilloried pursuant to that statute.

In 1867, Mary Catherine Murray of Plymouth, England, was charged with witchcraft.

A local chap, Thomas Rendle, had hired Murray to heal his paralyzed wife. Murray had enticed Rendle by offering a satisfaction guarantee. They came to a contractual agreement and then Murray gave Rendle two charms and a parchment which read:

"Whosoever beareth this sign all spirits do him homage. This sign is against witchcraft, putrid infection and sudden death. Whosoever beareth this sign need fear no foe and this is the sign against witchcraft and suicide and against evil demons."

But Mrs Rendle did not throw down her crutches and walk like you see on TV at 3 a.m. (channel 56, 59, 79 and 122).

Mr. Rendle, arguably not the sharpest tool in the shed, immediately came to the conclusion that Witch Murray must of put some kind of spell on his wife to prevent her from being healed. The husband went out and hired Witch #2 to undo what he thought Witch #1 (Murray) had done.

The defense lawyer did what I would have done: he ridiculed the prosecution. Dumb move since the offence was in The Law Book and judges, defer to The Law Book. The judge convicted Witch Murray and gave her a three month prison term with hard labour.

witchcraft trial

Until the next issue of News of the World, the last reported witchcraft case in the annals of the common law was R v Duncan, in 1944.

To promote her prowess, Helen Duncan had foolishly and publicly predicted the sinking of a particular British warship. Since they were being sunk right, left and center, this does not strike the disinterested observer as remarkable. The HMS Hood, the HMS Royal Oak, the HMS Repulse...

But then the ship she predicted was sunk and a war-ravaged England took her seriously.

Murray was a high-priced medium, well-known among, and well-paid by, the British upper class, many of whom relied on her to communicate with their deceased loved ones, or at least, that's the theory. Apparently, that list included Winston Churchill.

If nothing else, Murray had moxie. In court, she offered the judge a free seance to prove her abilities. The judge declined this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Instead, he convicted her and sent her to prison.

And as a Canadian, I will accept responsibility for the prime minister from 1935 to 1948, William Lyon Mackenzie King. His secret: he was an avid participant in séance sessions in which he attempted to contact his dead mother and dead dogs, Leonardo da Vinci, a previously deceased Canadian Prime Minister, Wilfrid Laurier, and, once he died in 1945, the former American president Franklin D. Roosevelt.

King, a lifelong bachelor, owned a crystal ball.

King, it will be noted, and as Prime Minister, was at the top of the legal food chain.

King James' Witchcraft Act was given a Christian burial in 1951 witch means that witchcraft is now legal.

Even today, 2012 years since the birth of an individual allegedly the son of a supreme being known as God, Canada's ultimate law, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, starts with the statement that: "Canada ... recognize(s) the supremacy of God".

If God gets legal recognition, does that imply the existence of His alter-ego and deity of witchcraft, the devil?



  • Lugger, Andrew, Magic Moments, Solicitor's Journal 155/28, page 32

Posted in Crime and Criminal Law, Law Fun

Attached Images

  • Hocus Pocus Law: Mock Not What You Understand Not