Duncan, Helen

Helen Duncan

Helen Duncan (1897–1956) was a spiritualist and physical medium whose conviction on flimsy charges of witchcraft for mediumistic fraud eventually led to the repeal of Britain’s Witchcraft Act of 1735. The repeal cleared the way for the public practice of witchcraft and made it easier for spiritualist mediums to function in the open. Duncan was tried twice; the media called her second “the trial of the century.” Spiritualist Maurice Barbanell was among her defenders. Barbanell said Duncan was the “victim of a gross miscarriage of justice.”

Helen Duncan was born Victoria Helen Macfarlane on November 25, 1897, in Callender, Perthshire, Scotland. She received no formal schooling. She married Henry Duncan and had nine children, three of whom died in childbirth.

Like most physical mediums, Duncan was gifted from childhood and was renowned for her abilities by the 1920s. Also, like many mediums, she suffered repeated health problems, among them a lifelong condition of diabetes. During the 1930s and 1940s, she travelled around Britain giving Séances. Sitters said she could produce amazing Materializationsin which luminous Ectoplasm would appear to emanate from her mouth, nose, and ears and take on forms of the dead. Her materializations that were photographed looked fake, however, and contributed to the accusations of fraud levelled against her.

Her first Spirit Guide, “Matthew Douglas,” had spirits speak through a Trumpet. Douglas was replaced by “Albert Steward,” also known as “Albert Stewart,” early in Duncan’s career.

Duncan was not enthusiastic to subject herself to Scientific study, which may have bolstered accusations of fraud by critics. She did submit to sittings conducted by the London Spiritualist Alliance (LSA) in 1931. She produced copious quantities of Ectoplasm, some of which were described to be like coiling snakes, and which materialized into forms. Duncan sat in her Cabinet bound into uncomfortable positions and once even in the nude with female witnesses. Her clothing was ejected from within so that the other sitters could see that she had no garments hiding any substances.

Nonetheless, the LSA was not impressed and found evidence for possible regurgitation. For example, once Duncan left behind a towel with a pattern matching the Ectoplasm she had produced. Her final sitting for the LSA ended badly. She and the sitters swallowed a blue dye. No Ectoplasm was produced—the only time Duncan failed to do so at an LSA test Séance.

Harry Price was among others who investigated Duncan. He claimed she regurgitated swallowed cheesecloth and had a second stomach like a cow. Duncan submitted to X-rays, which showed her stomach and esophagus to be normal.

In 1933, Duncan was charged with fraud over the materialization of a dead child and was brought to trial in Edinburgh. She was accused of manipulating a woman’s vest in order to produce the appearance of Ectoplasm. She was convicted.

Duncan continued to practice Mediumship. After the start of World War II, she had a steady business of the bereaved seeking to contact their dead loved ones. Duncan caught the attention of authorities again in 1941 when she allegedly conjured up a dead sailor at a Séance in Portsmouth. She said that his hatband bore the name HMS Barham. The battleship Barham had been sunk off Malta—but not even family members knew about the disaster because the Admiralty had decided to keep it secret in the interests of morale.

Upset by the revelation from Duncan, people demanded an explanation from the Admiralty, which complicated matters by stalling for three months before making an official announcement.

As a result, authorities monitored Duncan for the next two years. With the approach of the D-Day invasion by Allied troops, it was feared that she might clairvoyantly “see” the planned landing sites in Normandy and make them public in advance.

Under the Witchcraft Act of 1735, Duncan was charged with witchcraft for pretending to conjure the dead with tricks. At her seven-day trial at the Old Bailey in London in 1944, more than 40 witnesses testified as to their belief in her powers. Even so, she was an unsympathetic figure: fat, coarse, and ungainly. The Crown argued that she was a fraud and “an unmitigated humbug who could only be regarded as a pest to a certain of section of society.”

Duncan offered to stage a Séance for the judge and jury to Demonstrate her abilities. The judge rejected the idea, claiming it would be a trial by ordeal that would harm the defense. Then the judge left the decision to the jury, who also said no. The judge declined to allow Duncan’s X-rays of her normal stomach and esophagus to be shown at the trial.

Duncan was convicted and sentenced to nine months in Holloway prison. She declared as she was led to the cells, “Why should I suffer like this? I have never heard so many lies in my life.” Her words echoed those of countless accused witches in Britain, Europe, and America who in earlier times had gone to jail or to their executions under false accusations.

Her case became a cause célèbre, attracting the attention of Winston Churchill, who was interested in spiritualism. Churchill was so angered by the trial that he wrote to the Home Secretary, “‘Let me have a report on why the 1735 Witchcraft Act was used in a modern court of justice. What was the cost to the state of a trial in which the recorder was kept so busy with all this obsolete tomfoolery?”

In 1951, Parliament repealed the 1735 Witchcraft Act, making Duncan the last person in Britain to be convicted and jailed for the crime of witchcraft.

After the war, Duncan resumed her mediumship, but went into decline. She broke away from the Spiritualists’ National Union, who had been among her staunch supporters, and she drank heavily. On October 28, 1956, police raided a Séance she was conducting at a private house in West Bridgford, Nottinghamshire. Two police officers posed as sitters. Other police arrived at the home and violently entered and tore apart Duncan’s cabinet in a frantic search for incriminating evidence of props. Duncan reportedly was shocked out of her trance, considered dangerous and potentially even life-threatening for a medium. A doctor arrived and treated her for shock. She also reportedly had burns on her stomach, caused by the sudden interference with Ectoplasm production.

The sitters were interrogated, and no overwhelmingly incriminating evidence was found. The police told Duncan she would not be charged with fraud if she came “clean.” She refused to buckle.

Duncan returned to Edinburgh, where she entered a hospital to be treated for diabetes and heart trouble. She was released after three weeks and died in her own home on December 6, 1956. Her supporters claimed she was “murdered” by the Nottingham police, but no charges were ever brought.

In 1998, the 100th anniversary of Duncan’s birth, a campaign was launched to clear her name and have her pardoned. However, the Criminal Cases Review Commission examined the case and decided against referring it back to the Appeals Court. Spiritualists planned formal petitions.

Barbanell, editor of the spiritualist newspaper Psychic News, said he witnessed clouds of swirling Ectoplasm emit from Duncan on different occasions, and he also felt the materialized spirits. He said he was present once when the medium and sitters ingested the blue dye and Duncan produced white Ectoplasm. Once he was allowed to touch it and found that it felt “bone-dry” and “stiff.” Barbanell also said that Duncan had the ability to dematerialize things and once made a letter inside a sealed envelope disappear.

SEE ALSO:

FURTHER READING:

  • Barbanell, Maurice. This Is Spiritualism. London: Spiritualist Press, 1959.
  • Cassirer, Manfred. Medium on Trial: The Story of Helen Duncan and The Witchcraft Act. Stanstead, England: PN Publishing, 1996.
  • Philip Johnston, “Campaign to clear name of wartime ‘witch.’” The Daily Telegraph, January 31, 1998, p. 3.

SOURCE:

The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits– Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – September 1, 2007

Helen Duncan (1898-1956) was a British Spiritualist whose conviction on flimsy charges of witchcraft led to the repeal of Britain’s Witchcraft Act of 1736, thus clearing the way for the public practice of Witchcraft.

Helen Duncan, a Scotswoman, was renowned for her natural mediumistic abilities by the 1920s. During the 1930s and 1940s, she travelled around Britain giving Séances. Audience members said she could produce materializations in which luminous Ectoplasm would appear to emanate from her mouth and take on the form of the dead.

Like other mediums of her day, Duncan was investigated by authorities. In 1933, she was convicted of fraud over the materialization of a dead child. She was accused of manipulating a woman’s vest in order to produce the appearance of Ectoplasm.

Duncan continued to practice mediumship. After the start of World War II, she had a steady business of the bereaved seeking to contact their dead loved ones.

Duncan caught the attention of authorities again in 1941 when she allegedly conjured up a dead sailor at a Séance in Portsmouth. She said that his hatband bore the name HMS Barham. The battleship Barham had been sunk off Malta — but not even family members knew about the disaster because the Admiralty had decided to keep it secret in the interests of morale.

Upset by the revelation from Duncan, people demanded an explanation from the Admiralty, which complicated matters by stalling for three months before making an official announcement.

As a result, authorities monitored Duncan for the next two years. With the approach of the D-Day invasion by Allied troops, it was feared that she might clairvoyantly “see” the planned landing sites in Normandy and make them public in advance.

Under the Witchcraft Act of 1735, Duncan was charged with witchcraft for pretending to conjure the dead. At her seven-day trial at the Old Bailey in 1944, more than 40 witnesses testified as to their belief in her powers. The Crown argued that she was a fraud and “an unmitigated humbug who could only be regarded as a pest to a certain of section of society.”

Duncan was convicted and sentenced to nine months in Holloway prison. She declared as she was led to the cells, “Why should I suffer like this? I have never heard so many lies in my life.” Her words echoed those of countless accused witches in Britain, Europe and America who in earlier times had gone to jail or to their executions under false accusations.

Her case became a cause celebre, attracting the attention of Winston Churchill, who was interested in Spiritualism. Churchill was so angered by the trial that he wrote to the Home Secretary, “Let me have a report on why the 1735 Witchcraft Act was used in a modern court of justice. What was the cost to the state of a trial in which the Recorder was kept so busy with all this obsolete tomfoolery?”

In 1951 Parliament repealed the 1735 Witchcraft Act, making Duncan the last person in Britain to be convicted and jailed for the crime of witchcraft.

After the war Duncan resumed her mediumship. In November 1956, police raided a Séance she was conducting at a private house in West Bridgford, Nottingham- shire. Duncan reportedly was shocked out of a trance, which her supporters claimed led to her death five weeks later. But she was also overweight and diabetic and had a history of heart trouble.

In 1998, the 100th anniversary of Duncan’s birth, a campaign was launched to clear her name and have her pardoned. However, the Criminal Cases Review Commission examined the case but decided against referring it back to the Appeal Court. Spiritualists planned formal petitions.

The repeal of the 1736 Witchcraft Act is one of the most significant events in the emergence of Wicca. It enabled Gerald B. Gardner to publish his groundbreaking books about his own practice of Witchcraft, and enabled interest in the subject to come out into the open. By the 1960s, Wicca was growing and expanding and was being exported to other countries.

SEE ALSO:

FURTHER READING:

  • Cassirer, Manfred. Medium on Trial: The Story of Helen Duncan and the Witchcraft Act. Stanstead, Eng.: PN Publishing, 1996.
  • Johnston, Philip. “Campaign to clear name of wartime ‘witch.'” The Daily Telegraph. Jan. 31, 1998, p. 3.
  • Valiente, Doreen. The Rebirth of Witchcraft. London: Robert Hall, 1989.

SOURCE:

The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – Copyright © 1989, 1999, 2008 by Visionary Living, Inc.

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