Highgate Hindsight

This particular article is sure to generate more than its fair share of controversy. Indeed, Pagan Dawn deserves a lot of praise for publishing my take on what remains a very divisive topic relatively unedited in their Beltane 2018 edition. It had been a long term ambition of mine to have work featured in what is essentially the trade press for Neopaganism in the united kingdom, and to see my words in print not once but three times so far has been a dream come true. With my latest submission, Pagan Spirits making it into the fiftieth anniversary edition recently, now seemed the perfect time to share the second essay I produced for them here at The Vulpine Portfolio too.

Highgate Hindsight
How The Media Perception Of Paganism Led To A Modern Day Witch Trial
By Gavin Fox

The Highgate vampire remains both an intriguing, and divisive, case. Lost beneath a veritable storm of claim and counterclaim, bruised egos and personal vendettas, the truth of exactly what was stalking the cemetery after hours has never been satisfactorily explained. The sensationalist input of the media at the time, eager to create a monster out of the dead foxes and desecrated tombs, only added fuel to the fire that would eventually lead to a man being placed on trial for practising witchcraft some twenty years after it had officially been decriminalised.

Highgate Cemetery is an oddly disconcerting space. A true garden of the dead, and one of the magnificent seven private burial spaces created by Act of Parliament during the early years of the Nineteenth Century, it was designed specifically to draw investment from the wealthier members of the Victorian upper classes. As a result it became filled with fantastically decadent mausoleums and baroque grave markers, each person seeking to outdo their fellow man one final time before they rejoined the soil. While the location is now managed and maintained by a group of concerned locals, the so-called Friends of Highgate, this was not always the case. Indeed, around the early 1960’s the site was overgrown and unkempt, a place of odd happenings and bizarre urban myths.

The main players in the case, David Farrant and Sean Manchester, continue to disagree about both the events that led up to the mass vampire hysteria in 1970 and the role that the other played in them. This is unsurprising, hailing as they do from two diametrically opposed belief systems. Manchester was a devout Catholic with an almost zealous need to destroy what he perceived as an insidious spiritual evil, while Farrant and his associates practised Wicca and sought to contact the entity in an attempt to find out exactly why it walked among the ivy clad tombs at night. Around this time the media, looking to capitalise on the resurgence of public interest in horror films, took the nameless spectre that haunted Swain’s Lane and re-branded it the Highgate Vampire.

The police were adamant that Farrant was at best a public nuisance and at worse a vandal, desecrating the resting places of the dead while performing, as they saw it, black magick. Manchester, however, seems to have avoided the worst of the authorities ire, even though he claims in numerous interviews that he did indeed drag a casket out from the interior of a derelict Neo-Gothic mansion somewhere on the borders of Highgate, before burning the contents to ash. Questions have to be raised as to why this went unpunished, and why Farrant, who was never proven to have opened a single grave, would be treated so shamefully as the case progressed. In hindsight, it seems to have indeed come down to a simple issue of religious intolerance.

The first major incident of public disorder, the mass vampire hunt which took place on Friday the 13th of March 1970 involved hundreds of would be Van Helsings. Faced with the terrible damage which this caused within the grounds of the cemetery, it was little wonder that the authorities would attempt to take as hard a line as necessary to get the situation under control. Farrant was first arrested during this period, for supposed vampire hunting, though the case would be dismissed by Judge Christopher Lea shortly afterwards due to lack of evidence.

His reprieve would be short lived, however. Someone was still going to have to pay the price for the hysteria caused by the continued events at Highgate, and unfortunately for Farrant, that person was destined to be him. While Manchester managed to stay just below the attention of the law by virtue of his more mainstream religious beliefs, David’s openly Wiccan attitude did not gel well with the heavily conservative social outlook of the time. Just as it had been in the Middle Ages, a witch had to be burned to alleviate the stress of the villagers who had been so pained by the ongoing media circus surrounding the case, and in the end that is exactly what happened.

Despite the fact that the actual Witchcraft Act of 1735 had been replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951, decriminalising the claim to possess magickal powers and instead punishing those who used it to deceive others for profit, the state still demanded it’s pound of flesh. Farrant was rearrested and officially charged with a laundry list of minor crimes when nothing more serious could be made to stick. These included multiple counts of interfering with remains in tombs, conspiracy to damage property in the cemetery between 1971 and 1974, unlawful and malicious damage to a memorial to the dead, theft of sheets from Barnet General Hospital, possession of his father’s old service revolver and the sending of supposed voodoo dolls to two police officers too.

Farrant was found not guilty of the majority of the charges relating to human remains, including one supposedly involving a corpse in a car, but he received two years in prison for a final count of this based on flimsy photographic evidence staged at the request of a journalist. He also received two more for the voodoo dolls along with a further six months for the malicious damage charge, even though this was in reality nothing more destructive than chalk used to draw a magickal symbol on the floor of a vault. He also faced a month for the revolver and eight months for the sheets, both of which were eventually made concurrent with the other sentences.

The fact that he saw nothing evil about the pleasures of the flesh and the inherent beauty of the female form no doubt enraged his detractors further, especially when certain photographs involving skyclad ceremonies taken in the cemetery itself later came to light. This delighted the selfsame press who had already dubbed him not only an ‘Occult Weirdo’ but also the ‘King of Black Magic’ around that time. If anything, Farrant’s willingness to accept people on face value, especially journalists, would prove to be his biggest mistake, and one that led to his eventual downfall. The media smelt blood, and as he faced jail again they happily twisted the knife in headline after headline.

Considering that the maximum penalty proscribed by law under the earlier Witchcraft Act was only a single year in prison, it is bizarre to think that Farrant was initially faced with almost five times that. It is worth reiterating here that while he was convicted of some of the offences listed above, at no point was David actually found guilty of directly handling human remains. Instead, what we eventually end up with are charges relating to trespassing in a cemetery after hours, a minor offence that very rarely results in a custodial sentence. The court system, however, wasted no time in dressing it up as something dark enough to put a nail the troublesome occultist’s coffin once and for all.

Now behind bars, Farrant continued to fight his corner from inside the prison system. He eventually resorted to a hunger strike in an effort to make his jailers treat him with the same basic human dignity as the other, non-Wiccan inmates. His requests to see his high priestess in the same capacity that any other inmate would see their own priest was denied, outgoing letters were censored and eventually stopped, and his calls for appeals were quashed at every opportunity by grey suits from the Home Office who seem to have taken an oddly direct interest in the case.

As to exactly why this was no one seems to know, though it is sensible to suggest that Farrant was seen as some form of deviant after all the lurid media coverage, and treated accordingly. At one point he was even placed in a cell for a time with a Christian inmate who had killed his wife for supposedly being a witch. It is hard to see the authorities, even back then, getting away with putting a prisoner in danger in the same manner if the issue was one relating to two more readily accepted and obviously opposed spiritual practices. Yet witchcraft was not a recognised religion at the time, and as such its practitioners were not protected in the same manner.

Seven weeks into his hunger strike, and some two years and eight months in to his sentence, Farrant was finally released. Despite a concerted effort to clear his name, there would be no admission by the press that they had falsified evidence or embarked upon a blatant smear campaign against him. This is especially telling when one realises that the vandalism in the cemetery, both pseudo-satanic and otherwise, continued while David was in prison. Soon it became increasingly clear to anyone that thought of themselves as an impartial observer that the police had indeed got the wrong man. Yet few dared rally to his cause, no doubt because of the continued hate campaign waged against the supposed ‘King of Black Magic’ by that very same press. It is even hinted at that a small number of the journalists who decided to speak out on his behalf, such as Peter Hounam, were warned off of the topic by the Home Office, though this is uncorroborated.

At first, that claim seems to be highly unrealistic, if not wholly paranoid on the part of Farrant. Yet when it is realised that the Ministry of Defence was actively engaged in utilising both the tabloids and the idea of organised satanism to discredit paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland around the start of the 1970’s, things take a much darker turn. According to a study carried out by Professor Richard Jenkins, military intelligence officers actively sought to falsify ritualistic evidence and leaked stories of black masses to the press. This was done in an effort to create a perceived link between the Troubles and an otherworldly evil among the mostly Catholic population. Thus, if there is any truth in David’s claims of censure, it can only be guessed as to exactly what strategic gain was created by throwing a lone Wiccan to the wolves in a leafy North London suburb.

And so we are faced with an injustice delivered upon a fellow witch by a cold and unfeeling judicial system, in response to the howlings of a rabid press who discarded the truth in short order when faced with a story too fantastical to be real. Farrant was no angel, true, and he certainly played up to the cameras where possible, but throughout the case he comes across as a person far more inquisitive than hedonistic. Both he and Manchester showed a similar attitude to the events as they unfolded, yet only David was punished for his involvement in the end. As with Crowley years before he was designated a scapegoat by the public at large, though unlike the self styled Great Beast he did not actively seek such vilification.

Had the Highgate Vampire case happened a mere twenty years later, around the early days of the internet and the rise of technopaganism, his imprisonment would have been seen for exactly what it was: a witch trial in all but name. He would have had the safety net provided by a concerned group of like minded individuals able to swap notes and mobilise to his defence. Sadly, that was not the case. Farrant still seems to be a relatively unwelcome figure at the fringes of pagan society even today, and few seem either interested or willing to explore the case any deeper than the headlines. It is worth reminding these people, however, that in many ways Farrant’s conviction and subsequent campaign to clear his name was an important stepping stone towards the grudging public acknowledgement of the rights of the many Wiccans and pagans that would follow him into the 21st Century.