Helen Duncan: Britain’s Last Witch?

Scotland has a dark history when it comes to witches and witchcraft. King James VI, later King James I of England, had a macabre obsession with persecuting alleged witches. It was under his reign some of the worst atrocities occurred; some even suggest he himself was involved in the torture of accused witches. Over a period of around 200 years Scotland persecuted upwards of 6000 people accused of witchcraft- three times that of their English counterparts [1].

It is fitting, therefore, that the last person in Britain imprisoned for witchcraft was a Scots woman. Only, despite what some of her modern supporters may claim, she wasn’t actually tried as a witch, nor imprisoned for witchcraft. The reality is far more complex than a kindly old grandmother persecuted for her gifts.

Victoria Helen McCrae Duncan, known publicly as simply Helen Duncan, was born Victoria MacFarlane in Perthshire, Scotland on the 25th of November 1897 [2]. From an early age Duncan allegedly exhibited supernatural skills and powers of spirit communication.

Duncan was known for the physical manifestation of spirits and spirit energy in the form of both the emitting of ectoplasm and fully realised physical entities. It was from 1928 that Duncan was first being shown up as having less supernatural abilities than she claimed. During one of her séances, photographer Harvey Metcalfe produced clear images that Duncan’s supernatural manifestation was little more than a doll wrapped in a blanket [3].

Over the course of six months in late 1931, early 1932, The London Spiritualist Alliance examined Duncan’s ectoplasm manifestations and discovered it to consist of cloth, muslin and in some cases egg white which she regurgitated on demand [4]. When the Alliance put a control in place- namely requiring her to swallow a tablet which would result in the dyeing of any regurgitated substance- and as a result on that occasion she was unable to produce ectoplasm [5].

Despite these early exposures, it wasn’t until 1933 that Duncan was finally brought before a court. On January 6th Duncan was performing a séance in Edinburgh, and as with previous performances, she brought forward her spirit guide, Peggy. At this point a member of the audience lunged forward, grabbing the spirit as the lights were turned on, to discover it was again a fabricated doll. As a result, Duncan was arrested, charged with fraudulent mediumship and fined £10- at Edinburgh Sheriff Court [6].

Duncan had come to the attention of the public, and specifically Harry Price, the renowned psychic investigator. Price, despite exposing fake mediums [7] and being a magician, could be compared to modern debunker James Randi if it were not for one very important difference. Price believed some mediums were genuine [8]. This makes Price a somewhat reliable voice when it comes to Helen Duncan. Considering his belief in the paranormal, Price would have endorsed Duncan had she been genuine, but alas he was not fooled, and wrote about an encounter he had with her which was later published in Paul Tabori’s book The Art of Folly [9] :

At the conclusion of the fourth séance we led the medium to a settee and called for the apparatus. At the sight of it, the lady promptly went into a trance. She recovered, but refused to be X-rayed. Her husband went up to her and told her it was painless. She jumped up and gave him a smashing blow on the face which sent him reeling. Then she went for Dr. William Brown who was present. He dodged the blow. Mrs. Duncan, without the slightest warning, dashed out into the street, had an attack of hysteria and began to tear her séance garment to pieces. She clutched the railings and screamed and screamed. Her husband tried to pacify her. It was useless. I leave the reader to visualize the scene. A seventeen-stone woman, clad in black sateen tights, locked to the railings, screaming at the top of her voice. A crowd collected and the police arrived. The medical men with us explained the position and prevented them from fetching the ambulance. We got her back into the Laboratory and at once she demanded to be X-rayed. In reply, Dr. William Brown turned to Mr. Duncan and asked him to turn out his pockets. He refused and would not allow us to search him. There is no question that his wife had passed him the cheese-cloth in the street. However, they gave us another séance and the “control’ said we could cut off a piece of “teleplasm” when it appeared. The sight of half-a-dozen men, each with a pair of scissors waiting for the word, was amusing. It came and we all jumped. One of the doctors got hold of the stuff and secured a piece. The medium screamed and the rest of the “teleplasm” went down her throat. This time it wasn’t cheese-cloth. It proved to be paper, soaked in white of egg, and folded into a flattened tube… Could anything be more infantile than a group of grown-up men wasting time, money, and energy on the antics of a fat female crook” [Tabori, 1961]

Duncan continued to be exposed during séances, in fact the reports are so numerous and accounts so frequent, that there is any support for her today is confusing. There was however, one specific séance that has given her acclaim in psychic circles for years, one séance that some claim to be the first step on her road to imprisonment. The séance of 1941, in the city of Portsmouth, and the spectre of a drowned sailor.

In November 1941, Britain was at war with Germany. Frequent air raids were devastating the landscape, destroying homes and families and drawing a dark curtain over the green and pleasant land. During the First World War mediumship interest increased and it was at that time that the Ouija Board was adopted as a spirit communication device, whereas previously it had been a simple parlour game [10]. It is therefore understandable that during this second great conflict, people like Helen Duncan would draw a crowd. During her Portsmouth séance, Duncan brought forth the spirit of a young sailor who claimed to have been killed in the sinking of the ship HMS Barham. Standing there in the room he explained the attack, dressed in uniform complete with HMS Barham hat band [11]. The key point of this incident is the claim that the sinking was top secret, no one knew, and as a result the Navy started to pay more interest in Duncan’s activities [12].

However, there are issues relating to Duncan’s account. The level of secrecy needs to be addressed. If it is true that no one knew outside the higher levels of the Navy and Government it would at least make the account interesting. Alas, it wasn’t quite the secret we are to believe. In the first instance, the fact the ship had been attacked was not hushed up, being reported quite openly in the Times [13]. Add to this the fact the families of all 861 men lost means the people knowing of the actual sinking could number in the thousands [14], and the number of people knowing of an attack on the vessel includes at least the readers of the Times newspaper. Even if news of the sinking had not reached her, the publicly available information means Duncan could at least have been aware of an attack. One other point of contention is the identifying hat band- not only was this found in her possession but at this stage in the war, and for obvious reasons, identifying marks such as hatbands were not used, beyond simply saying “HMS” [15].

It wasn’t even this incident that resulted in her arrest and trial. Her run in with the law didn’t occur until 3 years later and her arrest came about as a result of, once again, her spirit manifestations turning out to be fraudulent. In 1944 Duncan was exposed at a séance pretending to be the manifested ghost herself- a step up from her previous dolls [16]. It was this that saw her in the dock, tried under the Witchcraft Act of 1735 (though some sources date it 1736). And it is this association that garners her the reputation as last person imprisoned for witchcraft. Her charges all related to séances conducted between late 1943 and early 1944 [17]

Except the Witchcraft Act of 1735, especially the section under which Duncan was tried, dealt with frauds and not actual witchcraft claims. It prosecuted those claiming falsely to communicate with spirits [18]. So once again, Duncan was in the dock accused of deception. It is also worth noting that of the seven charges leveled against her in court, only two of them related to the Witchcraft Act specifically. The remainder were a mix of claiming money under false pretenses and public mischief [19]. Found guilty, Duncan was sentenced to 9 months in prison [20]. Duncan was not alone in her sentencing either. She stood trial with three other people- her manager and the couple who had organised the séance [21]. Her manager was sentenced to four months imprisonment and the Homers, the couple organising the séance, though found guilty were believed to have been in good conscience and simply victims of Duncan themselves. As a result they received a suspended sentence [22].

The trial was poorly handled by her lawyer, Mr Loseby, in that he seemed at times unaware of the details of the Witchcraft Act, refused to have Duncan give evidence yet complained that she had no option to take the stand –he had only wanted her to be cross examined and not give testimony [23]. It is also worth mentioning that of his large number of witnesses he did call, many of them were not present at the event for which Duncan stood trial, being brought in only as satisfied clients [24]. There have also been criticisms that the Judge – Sir Gerald Dodson- would not allow Duncan to give a demonstration of her abilities, the reason for this however, was actually to protect her.

“It was also suggested that Mrs. Duncan should be allowed to give a demonstration of her powers. Well, as I have said already, if this had taken place and nothing had appeared, Mrs. Duncan would have been condemned even before she had been tried. It would have been in effect a reversion to the dark ages, and to something very akin to trial by ordeal” [Duncan, Roberts, Normanton. 1945]

Dodson also, in his sentencing, made it abundantly clear this trial had nothing to do with genuine witchcraft abilities, nor was it about restricting the rights of Spiritualists to practice:

you have been found guilty of conspiring together to commit an unlawful act, namely, of pretending to recall spirits of deceased persons in a visible and tangible form; the emphasis, of course, is upon the word “pretending”. Whether genuine manifestations of the kind are possible, the verdict of the jury here does not decide, and this court has nothing whatever to do with any such abstract questions. The jury found that the methods adopted by you in the exhibitions covered by the charge amounted to a fraud upon those who witnessed them.” [Duncan, Roberts, Normanton. 1945]

It is suggested that the case had an impact on the Witchcraft Act being repealed and replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act [25]. Certainly it was an outdate law- Mr. Maude for the prosecution alludes to this in his opening remarks of the trial [26] – it needed updating, and this did happen. But Duncan was not arrested nor imprisoned for being a witch. Like so many times in her career, Duncan had been exposed as a cheat. Despite the sentencing, Duncan was again arrested in 1956, though she was not charged [27]. It was shortly after this that she died, with many accusing the police of causing a “psychic burn” in her stomach after interrupting a trance [28]. However, Duncan had been in poor health for some time, the prison sentence likely took its toll and she was diabetic [29]. She died in 1956 aged 59.

In recent years the fight to have her posthumously exonerated has stepped up, with petitions aimed at the Government in England. These attempts were not successful [30]. As with all alleged mediums, there are those that believed she was genuine, and the exposures glossed over or dismissed [31]. However, even if she only used trickery to aid and support her genuine psychic abilities it does leave us with two scenarios- the best case scenario is she was a genuine psychic who used fraud and deception some of the time. Worst case scenario she was entirely fraudulent in all actions. Neither of those scenarios should endear her to the psychic community.

It is important that we accept Duncan’s position as exposed fraud. It is not uncommon to hear people state that some psychics are frauds but not all, and though as a skeptic I don’t believe in supernatural abilities, those that do, do themselves and the psychics who genuinely believe they have gifts a huge disservice by clinging to Helen Duncan. It is not possible to have it both ways- it can not be claimed some psychics are frauds, but when they are exposed as such cries of conspiracy and miscarriage of justice are given. That Winston Churchill allegedly visited her in prison [32] and thought the whole affair tomfoolery is not in itself enough to show Duncan was anything but an exposed fraud. Someone claiming paranormal gifts, and being good at performing them- though clearly Duncan was not the best as she was constantly caught out- needs to be exposed if they are doing so fraudulently. It is only then that a serious dialogue on the existence of psychic powers can be had, and a middle ground between sceptics and believers reached. Instead of supporting Duncan, and viewing her as a martyr, we should, I believe, be angry and reject her as a charlatan who brings any discussion on apparently genuine psychics into disrepute. Might psychic abilities exist? There is always a possibility, but one thing is for certain, Helen Duncan is not a suitable poster child for the advancement of psychical research. Helen Duncan was a fraud.

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For a complete list of references and source, click here.

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