I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Helen Duncan was born in Scotland in 1897 and is reported by BBC History to have shown signs at an early age of being able to contact the spirit world.
“A prominent feature of her sittings,” says the British news organization, “was her ability to emit ‘ectoplasm’ from her mouth during her trances―a stringy white substance that is supposed to give form to spirits and allow them to communicate.”
Skeptics say ectoplasm is cheesecloth or some other fabric that is cleverly produced as a conjurer might pull a rabbit out of a top hat.
Séances Held for Bereaved
Duncan married a cabinet maker who had been injured in World War I. Her family’s genealogical website notes that “She had 12 pregnancies, but only six children survived. To sustain this large family and a disabled husband she worked in the local bleach factory by day and [did] her spiritual work and domestic duties by night.”
In the 1920s, there was a high demand for her séances; Britain had just come through the battlefield carnage of World War I and there were many people anxious to know how a loved one might be doing on the other side. For a small consideration, Helen Duncan was happy to provide assurances.
Helen Duncan’s Reputation Spread
According to the family, during her séances, Duncan was said to be able to make images of dead people appear through ectoplasm “in physical form” and speak to and touch “their earthly relatives.”
News of her psychic gifts spread and soon Helen Duncan was travelling the length and breadth of Britain charging customers for demonstrations of her skills.
BBC History reports that “Duncan was accepted as a minister to a sizeable network of spiritualist churches and private homes.”
Harry Price was an eminent psychic investigator who did not find Duncan’s abilities convincing. However, on a website devoted to Price’s work, his skepticism does not seem to have deterred Duncan’s followers: “She holds what amounts to an emotive position in contemporary spiritualism … nearly fifty years after her death.”
Medium Runs Afoul of the Law
Duncan got into trouble in the early 1930s. The Morning Post newspaper called her a hoaxer and Harry Price’s National Laboratory of Psychical Research, having examined her spirituality under controlled conditions, pronounced her a fraud.
Writing in The London Review of Books, (an article reprinted in The Guardian) Hilary Mantel relates that in 1933 at an Edinburgh séance ectoplasm appeared in the form of a person Duncan called “Peggy.” The medium “was surprised by a sitter who made a grab at her, turned on the lights, and found her rapidly concealing ‘Peggy’ under her clothes. ‘I’ll brain you, you bloody bugger,’ Helen shouted; she was prosecuted for fraud and fined ten pounds.”
However, despite these setbacks, her business continued to prosper.
The Sinking of HMS Barham
World War II provided Duncan with a whole new generation of grieving relatives. To be near her clients she moved to Portsmouth, one of the Royal Navy’s premier bases.
The BBC recounts how “In 1941, the spirit of a sailor reportedly appeared at one of her séances announcing that he had just gone down on a vessel called the Barham.”
The battleship HMS Barham had indeed been sunk by torpedoes in the Mediterranean in 1941 with a loss of more than 850 lives. However, the tragedy had been kept secret by the British government, which now grew concerned that a medium seemed to know about it. Was she a spy?
While the general public knew nothing about the sinking of the Barham, everybody in the navy dockyard would have known. No doubt, Ms. Duncan picked up the story from a sailor or dock worker.
However, intelligence staff began to keep a watch on Helen Duncan with the aim of building a case against her. Better to have her locked away that spreading stories that might damage wartime morale.
The Trial of Helen Duncan
It was not until 1944 that the authorities pounced in the form of a police raid on one of Ms. Duncan’s séances. The approach of the D-Day landings had put a special case of the jitters into the allied spies.
She was hauled into court and charged under the Vagrancy Act, which was the normal means of dealing with mediums; a charge that would produce a small fine and a stiff talking to from a magistrate.
But, higher authority took an interest, and Duncan was taken to London to face trial in the Old Bailey. New charges were placed under the Witchcraft Act of 1735 in which there was a section covering fraudulent “spiritual” activity. After an eight-day trial, she was convicted of the Witchcraft Act charge and sentenced to ten months in prison. She was dragged out of court yelling: “This is all lies, why are they doing this to me?”
On her release, she promised not to hold any more séances but happily continued doing so. In November 1956, police raided what they supposed was another of Helen Duncan’s performances; a month later she died at the age of 59. Believers in her powers claim that her spirit still returns.
- Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a man who thought there might be some validity to spiritualism, called the charges against Helen Duncan “obsolete tomfoolery,” and wondered why, with the country engaged in maximum war effort, authorities were taking action against a supposed witch. But, the intelligence community trumped even the prime minister.
- The Witchcraft Act under which Helen Duncan was convicted was repealed in 1951 and a campaign to have her exonerated is said to be near success.
- In 1727, Janet Horne became the last person in Britain to be executed for practicing witchcraft. Her neighbours accused her of using her daughter as a pony and riding her to the devil. Although showing signs of senility, Janet Horne was convicted of being a witch; she was stripped, covered with tar, paraded through the town of Dornoch, Scotland, and burned at the stake.
- “Helen Duncan.” Harrypricewebsite.co.uk, undated.
- “Unhappy Medium.” Hillary Mantel, The Guardian, May 1, 2001.
- “The Helen Duncan Story.” Clan Duncan, undated.
- “Scotland’s Last Witch.” BBC, September 19, 2014.
- “Britain’s Last Witch Helen Duncan Could Face Exoneration after 60 Years.” Adrian Lee, The Express, November 2, 2016.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on March 15, 2017:
Wasn't aware that witchcraft ever met with such harsh punishment. These stories are interesting.
Suzie from Carson City on March 14, 2017:
"Witchcraft," which people felt warranted a law to be declared against it and caused individuals to be raided, arrested & jailed~~even tortured and burned at the stake!! My word! WHO were the truly evils ones there?
This is very fascinating, Rupert. Yet today, Mediums, Psychics, Clairvoyants and Tarot Card readers are everywhere, making quite a healthy living with their magic. This is one of those many unique mysteries that human beings either believe wholeheartedly without question or quickly dismiss like yesterday's trash. Perhaps some very antiquated laws still exist in a few places that forbid these practices but they're surely not considered a Capital Offense.
In fact, less than an hour from where I live is the lovely, quiet Village of "Lilly Dale,~An all-Spiritual Community, " in which one may reside only if they are authentic Spiritualist Mediums and official members of the Spiritualist Church & firm believers of it's Tenets. I have visited numerous times. There's much to enjoy there, not the least enjoyable of which is the peaceful, immaculate and Old World environment, gourmet cafes and unique gift shops, all situated on the shores of Cassadaga Lake.
You can learn all about Lilly Dale with a simple Google search.
Your Witch's History lesson is priceless, Rupert. Thank you. Paula