Helen Duncan



Helen Duncan (1897 – 1956) was a Scottish medium, best known as the last person to be convicted under the British Witchcraft Act of 1735. Duncan was born in Callander, Perthshire, northwest of Stirling, in November, 1897. The daughter of a cabinet-maker, she made her name as a medium by offering seances in which she appeared to summon the spirits of recently deceased persons by emitting ectoplasm from her mouth. A mother of six and the wife of a wounded veteran, she also worked part-time in a bleach factory. In 1931, Duncan's method was examined by the London Spiritual Alliance.

After an initial positive review, both that Alliance and Harry Price denounced her as a fraud, alleging that she previously swallowed all the material she emitted from her mouth and used other forms of deceit to trick seance participants. Her defenders claimed to have witnessed events that could not be explained by trickery. In 1934, during a seance in Edinburgh, a sitter made a grab at one of her materialisations. The police were called, and the "spirit" was found to be a stockinette undervest. She was found guilty of fake mediumship at Edinburgh Sheriffs Court and sentenced to a £10 fine or one month in prison.

Duncan's apologists have later claimed that the verdict was not "guilty" but the peculiar Scottish verdict of not proven. But if this were the case, she would not have been sentenced. During World War II, Duncan held a seance in Portsmouth at which she indicated knowledge that HMS Barham had been sunk. Because this fact had been kept from the public, the British Admiralty chose to attempt to discredit her.

Police arrested her after another seance. She was initially arrested for vagrancy, a minor offence. Soon, however, the charge was increased, and she faced first conspiracy and then witchcraft charges. The seeming overzealousness of this prosecution may be explained by the mood of near-paranoia surrounding the impending Battle of Normandy. There were also concerns that she was exploiting the recently-bereaved. It should be noted that the government did not believe she had practised witchcraft; the 1735 statute covers fraudulent "spiritual" activity.

Duncan's trial for witchcraft was a minor cause célèbre in wartime London. A number of prominent people, among them Alfred Dodd, testified that they were convinced that she was authentic. Duncan was however, barred by the Judge from demonstrating her alleged powers as part of her defence against being fraudulent. In a memo to the home secretary, Winston Churchill fulminated about the "obsolete tomfoolery" of the trial. However, he could not prevent a guilty verdict. Duncan was jailed for nine months. On her release, Duncan promised to stop conducting seances; however, she was arrested after another one in 1956. She died a short time later.
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