The Last Witch Draft

This is a rough, and not for public consumption

The Last Witch Screenplay

It was as if the child had been launched by a giant catapult, tumbling slowly mid-air, a blur of flailing arms, legs and clothes. Jaws dropped, hands covered mouths, heads turned, following the inevitable downward trajectory. A dull thud signalled the end. Followed by an eerie silence. Pierced by a banshee scream and dozens of voices, yells, cries and shouts.
Helen gripped the hand of her little brother Donald tightly, as he whispered:
“You said that was going to happen.”
“I know, I know.”
Came the plaintiff reply.

The wooden table creaked as eight children fought over a tea of bread and jam sandwiches. Archie returned from the early shift at the factory to find the customary bedlam as his children fought, squabbled and ate. His routine was unshakable, a kiss for his wife, then he cleaned and carefully put away his tools. First his slater’s hammer, forged in a single piece, the twelve inch shaft encased in leather handle, its claw for drawing nails, its sheer edge for cutting slate Aa head with a sharp point at one end for punching holes in slate, and a hammer head at the other. Then the Rip, Stake and Zax. Everyone knew that on no account was his tool box ever to be opened, or played with. They were his livelihood, they were their livelihood. The tools of a master slater.

He had to raise his voice to make himself heard to his wife, Isabella.
“ I hear our Nell’s been making a name for herself again.”
“ I don’t know who you have been listening to, but she saved our Jimmy. It was Nell who told him to get off that swing. No sooner had that poor little boy from No 11 taken his place than the anchors on the cross bar gave way and he flew through the air before falling to the ground, knocked unconscious”
Archie straightened his waistcoat , and reflected. It had been only last week that he had been summonsed by Nells class teacher, Miss Carmichael who was very concerned about her pupil. She told her father the story of what had happened the day before. She had written questions on the blackboard for her pupils to write the answers on their slates. Helen had written the numbers of the questions down only, but the rest of the slate was conspicuously empty as Miss Carmichael patrolled the aisles. Yet when she went to collect the slates, all the questions were answered, correctly, but in unfamiliar handwriting. When questioned Nell could offer no explanation other than that she had called, in desperation, for Spirit to help her, and it had.
The previous week, Nell had caused a huge stir. Mr McBride her history teacher had admonished her for failing to learn dates adequately, much to her embarrassment. As Mr McBride had delivered the lesson, Nell started to write “1066” repeatedly on her slate. As, Mr McBride, talking about the Battle of Hastings uttered the number 1066, he collapsed and died of a heart attack.
Archie and Isabella were torn. Archie’s sister and Isabella’s mother both possessed the psychic gift. It had proved to be a blessing, and a curse. A steady stream of the emotionally unstable, bereaved and curious would visit on a Sunday afternoon giving comfort and release. But naysayers accused them of witchcraft and necromancy.


It was nine o’clock before the exhausted couple went to bed.
“Perhaps we should take her to the doctors, Archie? Maybe she is overcome by delusion?”
“Aye, maybe you’re right, Bel”


Dr Dalglish was thorough, or as thorough as you could be in a room blurred by the aftermath of a dozen Woodbine cigarettes.
“The child seems fine to me Mr and Mrs Macfarlane”
“Mammy, can I ask tell the Doctor something?”
Of course you can
“Don’t go out tonight”

The following morning Shuna woke up ill, Bel hurried to the surgery with her to get an appointment
“I am afraid Dr Dalglish is not in today. His car skidded off the road in the snowstorm and he is in Stirling general hospital”
At church that Sunday Rev Gemmill , who had heard news of Helen’s prediction accused her of consorting with the devil
Born 1897
Married 1916
Isabelle was mortified. The Church bound everything together in Callendar. She had faithfully defended Helen’s corner for years, indulging her psychic idiosyncrasies but this put her in an impossible position. Helen was leaving school, there was no work in the village, and the house was too small for her family which was growing in size, and its abilities to devour family resources. Something had to give. Helen had to go. It was 1913.
Dundee was known as Juteopolis, the world centre for the production of Jute, half the population of Dundee was employed in the trade and she found work in it soon enough at NSF Dundee 51-63 Mains Road. But the tide was starting to turn against the city as Bengal which had once supplied raw Jute to the city now began to finish it itself. Thirty shillings a week did not go far, and so she began to offer psychic readings as a medium to supplement her earnings. The overwhelmingly female work force, making sacks, provided her with a ready supply of custom. A year later King George 5th and Queen Mary, Princess Mary, visited the city on the 10th July 1914, Helen was mesmerised. Eighteen days later the city, the country, the World, was at war and the Jute Mill was converted from making sacks to making munitions within a year, 18-pdr. and 2.75in shells, forgings and burster containers. The pay doubled for work which was dirty and dangerous. There she met on the production lines a woman who was to be her friend for life, Jean Duncan.
It was not long before the casualties of War began to return home and demand for nursing care began to outstrip demand for munitions. Helen swapped cordite yellow stained fingers, for neatly pressed white sheets, it paid less, but was much safer, and met her empathetic needs in a way that a production line could not. One day, Jean invited Helen home for tea, and while she was there, she met her brother, Henry.
Henry’s first words to Helen were, “So we meet at last.”
Helen was dumbstruck, the man who she saw before her was the man she had imagined in her dreams, slender, medium build with a moustache and swept back hair. It was as if she had known him for years. The connection was instant, yet it was not a connection. It was a reconnection. Later on she became convinced that they had shared past lives together. He too had experienced visions of her before they met. He too had an interest in the supernatural and occult. Instead of being shunned for her gifts as she had been by the Rev Gemmill, instead Henry was intrigued by them, and encouraged them.
It was to be a whirlwind courtship. In 1916, the couple married. Henry had volunteered for the Black Watch but been subsequently invalided out of the army after rheumatic fever caused heart damage. A resourceful, industrious man he became a cabinet maker. Helen fell pregnant eight times, with six children surviviong; Bella, Nan, Lillian, Henry, Peter and Gena . With money tight, Helen’s income from her Mediumship work grew from being pin money into a vital income stream for the family as well as repairing and washing bed sheets and shirts for one penny an item and working part time in a bleach mill. Both worked hard to make ends meet, one day Helen had a premonition that Henry was seriously ill. It caused her to rush to his workshop where she found him incapacitated following a heart-attack. Although she managed to get him the help he needed to save his life, his overall health suffered terribly. In turn this caused Helen to expand her mediumship work still further. With Henry’s help she began to explore clairvoyance, clairaudience, psychometry and precognition. Her psychometry work drew increasing numbers to see her and she started to perform platform demonstrations at local Spiritual Churches.
The First World War saw a surge in people seeking mediumistic help. Dundonian men joined the 4th (City of Dundee) Battalion, The Black Watch and fought in the Battle of Loos on 25 September 1915 during which Over two hundred men from Dundee’s Own were killed or injured . Inevitably bereaved relatives sought Helen’s help in contacting those who were lost, increasing still further the demands upon Helen and growing her reputation. Meetings at local churches became packed, increasing her earnings. As she was working she increasingly found herself entering into a trance like state, and began speaking in an assumed voice when delivering her messages from the Spirit World. Initially, Henry thought it was Glossolia, speaking in tongues, something which Edward Irving had explored when setting up the Scottish Apostolic Church a hundred years previously. But Henry was wary, firstly an endorsement was unlikely to do Helen any favours with the Presbyterian Church which had condemned her in Callander, secondly amongst disbelievers it had a historic association with Witchcraft.
Yet it became a feature of her platform performances. Not only would she assume a voice from the Spirit world to provide messages from the other side, she also began to receive messages personally from a Dr Williams who invoked her to seek to physically materialize spirits.
Helen wasn’t sure. What had started as a quirky childhood gift had changed. That moment when Rev Gemmill had thrown her out of his Church had thrown her into something bigger. Much bigger. Bigger than she had anticipated, bigger than she had intended. The odd child in the family. The quiet one on the weaving line. The reliable one on the fuse line. The caring one in the wards. The one no-one noticed. Except now they did. And whatever she did they seemed to want more. The Church invitations had increased, first around Dundee, then Arbroath and Perth, then Stirling and Glenrothes, and biggest of all Edinburgh. Not bad for a wee lass from Callendar.
She had been confident as a medium. She didn’t have to work at it. People called it a gift, it certainly wasn’t something she thought that she had earned. Listening to people, being empathetic, reading people, intuitively understanding, that was what everyone did wasn’t it? She had been surprised when she was invited to her first Church appearance, even more surprised when people turned up, then more people at the next and the next. At first she had just been given a shilling for her trouble, then a florin to cover her expenses, then half a crown, then the proceeds from a hat passed around . It was when she made ten shillings that she realised how much thing had changed. She could make in one evening what it took her two days to earn in the Jute factory. Now the invites were coming in the post every day. The transition from mediumship to trance had been accidental, not planned.
Henry was always by her side. She practiced with friends and neighbours . The results were erratic, but something always came, invariably Dr Williams. It had scared her. He had scared her. A Church President had taught her how to create a protective force field around her to contain the forces which were conjured, Dr Williams himself helped and as the weeks went by, so her confidence grew. As did Henry’s. The halls she performed in had been growing larger. He had started to introduce her to the crowds, as an MC would. The larger the crowds grew so the proportion who received messages reduced. There was only so much time . The money was becoming a vital part of their income. They needed to grow that, they needed to grow their income , they needed to create a show.
As a child Henry had been fascinated by Punch and Judy. The puppet figures, the exaggerated showmanship, the stage. The box.
That was what it was. As a carpenter and cabinet maker he was just making a giant box. A wooden cupboard with curtains on the front, but large enough for a person to sit in. For Helen to sit in. For the energies of Spirit to be amplified, for a portal to the other side to be created, for the black curtains to be drawn back to reveal her, for the lights to shine on her stage, for the curtains to be drawn at the finale. It would create drama, interest and mystery. Provide a focal point beyond a person, to a performance.
Inspired by Dr Williams, and her box, which Henry set up in their front room, Helen, progressed from trance and vocalisation, to producing ectoplasm from her mouth and nostrils akin to a white mist that glowed. Although the spirit voice of Dr. Williams warned Henry that no light must ever be shone on the ectoplasm, as it would endanger Helen. Henry took to using a dim red light for dramatic effect, and to allow the audience to see what was happening. The sessions always drained Helen mentally, emotionally and physically inducing her to eat immediately afterwards. Over time this significantly increased her weight.
The more she practised, the more the ectoplasm became a regular feature of her seances, as did the spirit voice of Dr. Williams. During one session he announced that Helen’s ‘spirit guide’ could now form from the ectoplasm and would look after Helen from then on.To the audiences amazement, the ectoplasm swirled into the shape of an elderly but distinguished man over six foot tall who had an upright stature and an educated voice with a trace of an Australian accent. Always polite and with a sense of humour, he announced his arrival with a request for those present not to be alarmed at the sight of him and introducing himself as Albert Stewart who had been born in Scotland but had emigrated to Australia where he had drowned in 1913. ‘Uncle Albert’ as he became known, became the Master of Ceremonies at séances. He announced to sitters what spirit was about to come out of the cabinet. Sometimes Helen had another spirit guide – a young girl called Peggy who would skip around the room singing songs.
This was the Golden Age of Spiritualism, with international luminaries including politicians and scientists within the movement, as well as Scotland’s own Sir Arthur Connan Doyle. Spiritual Churches abounded, and numbered in the several hundreds. All had a voracious appetite for speakers, mediums and performers. Helen’s reputation spread quickly as materialization mediums were rare, her talent became in great demand.
The word that Helen had developed from a clairvoyant to a materialization medium quickly spread and by the mid 1920’s, Helen’s talent was much in demand, in Scotland, and throughout the United Kingdom. Henry had to deal with mountains of post everyday from individuals and organisations requesting her services. Her rising income enabled her to make local charitable donations increasing her standing further. But success brings problems of its own, as she would come to discover.
The Scottish Spiritualist Society in Edinburgh invited Helen to give regular séances to their members who were impressed and astonished at what they witnessed. So much so, that they presented her with a certificate endorsing her talent. However, when Helen and Henry learned how much the door money was compared to how little they were paid, they refused further engagements.This was the first rift with Spiritualist organisations that continued on and off throughout Helen’s life.

Mary McGinlay maid

  1. The newsroom was the usual hubbub of office gossip, football rivalry, and political titbits. The Jam Tarts continued to do well, but not well enough to challenge the Old Firm. Ramsay McDonald, the Scots lad made good wasn’t anymore. Once lauded he was now a figure of ridicule and derision. The Scotsman had championed him, now they could do little more than chart his tailspin to oblivion as the Great Depression sapped the life out of the country. Archie had joined the paper the week of the Invergordon Mutiny, he had known some of the families. The exhilaration he had felt, with a byline, made him certain he had picked the right career then. As time went on, costs were cut, staff were shed, and obituaries, the stuff of cub reporters in normal times, became his usual task. Editor George Waters had held the chair for a decade, he did so with humour, professionalism and an iron fist. He read out the tasks for the day.
    “Archie, the stiffs, and count yourself lucky I won’t be asking for any quotes”
    Archie flicked through the death notices, Jimmy McCleod, Northumberland St. Community benefactor, local industrialist, survived by a wife and three children, and it was just under a mile’s walk from the office. From the Old Town, across Princess Street, to the New Town. He would claim the price of the bus fare anyway.
    Isla McCleod answered the door, late middle aged, prim, trim with a meticulously maintained grey bob, white blouse, plaid skirt, and sensible brogue shoes. She ushered Archie into the drawing room where she offered him morning tea and began to reminisce about her late husband. It was routine stuff, Archie made scribbled shorthand notes in his notebook. In truth he could have written a generic obituary in advance now, and just cut and pasted the crucial bits
    “Of course I knew he was going to die that night”
    “How?”
    “Nellie Duncan told me”
    Archie stopped scribbling notes as if by remote command
    “Nellie Duncan? The clairvoyant?”
    Her name had swirled around the newsroom over the past years, a fringe figure, a figure of fun, but when a few column inches needed filling she seemed to pop up. In 1926 she developed from clairvoyant to physical medium by offering séances in which she claimed to be able to permit the spirits of recently deceased persons to materialise, by emitting ectoplasm from her mouth.

In 1928 the photographer Harvey Metcalfe attended a series of séances at the house of Duncan. During a séance he took various flash photographs of Duncan and her alleged “materialization” spirits including her spirit guide “Peggy”.[6] The photographs that were taken reveal the spirits to be fraudulently produced, such as a doll made from a painted papier-mâché mask draped in an old sheet.[7]

In 1931, the London Spiritualist Alliance (LSA) examined Duncan’s method. It was observed that upon opening her mouth, the ectoplasm gradually began to be formed on the tip of the tongue until it resembled a cherry. It then swelled up, sometimes to the extent of covering the medium’s body. When the ectoplasm retreated into the mouth, it diminished at the tip of the tongue into the likeness of a cherry, as it first appeared. None of the substance appeared at any time in the pharynx, disproving the idea that the ectoplasm was regurgitated cheesecloth, which is a cotton cloth.[8] The latter hypothesis was put forward by the psychical researcher Harry Price, who examined her at the National Laboratory of Psychical Research (NLPR). Because of this accusation, she was persuaded by Harry Price to swallow a tablet of methylene blue before one of her séances to rule out any chance of this trick being performed. Contrary results of this experiment have been recorded. One account stated that no ectoplasm appeared.[9] The investigation report concluded that the “material was swallowed by Mrs Duncan at some time previous to the sitting and subsequently regurgitated by her for the purpose of exhibition.”[10] The other account stated that she still produced clean, white ectoplasm.[11]

A piece of ectoplasm from one of Duncan’s early séances was obtained and secured in a bottle of distilled water. It was given to Harry Price, who was originally enthusiastic about the sample. However, when he gave the sample to a chemist for analysis it was discovered to be made from egg white mixed with chemicals. Price later duplicated Duncan’s ectoplasm with similar substances.[12]

Duncan with fake ectoplasm made of cheesecloth and a cut out face from a magazine.
In 1931 Price paid Duncan £50 to perform a number of test séances. She was suspected of swallowing cheesecloth which was then regurgitated as “ectoplasm”.[4][13] Price had proven through analysis of a sample of ectoplasm produced by Duncan that it was made of cheesecloth.[14] She reacted violently at attempts to X-ray her, running from the laboratory and making a scene in the street, where her husband had to restrain her, destroying the controlled nature of the test. According to Price in a report of the mediumship of Duncan:[12]

At the conclusion of the fourth seance 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 seance 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 seance 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.

Price in his report published photographs of Duncan in his laboratory that revealed fake ectoplasm made from cheesecloth, rubber gloves and cut-out heads from magazine covers which she pretended to her audiences were spirits.[10][15] Psychologist William McDougall, who attended two of the séances, pronounced her “whole performance fraudulent” in an appendix to the report.[16]

Following the report written by Price, Duncan’s former maid Mary McGinlay confessed in detail to having aided Duncan in her mediumship tricks, and Duncan’s husband admitted that the ectoplasm materializations were the result of regurgitation.[10][17]

In a séance on 6 January 1933 in Edinburgh, a little girl called Peggy emerged in the séance room. A sitter named Esson Maule grabbed her and the lights were turned on and the spirit was revealed to be made from a stockinette undervest.[12]

Ian Flemming organises investigation

Theatre critic gives evidence.

My client stands before you in the dock at your mercy, her future in your hands, her mere appearance in this place a travesty.
The legislation under which she faces these unnatural charges dates back almost two hundred years, to the reign of George 11, under a parliament presided over by Prime minister Henry Pelham, before the Americas even sought independence, let alone won it, before the Boston Tea Party, yet today they stand on our shores, not as foes, but as comrades in arms against a common enemy.
In 1753 the Witchcraft act made it a crime for a person to claim that any human being had magical powers or was guilty of practising witchcraft, today in 1944, our newspapers, newspapers which the jury will read every day, carry astrological guidance which so many call upon to guide their daily lives. No newspaper owner stands before us as a purveyor of persons possessing magical powers or witch craft.
As a child in remote Callender ,Scotland she was happy to tend the animals, and look after the children of neighbours.. As a mother of six she has devoted her life to nurturing and protecting. Those attributes, those instincts, drew others to her, others who saw her offering insights and wisdom. Some saw her as gifted, in the same way that millions have their favourite astrologers in the Daily Sketch or Daily Mail newspapers.
Yet with those gifts come other things. Suspicion, hate, envy, jealousy, aspects of the human condition which are anathema to everything Mrs Duncan stands for. She began to receive invites for her wisdom for her gifts, first from further afield in Scotland, then from its fine cities, and then from the towns and villages of England.
As our great country stands, once alone, now with our allies, facing down the Nazi Tyranny we are united. United in our resolve, united in our efforts, united in our commitment and determination, and sadly, and all too often united in our human losses, the price that has to be paid for freedom, for our ultimate victory.
There will not be a single man or woman on the jury who has not been touched by this. The pride in the contributions being made by friend, family and townsfolk, the pain of loss as some suffer the most grievous injuries in our cause, and others pay the ultimate price, with their lives. But their memories live on, their deeds endure, and is it not understandable that some, that many, seek a connection with those who have left us, for those that have departed for that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns? Would we deny anyone their right to seek such comfort, would we deny the right of anyone who could offer such comfort to do so?
My client is the victim of the most outrageous injustice. One night, in Portsmouth, she was invited by those whose loved ones, even now, are keeping our shores safe, and our seas free of Nazi predators stalking our brave boys. When she told of the loss of HMS Barham she did so in sorrow, not malevolence, imparting her gift.
Some have accused her of being a Nazi spy, in which case she should be tried as such. Others, as in here, have accused her of witchcraft. What nonsense.
Does this person stand before you a demon? Does she have a cauldron? Does she draw upon Fillet of a fenny snake, In the cauldron boil and bake;Eye of newt and toe of frog,Wool of bat and tongue of dog,Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing, AAFor a charm of powerful trouble, Like a hell-broth boil and bubble? Or is she merely a woman who people turn to in their hour of need ? Someone who far from frightening others brings comfort?
Does she look like a Nazi spy whose mission is to betray her country to a ruthless, heartless enemy? Or is her mission somewhat more benign, to draw the souls of the living and dead closer together.
Now what you may care to believe about such claims is immaterial. All that does matter is that some seek out comfort, freely, and without coercion, my client offers it, without obligation. For this she faces seven punishable counts: two of conspiracy to contravene the Witchcraft Act, two of obtaining money by false pretences, and three of public mischief.
At a time of great national peril from without, and unscrupulous profiteering from within, you may wish to ask yourself what purpose is served by members of His Majesty’s constabulary addressing themselves to her work?
When Mrs Duncan agreed to serve relatives in the homeport of the Royal Navy fleet, Portsmouth on the evening of January 19 1944,it was a dangerous place to hold any meeting – such was the German Luftwaffe’s intent on reducing Portsmouth to rubble and disable Britain’s ships. But the real danger lay not in a hail of enemy bombs but with the ignorance of the police, For that night, a plain-clothes policeman, who had infiltrated the evening following a tip off, launched a raid to disrupt her seance.
Thus Helen Duncan, together with three of her innocent sitters, were dragged before Portsmouth magistrates and charged with Vagrancy on the basis that she was begging. But how can a woman who was placing herself in mortal danger by visiting the port, who was invited there, and was being paid to attend possibly be begging?
Why was she refused bail? What repeat offence was feared, or danger to the public anticipated? Instead she was sent to London and forced to spend four days in the notorious Holloway women’s prison. It was this same Victorian goal where suffragettes had been forced fed by prison warders, and I put it to you that Mrs Duncan too is a similar such martyr. It is also where the grisly gallows waited for all female murderers, spies and traitors in whose company her detractors sought to place her.
My client was assumed to be a dangerous war criminal . The charge was mooted to be Conspiracy, which, carried the ultimate sentence of death, by hanging, a charge which understandably created great distress. Yet when the absurdity of this fell on the War Office the alternative has proved to be no less bizarre. It is today’s charge of witchcraft , that Mrs Duncan and three of her equally innocent sitters are accused of pretending ‘to exercise or use human conjuration that through the agency of Helen Duncan spirits of deceased dead persons should appear to be present’. And that under the Larceny Act, she stand s accused her of taking money ‘ by falsely pretending she was in a position to bring about the appearances of these spirits of deceased persons’.
You have heard testimony from distinguished members of London Society vouching for Mrs Duncan’s bona fides. You have learned of her celebrity, yet still she finds herself facing these preposterous allegations.

Our daily papers have recorded each day of this trial, selling hundreds of thousands of copies extra as a result. Is that the sign of a vagrant? Do the public support traitors and spies? Members of the Jury we live in a modern age. An age where no ocean cannot be crossed, no wilderness remains untamed, no challenge is to great for our scientists and engineers, and no enemy so powerful that they cannot be subjugated by our wit, resourcefulness and skill. An age which hitherto, we will all have believed that the days of witches and broomsticks, cauldrons and spells, witch hunters and the stake were in the dim distant past.
Yet we were mistaken, the prosecution has fallen back two hundred years to charge my client, but has failed to return to the twentieth century thereafter. We live in an age in which Helena Blavatsky and Annie Beasant, great Spiritualists, have had the ear of monarchs, and Heads of State. In which our finest writers like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have engaged the world with their thoughts of, and connections to, the next world. Where astronomers such as Claude Flammarion, scientists like William Crookes and Nobel Prize Winners Richet test the world with their beliefs, their intellect and their propositions. But the prosecution are still in the age of the ducking stool, the scolds bridle, and the stake surrounded by tinder.
Members of the jury, do not hold a flame to this bonfire of absurdity, instead it is my earnest hope that you will let justice, and common sense, prevail by acquitting my client.

Last Witch Notes

Official Site

My grandmother was a materialization medium. At sittings, she produced ectoplasm which formed into spirits. These spirits were sufficiently clear for their physical characteristics to be recognized. They would often converse about things only the deceased person and the sitter knew about – sometimes in foreign languages.

In this way, Helen Duncan brought comfort to many by proving to them that their departed, loved ones were still in some form of existence and watching over them.

However, in 1944, during World War II, my grandmother was convicted of conspiracy to ‘pretend to conjure up the dead’ under the Witchcraft Act of 1735.

To this day, debate rages as to whether she was fraudulent or genuine.

Twenty years ago, I decided to find out all I could from family members and sitters as well as the official records.

My research has convinced me that Helen Duncan was a genuine materialization medium – the like of which had never seen before or since.

I believe her gift was so accurate that, with D-Day looming, the British government felt it necessary to imprison a woman who they feared might unwittingly betray wartime secrets. Helen had already done this on two occasions by materializing spirits of sailors from HMS Hood and HMS Barham – before the loss of those ships was made public.

If, having read the accounts of what took place at her sittings, you also believe a miscarriage of justice took place, please sign the on-line petition to exonerate Helen Duncan – an extraordinary woman and a wonderfully caring mother and grandmother.

Victoria Helen McCrae MacFarlane was born on the 25th November 1897at Back Row in Callander, Perthshire, Scotland to Isabella and Archibald MacFarlane. Her father’s occupation was a master slater. She was the fourth eldest daughter and one of eight children.

On 27th May 1916, she wed Henry Horne Anderson Duncan. After her marriage, she was known as Nell (or Nellie) Duncan.

As a child, Helen was described as a ‘bonny lass’ but soon began to exhibit some of the psychic abilities that were to cause trouble for her throughout her life.

Once, at school, the teacher wrote some questions on a blackboard and the pupils had to write the answers on their slates. Helen wrote the numbers of the questions down but didn’t know the answers. She prayed for help and to her astonishment the answers appeared on her slate. The teacher saw the answers weren’t in her ‘childish scrawl’ as he put it and accused her of cheating. Helen denied she had copied other children’s answers but couldn’t explain how the answers had appeared.

In another instance, Helen kept thinking of the number ‘1066’. Later, during a history lesson, as the teacher was talking about the Battle of Hastings and wrote 1066 on the blackboard, he suffered a heart-attack.

As both Helen’s parents had female relations who had had the ‘gift’ they were unconcerned by their young daughter’s psychic ability at first as they thought she would grow out of it. However, as Helen grew-up her ability seemed to develop and grow stronger.

Helen’s mother eventually became so concerned that she took her teenage daughter to the local doctor for him to check if there was anything physically wrong with the girl’s eyesight and hearing. The doctor couldn’t find anything wrong. To Helen’s mother’s embarrassment, Helen warned the doctor not to go out that night but he did and his car skidded off the road in a snowstorm.

Helen’s prediction of the village doctor’s demise was condemned by the local Presbyterian minister who accused her of “consorting with the devil”.

This embarrassment for the family coupled to the fact there was no work locally meant Helen left the family home at just 16 years of age.

She went to Dundee where, at the outbreak of World War One, she worked in an ammunitions factory then in a jute factory and later as a nurse.

Whilst working as a nurse, her best friend, Jean Duncan, introduced Helen to her family including her brother Henry Duncan. Apparently, Henry’s first words to Helen were, “So we meet at last.” Both had apparently had visions of each other before they met.

Henry had an interest in the supernatural and instead of suppressing Helen’s talent, encouraged it.

In 1916, the couple married. Henry had been invalided out of the army as rheumatic fever had badly damaged a valve in his heart and he became a cabinet maker. Early married life was a real struggle for the young couple who had little income and an ever-increasing amount of mouths to feed. In total, Helen had six children; Bella, Nan, Lillian, Henry, Peter and Gena as well as two that died in infancy.

During these years, Helen tried to supplement the household income by repairing and washing bed sheets and shirts for one penny an item and also took a job in a bleach mill.

At this time, Helen had a premonition that Henry was in trouble. She rushed to his workshop to find he had suffered a heart-attack. Although she managed to get him the help he needed to save his life, it was obvious he could not work again full-time.

Henry encouraged Helen to develop her psychic talent which at this time included clairvoyance, clairaudience, psychometry and precognition. Helen was able to hold an object and give information about the owner with uncanny accuracy.

Helen would often go into a deep sleep or trance and it was during one of these that the voice of a Dr. Williams told Henry that his wife had the potential to materialize spirits.

This excited Henry but Helen was very wary of developing her talent as little good had come of using it in the past but Helen was always keen to help others and in that era there were plenty of people who had lost loved ones in World War One and sought comfort.

Initial experimental séances with neighbours and friends as sitters were unpredictable and even frightening at times but, by saying a prayer at the start and keeping a Bible to hand, Henry learned from Dr.  Williams how to develop his wife’s talent and keep her safe.

This involved using his carpentry skills to make a ‘cabinet’ – basically a wooden-framed cupboard with black curtains on the front. Helen was to sit inside and the cabinet would harness her energy and act as a type of portal for spirits to materialize and appear to sitters.

Whilst in a trance in the cabinet, Helen began to produce ectoplasm (etheric energy matter) from her mouth and nostrils. Ectoplasm is a white, smoky, mucous substance that can best be described as similar to how one’s breath looks on a cold, frosty morning.

This ectoplasm amazed the sitters who saw it. They described it as like “magical mist” or “living cobweb”.  It glowed bright white and seemed to have a life of its own.

The spirit voice of Dr. Williams warned Henry that no light must ever be +shone on the ectoplasm or it would be extremely dangerous to Helen. But a dim red light was always on during séances so sitters could see what was happening.

One unfortunate side effect of Helen producing ectoplasm was that she felt tired and sick after séances. Being drained in such a way gave her a voracious appetite which led to her becoming very over-weight.

The spirit voice of Dr. Williams announced that Helen’s ‘spirit guide’ could now form from the ectoplasm and would look after Helen from then on.

To the sitter’s amazement, the ectoplasm swirled into the shape of an elderly but distinguished man over six foot tall who had an upright stature and an educated voice with a trace of an Australian accent. Always polite and with a sense of humour, he announced his arrival with a request for those present not to be alarmed at the sight of him and introducing himself as Albert Stewart who had been born in Scotland but had emigrated to Australia where he had drowned in 1913.

‘Uncle Albert’ as he became known, became the Master of Ceremonies at séances. He announced to sitters what spirit was about to come out of the cabinet. Sometimes Helen had another spirit guide – a young girl called Peggy who would skip around the room singing songs.

The word that Helen had developed from a clairvoyant to a materialization medium quickly spread and by the mid 1920’s, Helen’s talent was much in demand.

Every morning, the postman would bring requests from all over the UK for sittings and invitations for Helen and Henry to visit and hold séances.

The small fees sitters gladly paid Helen was often spent on the sick children of neighbours as medical care was expensive and there was no free National Health Service. She was a kindly soul to those that were civil to her but was not one to take abuse without giving the abuser a piece of her mind.

The Scottish Spiritualist Society in Edinburgh invited Helen to give regular séances to their members who were impressed and astonished at what they witnessed. So much so, that they presented her with a certificate endorsing her talent. However, when Helen and Henry learned how much the sitters paid to attend these séances compared to how little they were paid they refused to be exploited.

This was the first rift with Spiritualist organisations that continued on and off throughout Helen’s life.

By now, Henry had virtually become Helen’s manager. In 1931, he was so confident in Helen’s talent that he agreed to let Mr. Harry Price witness and test her psychic abilities. Price was a prolific author and media personality of the day who had written several best-selling books on the supernatural and was director of National Laboratory of Psychical Research the President of which was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. However, Price was a complete cynic and was determined to prove that Helen was a fraud – as many mediums of the day undoubtedly were.

Helen had a kindly and compassionate nature. She believed she was using her talent to help people so a smarmy cynic like Price who, on first meeting Helen, announced that he thought all mediums were “guilty of fraud until proven genuine” was never going to end amicably and so it proved.

Price witnessed a number of controlled test séances. At one, he took a sample of ectoplasm which dissipated in the bottle.

Price’s conclusion was that the spirits that Helen produced were no more than trickery with a sheet of cheesecloth. As Helen always wore a black gown and was examined naked by women before every sitting who confirmed that no piece of cloth was concealed about or inside her body, Price’s theory seemed unlikely. Price claimed she regurgitated the cheesecloth and then used it like a puppeteer to create the spirits. He also claimed Helen’s refusal to be X-rayed led him to believe she might have a second stomach.

It is surely improbable that so many sitters would have been duped by such an obvious trick but in 1934 Price’s theory gained some vindication.

In 1934, during a séance in Edinburgh, a sitter, Miss Maule who was a friend of Price, grabbed at Peggy – one of Helen’s spirit guides. The resulting commotion led to the police being called. When they arrived, Miss Maule alleged the ‘spirit’ was an undervest. Helen claimed the garment had been taken from her travelling bag and was simply an attempt to discredit her. She was offered the chance to bring charges against Miss Maule but refused.

At Edinburgh Sheriff Court, Helen was accused of both affray and fraud. She pleaded ‘not guilty’. Although eight people were present at the séance only three appeared for the prosecution. Even Miss Maule admitted that at the same time as the spirit guide Albert was talking, Helen could also be heard breathing deeply whilst in her trance. Nobody disputed several spirits appeared and spoke and when Miss Maule created the disturbance Helen was seen to be sat behind the cabinet before she was woken out of her trance.

Dr. Marguerite Linck-Hutchinson, M.B., Ch.B., D.H.P. had examined the naked Helen before the séance and supervised her as she dressed in her black séance garments. Dr. Linck-Hutchinson was shown the seized vest and asked if Helen could have used it to replicate the young spirit guide Peggy. Her reply was, “It would have been impossible to produce anything like what was seen using a garment like that.”

Price’s regurgitation theory was also put to and dismissed by the doctor who said Helen could not have regurgitated the amount of material that would have been required to produce the spirits that had materialized. She also said she had been present from the time Helen had a meal until the time of the séance so it wouldn’t have been possible to regurgitate material without also vomiting up the meal of which there was no trace.

Mr. Ernest W. Oaten also appeared for the defence. He was President of the International Spiritualist Federation and the editor of the leading Spiritualist journal ‘Two Worlds’. In his evidence, he said he had attended eighteen séances given by Helen, “I arranged most of the sittings and laid down conditions which made fraud utterly impossible without detection. The spirits were intelligences separate and distant from Mrs. Duncan and were decidedly different in form.”

However, the outcome was that Helen was sentenced to pay a ten shilling fine. Helen’s supporters later claimed that the verdict on the fraud charge was the Scottish verdict of ‘not proven’ and that the conviction was for the affray offence alone.

Despite this, Helen’s popularity and reputation grew. In the 1930’s and 1940’s she was travelling the length and breadth of the UK holding hundreds of séances in Spiritualist churches and in homes. Her materializations astonished thousands as well as bringing them comfort that their loved ones had moved on to some form of after-life. ‘Dead’ loved ones appearing in a physical form, speaking to and touching their earthly relatives was considered by many as proof of survival of one’s soul.

The onset of World War 2 increased the demand for séances even more from those who had lost family or friends on active service or from the Blitz. And in 1941 Helen held two séances that were to have serious repercussions for her later in the war.

The first took place in Edinburgh on 24th May. Amongst the sitters was a Brigadier Firebrace who had been with Ian Fleming in Moscow in 1939 and had connections with the Intelligence Services. During the course of the séance, spirit guide Albert claimed a British battleship had just been sunk.

Later, at the same séance, Albert also claimed that the Russians would enter the war on the side of the allies (which seemed highly unlikely as they’d signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany in 1939) and that the war would end with two big bangs.

After leaving the séance, the Brigadier listened to the news to hear if a battleship had been sunk but there was no mention of one. He then rang the Admiralty and the official denied it. However, in the morning the same official rang Brigadier Firebrace back and confirmed that HMS Hood had been sunk by the Bismarck and asked to know how Firebrace had known before even some sections of the Admiralty did.

In November of 1941, Helen held a séance in Portsmouth – the home port of the Royal Navy.  The spirit of a sailor in uniform materialized complete with the name ‘HMS Barham’ on his cap band. Sitters heard him declare to his mother (who was one of the sitters) that his ship had been sunk with a great loss of life. When the shocked lady said that couldn’t be correct as she hadn’t been notified, the spirit sailor claimed she would be in three weeks time before fading away.

The sailor’s mother was so concerned that she contacted the Admiralty who sent two officials round to question her.

The Admiralty knew through German Enigma machine radio communications intercepted by Bletchley Park that the Germans thought only minor damage had been caused to HMS Barham yet the truth was the ship had blown up a few minutes after being hit by a U-boat torpedo.

As the Royal Navy wanted the German Navy to think HMS Barham was still a threat in the Mediterranean rather than laying on the bottom of it, they had gone to great lengths to keep the sinking from the public. In fact, it was not officially announced until late January 1942.

But, because of Helen’s séance, rumours spread around Portsmouth that HMS Barham had been sunk.

One of the points raised about this story is that no sailor wore the name of his ship in his cap band during wartime so how could the sailor’s spirit be genuine? However, those that attended Helen’s séances and saw spirits of loved ones say that they appeared in the form and dressed in the way that the sitter would most readily recognize them and how they most fondly remembered them. Not how they were at the time of their death.

Most importantly for Helen, it alerted the authorities that she was a potential security risk. Despite this, no action was taken against Helen and she gave séances until January 1944.

At this time, D-Day was being planned at Southwick House near Portsmouth. It was vital for the allies that the invasion was successful as the allied command was aware that Germany was developing flying pilotless aircraft (which became known as ‘doodlebugs’) and even rockets. If the invasion failed, then Germany might have sufficient time to complete these weapons and snatch victory from defeat.

Training for D-Day had begun and gone badly. Many troops had died and it was feared that if a spirit of one of these soldiers had appeared at one of Helen’s séances and told the sitters how and where he had died then an astute sitter might make an educated guess as to when and where the invasion might take place. All the preparations hinted that it would be a beach landing not an attempt to take a French port as the Germans expected.

Paranoia about security reached new heights and, after the disclosures at Helen’s séances three years previously, it was decided by Chief Constable West of Hampshire Police that ‘better safe than sorry’ was the most sensible course of action. West didn’t know whether Helen’s séances were lucky guesses or had some validity but for the sake of all the soldiers preparing to storm the French coast he was determined to lock Helen out of harm’s way.

On 19th January 1944, Helen was invited to hold a séance at a Master Temple above a chemist shop in Copnor Road in Portsmouth.

The séance was raided by the police and Helen was initially arrested under section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824, a minor offence tried by magistrates.

Helen’s fame at the time was reflected by the fact the BBC interrupted coverage of the Russian advances on the Eastern front to announce the news of her arrest.

However, the authorities regarded the case as more serious, and used section 4 of the Witchcraft Act 1735, covering fraudulent ‘spiritual’ activity, which was triable before a jury. Charged alongside her for conspiracy to contravene this Act were Ernest and Elizabeth Homer, who hosted the séance in Portsmouth, and Frances Brown who went with Helen to help with the séances when Henry was too ill to travel.

Helen’s trial for ‘pretending to conjure up evil and malicious spirits’ fraudulent witchcraft became a cause célèbre in wartime London making the headlines in all the daily newspapers.

The police had expected to find evidence of fraud such as a sheet but had failed to find anything. Their case was therefore based on the logic that Helen must have pretended to conjure up spirits of the dead as no such thing existed.

It meant Helen had to prove the existence of life after death in order to be aquitted.

Helen’s defence barrister Loseby, himself a Spiritualist, saw Helen’s trial as an opportunity to promote Spiritualism by holding a séance in court and letting the jurors and everyone else present believe their own eyes.

However, this was initially refused by Judge Dodson.

The trial lasted between 23rd March and 3rd April 1944. The prosecution produced only five witnesses – two of which were policemen involved in her arrest. The case made against Helen was undeniably weak and unconvincing.

The defence produced 49 witnesses including a District Sessions Judge, a Reverend, a doctor, a Wing Commander and a theatre critic. These witnesses claimed the spirits that they had seen appear ranged from old people to young children and even pets. Many had divulged family information that Helen could not possibly have known or talked in foreign languages that Helen didn’t speak. Many had seen Helen apparently asleep in her cabinet and the spirits at the same time.

Loseby knew that legally there was no limit on the number of defence witnesses he could call and certainly there was no shortage of volunteers. He thought he would wear the Judge down into allowing a séance in court and eventually he succeeded. (A few days after the trial, Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote to the Home Secretary describing the Witchcraft trial as “obsolete tomfoolery”)

Judge Dodson offered the jury a demonstration of a séance if they would think such a demonstration helpful. A condition of doing this was an agreement that Loseby would call no more defence witnesses.

This plan failed as the jury declined the offer of a séance. It is thought that, as they had been brought to London from Portsmouth and were away from their families, they were more eager to return home than to prolong a trial that was continually interrupted by bombing.

Unsurprisingly, Helen was found guilty but then a surprising twist emerged. Anxious to get her the maximum possible prison sentence for the crime which was one year, Chief Constable West described Helen as a “national pest and unmitigated humbug” and divulged that she had disclosed the sinking of the two ships before they were public knowledge.

How Helen could be guilty of ‘pretending’ to conjure up spirits and, at the same time, condemned for being so accurate that she was a threat to national security West never explained.

Certainly there was little mercy shown to Helen. She was sentenced to nine months and sent to Holloway prison. A subsequent appeal was rejected.

By this time, Helen was a sick woman. She was very over-weight and suffered from diabetes. The conditions in Holloway were grim and the food poor and Helen seriously doubted she would survive the sentence. Fortunately, her health actually improved during her incarceration.

Whilst she was locked away, a doodlebug hit the prison and set light to it. Helen’s cell filled with smoke but was unlocked just in time.

Helen’s sentence was reduced to six months and on September 22nd 1944, she was released.

Ironically, as she took a cab to the railway station to get a train back to Edinburgh, she went past the Old Bailey and saw it had also been hit by a bomb which had blown the scales of justice off from the iconic statue on the roof.

Helen was one of the last women to be convicted under the Witchcraft Act 1735, which sought prosecution of anyone who falsely claimed to be able to procure spirits or tell fortunes.

On her release, Helen vowed to stop conducting séances.

However, the loss of life during World War Two saw a similar demand for séances as World War One had created.

In 1951, the Witchcraft Act was repealed partly due to pressure from Winston Churchill. In its place came the Fraudulent Mediums Act, and some four years later in 1954, Spiritualism was officially recognised as a proper religion by an Act of Parliament.  Spiritualists everywhere knew why and were pleased that whilst frauds would be properly prosecuted the authorities would stop harassing true working Mediums.

They were wrong because in 1956 another of Helen’s séances held in Nottingham was raided by police.

Once again, no evidence of fraud was found but in their ignorance the police had committed the worst possible sin of physical phenomena – that a medium in trance must never, ever be touched or a light be shone on the medium. If this happens the ectoplasm returns to the medium’s body far too quickly and can cause immense – sometimes even fatal – damage.

And so it was in this case. A doctor was summoned and discovered two second degree burns the size of saucers on Helen’s stomach and breast. In severe pain and shock, she was rushed to hospital.

The burns never healed and five weeks after that police raid she was dead. Helen passed away on 6th December 1956.

Since her death, Helen has been considered a martyr amongst mediums and Spiritualists. A campaign for Helen to be awarded a posthumous pardon has been continually rejected to this day.

Henry Anderson Horne Duncan was born on 8th May 1896 in Dundee, Scotland. His parents were Henry Horne Duncan and Annie Mearns who became Annie Duncan on their marriage.

From his childhood, Henry was a relatively frail person prone to sickness.

He also had an interest in psychic phenomena from a young age. When one of his brothers, William, failed to come home, a psychic had a vision that Henry’s brother had drowned in Dundee docks. Sadly, this proved to be correct.

World War One saw Henry volunteer for active service but life in the squalid trenches soon took its toll. He contracted rheumatoid arthritis and was invalided out in 1916 suffering from a weak heart which meant he couldn’t do anything too strenuous.

However, whilst serving in the trenches, he had a vision of a young girl. The girl who turned out to be his sister Jean Duncan’s best friend – Helen Duncan.

When the couple first met Henry’s first words to Helen were, “So…we meet at last.”

Henry and Helen married in 1916 and lived in Dundee. . Early married life was a real struggle for the young couple who had little income and an ever-increasing amount of mouths to feed. In total, they had six children; Bella, Nan, Lillian, Henry, Peter and Gena as well as two that died in infancy.

One day, Helen had a premonition that Henry was in trouble. She rushed to his workshop to find he had suffered a heart-attack. Although she managed to get him the help he needed to save his life, it was obvious he could never work again full-time.

Henry encouraged Helen to develop her psychic talent which she did over the years. He used his carpentry skills to build her a ‘cabinet’ inside which Helen went into her trances and from which the materialized spirits emerged.

Henry acted as a kind of manager for Helen organizing séances and replying to correspondence. He also played the role of an early ‘house husband’ looking after the couple’s children.

Throughout his life, he was regularly ill. So much so, that Helen often went to séances with a female companion to look after her rather than her husband.

Henry was always supportive of Helen’s psychic talents although sometimes he was perhaps too keen to have her endorsed as genuine. The degrading tests conducted by Harry Price being a prime example.

When Helen was imprisoned in 1944, Henry wrote to the King, the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary impressing on them that his wife was innocent, had always tried to help people and pleading for her to be released.

When Helen died in 1956 from burns sustained when a séance in Nottingham was raided, Henry was devastated. He wanted to take legal action against the police but as they claimed they hadn’t actually physically touched his wife he wasn’t able to.

Henry always considered his wife to be a woman of major importance who could provide the answer to one of the most intriguing questions ever asked – is there life after death.

Even after Helen’s death, Henry insisted his wife was no fraud and he did all he could to clear her name.

Henry Duncan died on 18th October 1967.

Despite her declaration with in a few months she felt that strong call from the Spirit World to continue her work and was soon spending more time than ever in trance state. Perhaps too much so, for the quality of her seance’s since imprisonment appeared to have had deteriorated, even to the point where Spiritualism’s governing National Union actually withdrew her diploma at one stage.

Helen’s Spiritualist friends say that during his visits to her cell, Prime Minister Churchill made promises of making amends to Helen. True or speculative, it is a fact that in 1951 the damning 1735 Witchcraft Act which had been used to imprison Helen was finally repealed.

In its place came the Fraudulent Mediums Act and some four years later in 1954 Spiritualism was officially recognised as a proper religion by formal Act of Parliament. And Spiritualists everywhere knew why and they rejoiced that whilst frauds would be properly prosecuted the authorities, especially the police, would stop harassing true working Mediums.

They were wrong.

In November 1956 police raided a séance in the midlands city of Nottingham. They grabbed the presiding medium, strip searched her and took endless flashlight photographs.. They shouted at her that they were looking for beards, masks and shrouds. But they found nothing.

The medium was Helen Duncan and in their ignorance the police had committed the worst possible sin of physical phenomena; that a medium in trance must NEVER, ever be touched. As the Spirit World’s teachers have patiently explained so many times when this happens the ectoplasm returns to the medium’s body far too quickly and can cause immense – sometimes even fatal – damage.

And so it was in this case. A doctor was summoned and discovered two second degree burns across Helen’s stomach. She was so ill that she was immediately taken back to her Scottish home and later rushed to hospital.

Five weeks after that police raid she was dead.

During the second world war Helen was in great demand from anxious relatives, especially those who had lost close family on active war service.

One of many such sittings took place in a private house in the home port of Britain’s Royal Naval fleet, the southern coastal city of Portsmouth on the evening of 19th January 1944.

It was a dangerous place to hold any meeting – such was the German Luftwaffe’s intent on reducing Portsmouth to rubble and disable Britain’s fleet.

But the real danger lay not in a hail of enemy bombs but with the skepticism and fear of the establishment. For that night her séance was disrupted by a plain clothes policeman who blew his whistle to launch a raid.

Police hands made a grab for the ectoplasm but the spirit world was too quick for them and it dematerialised quicker than they could catch.

Thus Helen Duncan, together with three of her innocent sitters, were taken up before Portsmouth magistrates and charged with Vagrancy.

At this hearing the court was told that Lieutenant R. Worth of the Royal Navy had attended this séance suspecting fraud. He had paid 25 shillings (then worth about $5) each for two tickets and had passed the second ticket to a policeman . It was this policeman who had made the unsuccessful grab for the ectoplasm, believing it to be a white sheet.

But the subsequent finger tip search of the room immediately after the raid failed to discover any white sheets.

Even if she had been found guilty under this charge the maximum fine at that time would have been some five shillings ($1) and she would have been released. But, very oddly Helen was refused bail. Instead she was sent to London and forced to spend four days in the notorious women’s prison called Holloway.

It was this same Victorian goal where suffragettes had been force fed by prison warders and where the grisly gallows waited for all female murderers, spies and traitors.

Meanwhile an anxious establishment debated the best charge to lay against this dangerous war criminal Helen Duncan. One her first appearance before the Portsmouth magistrates she had been charged under the catchall act of Vagrancy. This was later amended to one of Conspiracy which, in wartime Britain, carried the ultimate sentence of death by hanging.

By the time the case had been referred to England’s central criminal court – know as the Old Bailey – the charge had been changed yet again.

Churchill was no stranger to psychic phenomena. Recalling the events of the Boer War when he had been captured, had escaped and seeking sanctuary he explained in his autobiography how he was “guided by some form of mental planchette (a Spiritualist tool) to the only house in a 30 mile radius that was sympathetic to the British cause”.

Had he knocked on the back door of any other house he would have been arrested and returned to the Boer commanders to be shot as an escaping prisoner of war. Many years prior to this he had been ordained into the Grand Ancient Order of Druids. Throughout his life he experienced many times when his psychic sixth sense saved his life.

Churchill was exceeding angry indeed when the Helen Duncan case began. He penned an irate ministerial note to the Home Secretary; “Give me a report of the 1735 Witchcraft Act.

What was the cost of a trial to the State in which the Recorder ( junior magistrate) was kept busy with all this obsolete tomfoolery to the detriment of the necessary work in the courts?”

But his civil servants were over-ridden by the all powerful intelligence community. D-Day was coming and their levels of paranoia had reached an all time high and even a Prime Minister’s anger was to be set aside.

Helen Duncan, mother of nine and part time bleach factory employee was considered a risk and they wanted her out of the way when the Allies struck. Her case was a transparent conspiracy to frame her ‘in the interests of national security’.

Meanwhile, having served her full sentence, Helen Duncan was released on 22 September 1944, vowing never to give another séance.

The shocked Spiritualist movement immediately demanded a change in the law. They felt that she had been prosecuted to stop any leakage of classified wartime information.

As one of many, many examples during 1943 and once more in that ungrateful city of Portsmouth, Helen Duncan had given a séance during which a sailor materialised reporting that he had gone down with His Majesty’s Ship “Barham”, whose loss was not officially announced until three months later.

But, the defence right of appeal to the House of Lords, Britain’s highest court of appeal, was denied. The establishment had achieved its objective and certainly did not want one single inch of further publicity.

Helen was sent back to London’s Holloway prison, that Victorian monstrosity for female prisoners still being used today.

It was not only the best legal minds in the country that felt this case had been a major miscarriage of justice. So too did her prison warders – they refused to ‘bang her up’.

For the entire nine months of her unjust incarceration, Helen Duncan’s prison cell door was never once locked! What’s more, she continued to apply her psychic gifts as a constant steam of warders and inmates alike found their way to her cell for spiritual upliftment and guidance.

And many senior Spiritualists who were close to Helen report, it was not only prisoners and staff who made pilgrimage to the dreaded Holloway Goal. So too did some of her other more notable sitters, including Britain’s Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill himself.

Under this ancient rune Helen Duncan and her innocent sitters were accused of pretending ‘to exercise or use human conjuration’, that through the agency of Helen Duncan, spirits of deceased dead persons should appear to be present’.

But, lest this single charge may falter, the authorities scoured their dusty law precedents for further charges and they found them. One such was the Larceny Act which accused her of taking money ‘by falsely pretending she was in a position to bring about the appearances of these spirits of deceased persons’.

The prosecution were determined to prove Helen Duncan was a fraud. Her trial took place barely a few months before the famous D-Day landings and lasted for seven grueling days. Spiritualists everywhere were up in arms that one of their most treasured and gifted demonstrators should be treated in such a tawdry manner. A defence fund was quickly raised. It was used to bring witnesses from all over the world to testify to her genuine gifts. Because of this her case rapidly became a cause celebré which attracted daily headlines in tabloid and broadsheets alike.

One telling development that this was no ordinary case was that in a rare example of cross border co-operation both the Law Societies (senior legal bar councils) of England and Scotland jointly and simultaneously declared this case to be a travesty of justice.

As a debunking exercise the case failed miserably. Skeptics must have winced at the daily reporting of case after case where ‘dead’ relatives had materialised and given absolute proof of their continued existence.

One Kathleen McNeill, wife of a Glaswegian forgemaster, told how she has attended such a séance at which her sister appeared. Her sister had died some a few hours previously, after an operation, and news of her death could not have been known. Yet Albert, Helen Duncan’s guide, announced that she had just passed over. And, at a subsequent séance, some years later Mrs. McNeill’s father strode out of the cabinet and came within six feet of her to better display his single eye, a hallmark of his earthly life.

Helen with her husband, Henry.

By the penultimate day of this ridiculous trial, the defence was ready to call their star witness Alfred Dodd, an academic and much respected author of works on Shakespeare’s sonnets. Alfred told the court that during 1932 and 1940 he had been a regular guest at Helen Duncan’s home seance’s.

At one of these sittings his grandfather had materialised, a tall, corpulent man with a bronzed face and smoking cap, hair dressed in his customary donkey-fringe. After speaking with his grandson the spirit then turned to his friend Tom and said; “Look into my face and into my eyes. Ask Alfred to show you my portrait. It is the same man”.

Two equally respected journalists, James Herries and Hannen Swaffer then took their places in the Old Bailey witness box – a place where for hundreds of years many a murderer has given evidence and many a witness has pointed an accusing finger. The chain smoking Swaffer, who had already won acclaim as the acerbic uncrowned father of Fleet Street (home of England’s newspaper quarter) and co-founder of the Spiritualist weekly “Psychic News”, told the court that anyone who described ectoplasm as “butter muslim” would be a child. Under a red light in a séance room it would look yellow or pink whilst these spirit forms all displayed a white appearance”.

James Herries, himself a Justice of the Peace, a much respected psychic investigator of some 20 years standing and the chief reporter of the prestigious and influential “Scotsman” broadsheet affirmed that he had seen Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, famed author of the Sherlock Holmes books, himself materialise at one of Helen Duncan’s seance’s. He had especially noted the distinctive Doyle rounded features, moustache and equally unmistakable gravelly voice.

But, wisely or otherwise, the defence had decided that the best test of Helen Duncan’s genuine gifts were for her to give a demonstration of physical phenomena whilst in trance from the very witness box of England’s Central Criminal Courts. This suggestion really did cause a frightened flurry in the ivory dovecots of the establishment. If she pulled it off, they debated, then instead of the censure they sought, her cause would be spread throughout the land and even beyond. This would mean that the famed British legal system adopted by so many former colonies – including America – would be held to total ridicule.

Hurried conferences with the best legal minds were held throughout the night. Their solution was to reject this offer and suggest instead that Mrs. Duncan be called as a witness – thus giving the prosecution an opportunity to cross examine this ordinary Scottish housewife and, in doing so, attempt to destroy her credibility. But Helen’s defence lawyers saw through this ploy. They pointed out that Mrs. Duncan could not testify since she was in a trance state during these seance’s and could not, therefore, discuss what had transpired.

The jury only took half an hour to reach their verdict; Helen and her co-defendants were found Guilty of conspiracy to contravene that ancient 1735 Witchcraft Act but Not Guilty on all other charges.

Portsmouth’s chief of police then described this new ‘criminal’s’ background. Mrs. Duncan was married to a cabinet maker and had a family of six children ranging from 18-26 and she had been visiting Portsmouth for some five years. He then described her as “an unmitigated humbug and pest” and revealed that in 1941 she had been reported for announcing the loss of one of His Majesty’s ships before the fact had been publicly known.

The presiding judge announced a weekend’s delay whilst he considered sentence. Helen herself left the dock weeping in her broad Scottish dialect; “I never hee’d so mony lies in a’ my life”.

The following monday morning the judge declared that the verdict had not been concerned with whether ‘genuine manifestations of the kind are possible . . .this court has nothing whatever to do with such abstract questions’. However he interpreted the jury’s findings to mean that Helen Duncan had been involved in plain dishonesty and for this reason he therefore sentenced her to nine months imprisonment.

When the press started the smears, any story was made up and there were a lot of people who were willing to stand on their heads to denounce the ways of any seance, which they were indoctrinated by their religions into believing was evil.  Thankfully not as we know now, that it is natural for a Physical Medium to be used in such a manner as it is only proving to us all that life continues after our so called death.

What is it the press say :   Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story.

Helen Duncan sat for the London Psychic Laboratory, the research department of the London Spiritual Alliance. a great many times. These were followed in the psychic press by an eager public. In these scrutinized seances Helen produced massive quantities of ectoplasm at each planned and tested gathering. A lot of specimens were obtained by the scientists for analysis, human figures of adults and children appeared clothed in the ectoplasm,  also movements of objects beyond the reach of Helen were observed within each controlled situation. Mrs Duncan was placed nude into a sleeved sack with stiff buckram fingerless gauntlets sewn to the sleeves of her suit. The sack was then sewn in at the back and fastened with tapes and cords to the chair. At the end of the sitting the Medium was often found outside the bag, the seals, tapes and the stitching remaining intact. But as the wider press got wind of the seances that were being monitored and there were no fraud at all to be seen, they started a smear campaign. [what should be realized here, is the press was mainly owned by alleged God fearing people who went to church throughout the week and every Sunday, and the priest had control over their flock at this time, they were not allowed to think for themselves]. This is when the politicians and the authorities took notice of what was happening around Helens seances even though a lot had been to many a seance but had not said so publicly, they needed the peoples votes and the authorities had to keep quiet.

If you think this is a bit far fetched. Look at the instance of Mrs Helen Duncan and the way she died through the hands of the Christian authorities in England. She was deliberately hounded by the authorities from the 1930’s until she died in 1956. But through all this Helen never stopped working hard for the Spirit World, sadly always in constant fear of her seances being interrupted, yet she carried on until the last one where the police again broke into her seance, and caused chaos which ultimately killed her. Please try to read the full stories that are now in print about her life and don’t take too much notice of a lot of the negative propaganda on the net. One book about her is “My Living Has Not been In Vain”, by Mary Armour, the other one that comes to mind is “Two Worlds of Helen Duncan” by Gena Brealey and Kay Hunter. 

Here is a photograph taken during one of her seances where Mrs Duncan is producing a human form, which is formed by the production of ectoplasm.

In 1956 Helen Duncan the Physical Medium, was severely injured and consequently died by the deliberate, forced intervention by the police into one of her Physical Materialisation seances.

A seance was being held in a private room upstairs in a Nottingham chiropodist�s home, the police forced entry gave a massive shock to Helen who was in the cabinet, in an unconscious Trance State, and producing ectoplasm (so “Albert” her guide, who would come through, [he was talking through Helen at the time of the break up of the seance] talk to the audience through Independent Direct Voice box before the Materialization started). Helen was deathly grey, unconscious and bleeding from the mouth when the police carried her out of the cabinet into a separate room and laid her flat out on a couch. The doctor was called, the police at first wanted to take Helen down to the police station, the doctor refused to let them, so the police wanted him to strip her and examine her for masks and muslin cloth in ALL her orifices even in the state she was in. She was also in great pain the police again asked the doctor to come down to the station with her, the doctor again refused. They again tried to insist on taking her down to the police station, the doctor said “I will have no part of it, she is in deep shock,” “Can t you see she is dying.” “She is a diabetic and has a heart problem.” “If you move her she will die”. She died thirty-six days later, I now believe as a direct result of that massive shock to her human bodily system. I can see this death was caused by internal bleeding and psychic burns, knowing what I do now.

All because Helen Duncan was using her gift, the powers from God, the Divine Spirit to comfort people and it was in conflict with the all powerful Christian establishment. Other photographs 

Under this ancient rule Helen Duncan and her innocent sitters were accused of pretending ‘to exercise or use human conjuration’, that through the agency of Helen Duncan, spirits of deceased dead persons should appear to be present’.

But, lest this single charge may falter, the authorities scoured their dusty law precedents for further charges and they found them. One such was the Larceny Act which accused her of taking money ‘by falsely pretending she was in a position to bring about the appearances of these spirits of deceased persons’.

The prosecution were determined to prove Helen Duncan was a fraud. Her trial took place barely a few months before the famous D-Day landings and lasted for seven grueling days. Spiritualists everywhere were up in arms that one of their most treasured and gifted demonstrators should be treated in such a tawdry manner. A defence fund was quickly raised. It was used to bring witnesses from all over the world to testify to her genuine gifts. Because of this her case rapidly became a cause celebre which attracted daily headlines in tabloid and broadsheets alike.

One telling development that this was no ordinary case was that in a rare example of cross border co-operation both the Law Societies (senior legal bar councils) of England and Scotland jointly and simultaneously declared this case to be a travesty of justice.

As a debunking exercise the case failed miserably. Skeptics must have winced at the daily reporting of case after case where ‘dead’ relatives had materialised and given absolute proof of their continued existence. One Kathleen McNeill, wife of a Glaswegian forge-master, told how she has attended such a seance at which her sister appeared. Her sister had died some a few hours previously, after an operation, and news of her death could not have been known. Yet Albert, Helen Duncan’s guide, announced that she had just passed over. And, at a subsequent seance, some years later Mrs. McNeill’s father strode out of the cabinet and came within six feet of her to better display his single eye, a hallmark of his earthly life.

By the penultimate day of this ridiculous trial, the defence was ready to call their star witness Alfred Dodd, an academic and much respected author of works on Shakespeare’s sonnets. Alfred told the court that during 1932 and 1940 he had been a regular guest at Helen Duncan’s home seances. At one of these sittings his grandfather had materialised, a tall, corpulent man with a bronzed face and smoking cap, hair dressed in his customary donkey-fringe. After speaking with his grandson the Spirit then turned to his friend Tom and said; “Look into my face and into my eyes. Ask Alfred to show you my portrait. It is the same man”.

Two equally respected journalists, James Herries and Hannen Swaffer then took their places in the Old Bailey witness box – a place where for hundreds of years many a murderer has given evidence and many a witness has pointed an accusing finger. The chain smoking Swaffer, who had already won acclaim as the acerbic uncrowned father of Fleet Street (home of England’s newspaper quarter) and co-founder of the Spiritualist weekly “Psychic News”, told the court that anyone who described ectoplasm as “butter muslim” would be a child. Under a red light in a seance room it would look yellow or pink whilst these Spirit forms all displayed a white appearance”.

James Herries, himself a Justice of the Peace, a much respected psychic investigator of some 20 years standing and the chief reporter of the prestigious and influential “Scotsman” broadsheet affirmed that he had seen Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, famed author of the Sherlock Holmes books, himself materialise at one of Helen Duncan’s seances. He had especially noted the distinctive Doyle rounded features, moustache and equally unmistakable gravelly voice.

But, wisely or otherwise, the defence had decided that the best test of Helen Duncan’s genuine gifts were for her to give a demonstration of physical phenomena whilst in trance from the very witness box of England’s Central Criminal Courts. This suggestion really did cause a frightened flurry in the ivory dovecots of the establishment. If she pulled it off, they debated, then instead of the censure they sought, her cause would be spread throughout the land and even beyond. And this would mean that the famed British legal system adopted by so many former colonies – including America – would be held to total ridicule.

Hurried conferences with the best legal minds were held throughout the night. Their solution was to reject this offer and suggest instead that Mrs. Duncan be called as a witness – thus giving the prosecution an opportunity to cross examine this ordinary Scottish housewife and, in doing so, attempt to destroy her credibility. But Helen’s defence lawyers saw through this ploy. They pointed out that Mrs. Duncan could not testify since she was in a trance state during these seances and could not, therefore, discuss what had transpired.

The jury only took half an hour to reach their verdict; Helen and her co-defendants were found Guilty of conspiracy to contravene that ancient 1735 Witchcraft Act but Not Guilty on all other charges.

Portsmouth’s chief of police then described this new ‘criminal’s’ background. Mrs. Duncan was married to a cabinet maker and had a family of six children ranging from 18-26 and she had been visiting Portsmouth for some five years. He then described her as “an unmitigated humbug and pest” and revealed that in 1941 she had been reported for announcing the loss of one of His Majesty’s ships before the fact had been publicly known.

The presiding judge announced a weekend’s delay whilst he considered sentence. Helen herself left the dock weeping in her broad Scottish dialect; “I never hee’d so mony lies in a’ my life”.

The following Monday morning the judge declared that the verdict had not been concerned with whether ‘genuine manifestations of the kind are possible . . .this court has nothing whatever to do with such abstract questions’. However he interpreted the jury’s findings to mean that Helen Duncan had been involved in plain dishonesty and for this reason he therefore sentenced her to nine months imprisonment.

The shocked Spiritualist movement immediately demanded a change in the law. They felt that she had been prosecuted to stop any leakage of classified wartime information. As one of many, many examples during 1943 and once more in that ungrateful city of Portsmouth, Helen Duncan had given a seance during which a sailor materialised reporting that he had gone down with His Majesty’s Ship “Barham”, whose loss was not officially announced until three months later.

 But, the defence right of appeal to the House of Lords, Britain’s highest court of appeal, was denied. The establishment had achieved its objective and certainly did not want one single inch of further publicity. Helen was sent back to London’s Holloway prison, that Victorian monstrosity for female prisoners still being used today.

It was not only the best legal minds in the country that felt this case had been a major miscarriage of justice. So too did her prison warders. They refused to ‘bang her up’. For the entire nine months of her unjust incarceration, Helen Duncan’s prison cell door was never once locked! What’s more, she continued to apply her psychic gifts as a constant steam of warders and inmates alike found their way to her cell for spiritual upliftment and guidance.

And many senior Spiritualists who were close to Helen report, it was not only prisoners and staff who made pilgrimage to the dreaded Holloway Goal. So too did some of her other more notable sitters, including Britain’s Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill himself.

Despite her declaration with in a few months she felt that strong call from the Spirit World to continue her work and was soon spending more time than ever in trance state. Perhaps too much so, for the quality of her seances since imprisonment appeared to have had deteriorated, even to the point where Spiritualism’s governing National Union actually withdrew her diploma at one stage .

 Helen’s Spiritualist friends say that during his visits to her cell, Prime Minister Churchill made promises of making amends to Helen. True or speculative, it is a fact that in 1951 the damning 1735 Witchcraft Act which had been used to imprison Helen was finally repealed. In its place came the Fraudulent Mediums Act and some four years later in 1954 Spiritualism was officially recognised as a proper religion by formal Act of Parliament. And Spiritualists everywhere knew why and they rejoiced that whilst frauds would be properly prosecuted the authorities, especially the police, would stop harassing true working Mediums.

They were wrong. In November 1956 police raided a seance in the midlands city of Nottingham. They grabbed the presiding medium, strip searched her and took endless flashlight photographs. They shouted at her that they were looking for beards, masks and shrouds. But they found nothing.

The medium was Helen Duncan and in their ignorance the police had committed the worst possible sin of physical phenomena; that a medium in trance must NEVER, ever be touched. As the Spirit World’s teachers have patiently explained so many times when this happens the ectoplasm returns to the medium’s body far too quickly and can cause immense – sometimes even fatal – damage.

And so it was in this case. A doctor was summoned and discovered two second degree burns across Helen’s stomach. She was so ill that she was immediately taken back to her Scottish home and later rushed to hospital.

 Five weeks after that police raid she was dead.

Footnote:

Helen Duncan’s work for Spirit did not cease with her own passing. In September 1982, she came through the direct voice medium Rita Goold and spoke to her own daughter, Gina, who was delighted to confirm this contact without any doubts. She has since returned many times within Spiritualist Home Circles where she always felt happiest. Indeed on one occasion last year this writer, in his capacity as visiting medium, was privileged to link Mrs. Duncan with her former neighbour.

 We owe her an immeasurable debt of gratitude for her faith and skills and for sharing them so widely and at such an ultimate cost. We owe her further debts for being the scapegoat around whom we could demand – and get – vital changes in the law. But Spiritualism’s premier Heroine and Martyr will never be forgotten whilst there are writers who care sufficiently to pen articles like this one.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Helen Duncan

The strange case of Helen Duncan combines paranormal investigation with government conspiracy, a perfect blend for HPANWO. The case manifests on several levels and there is a lot of contemporary research into it still going on; it continues to arouse considerable controversy even though it came to a head almost seventy years ago. Helen Duncan was a psychic medium from Perthshire, Scotland. She was born in 1897 and died in 1956, and in 1944 she was the last person ever to be imprisoned under the archaic Witchcraft Act of 1735. According to the most prominent sources, she was a clever illusionist using magicians’ tricks; however a new book has recently been written which calls that slur into question and attempt to redeem her, Helen Duncan- The Mystery Show Trial by Robert Hartley, published in 2007 see: http://www.amazon.co.uk/books/dp/0955342082

“Hellish Nell” got her nickname not from her paranormal talents but from her tomboy personality and fiery temper, something that she’d display her entire life. From cradle to grave she had psychic abilities of the rarest kind. She was never very much good at school but she found that if she placed her writing book under her desk for a while and took it out later “somebody” would have written in the correct answers. She also alarmed her classmates and teachers by going into a trance and yelling portents of doom at them. No doubt a Skeptic would say she was suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy, see: http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=9e2_1212867304. However she proved very useful in other circumstances; once when a man got lost in a snowstorm, Helen’s remote viewing assisted a rescue party in finding him. As she grew to adulthood she found a way to control these experiences. She soon became a member of an elite order of mediumship, that of the physical medium; somebody with the ability to produce physical effects in the world around them via psychic means. A lot of nonsense had been written about the history of Spiritualism; contrary to popular belief it did not begin with the Fox sisters, but is something that has always been a part of the human world and probably always will, see: http://hpanwo.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/paranormality-by-prof-richard-wiseman.html. Helen Duncan was no more than the modern equivalent of the shaman or village wise woman; what we today call the “supernatural” was once considered as natural as the air we breathe. She came from a poor family and both she and her husband were too sick to work so she decided to earn a living in the world of seance Spiritualism. She induced “raps”- loud knocking noises, spirit voices and telekinesis- moving objects without touching them. In 1929 she first channelled a spirit called “Albert”, who in his last incarnation on Earth had been a man from Sydney, Australia who had died in 1909. Sitters at her seances also encountered a three year old girl called “Peggy” who had died the same year and worked alongside “Albert” in his contact with Helen. Helen also managed to produce “ectoplasm”, a strange material that issues from a physical medium’s body while in trance, that forms into recognizable shapes, like the faces and bodies of departed souls. In this segment of my new fictional novel, The Obscurati Chronicles, I describe an ectoplasmic emission; scroll down about half way: http://hpanwo-bb.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/obscurati-chronicles-part-13.html

By 1930 Helen had gained a reputation as a highly proficient psychic and her business was booming. Then psychical researchers came knocking on her door anxious to discover if her apparently miraculous powers could be proven true scientifically. In October Helen jumped on a train to England for an expenses-paid trip to the laboratories of the London Spiritualist Alliance. This trip was to prove very troublesome for Helen; she was denounced unequivocally as a fraud and numerous articles were published in the media discrediting her abilities as no more than conjuring tricks. However it’s possible that these articles were biased due to personal issues because, being a guinea pig for the LSA, she signed an exclusivity contract which she subsequently broke, perhaps unwittingly. Maybe she didn’t know it at the time but there was a lot of rivalry in psychical research in those days. The LSA were in stiff competition with a solo maverick in the field called Harry Price; here’s his official website: http://www.harrypricewebsite.co.uk/. Price had initially tendered for the project to research Helen Duncan himself and had been passed over in favour of the LSA. This infuriated him. However he approached Helen privately and offered her a large sum of money to do some sittings in his own laboratory, and to keep this secret from the LSA. Helen agreed. When the LSA found out they hit the roof; Helen was staying in London on their tab and was moonlighting behind their back with their arch-enemy. There must have been some very heated phone calls ringing through to Price’s office and Helen was caught in the middle. It eventually affected her relationship with Price and she had a blazing row with him one day in the laboratory and even struck him physically and walked out. She later apologized and the project continued. Skeptics have made a big deal out of this barney and claim it blew up because Price wanted to have her medically examined and she knew if she allowed this she’d be caught out as a fake; it was a textbook trick of mediums in those days to hide props in their mouth, nose and “pelvic region”. The truth is very different; after Helen returned to the project she agreed to have a full examination of her body, including x-rays. However soon after she decided she had had enough of the entire business and began accusing Harry Price, his assistant Molly Goldney, and even her own husband, of manipulating her behind her back. This new argument centred around an employee of Helen’s business Mary McGinley. McGinley had “revealed” that Helen was faking ectoplasm by swallowing and regurgitating cheesecloth to make it look like ectoplasm, the first time this possibility had even been suggested. However Price and the LSA wrote in their reports that this is exactly what Helen had been doing all along, even though hardly any of this alleged cheesecloth was ever obtained; Price claims to have taken a sample of it once which he says was cheesecloth mixed with egg white and tissue paper. How Helen managed to swallow this, keep it in her stomach, make it invisible to x-rays, bring it up in the laboratory and then swallow it again without leaving vomit stains everywhere, has never been explained. Skeptics have bent spoons, done cold reading and performed bare-handed surgery, but none have ever swallowed, regurgitated and then swallowed again, a six foot square piece of cloth, without using their hands and making no mess. It turned out that McGinley was probably a mole planted by the LSA, but the damage was done. Helen broke the agreement she’d made with Price by unexpectedly returning home before completing the number of experiments she’d promised to do. Price probably joined the LSA in their dismissal of his subject because he wanted to beat them to the line over which investigator had been humiliated the least by Helen. The 1930 study was used later in Helen’s career to blacken her name, but it was not nearly as conclusive as its proponents state; it was not completed, either in its official form at the LSA or in its unofficial form after Price poached her. It was also catastrophically riven with personal animosity. What’s more, as we’ll see shortly, distinctive political and legal reasons to blacken her name would turn up a few years later.

Just when Helen may have wondered how things could possibly get any worse, along comes a woman with a nature as sinister as her name, Esson Maule. Esson Maule was a writer who approached Helen in 1932 with the professed intention to write a book about her. Helen was reeling from the London debacle and swiftly agreed in the hope that she could regain a bit of her formerly good reputation. Helen arranged to meet Maule in Edinburgh to conduct a seance with her at a Spiritualist Church. However during the seance it became clear that it was a trap. Maule believed that Helen was a charlatan and had tricked her into a position where she could expose her. At a prearranged signal during the seance, Maule and her accomplices jumped forward and made a grab for the ectoplasm. Helen screamed and there was a fight in which Helen swung a chair at Maule. Maule then contacted Harry Price and together they reported Helen to the police for fraud. The evidence was a white cotton slip that Maule and Price accused Helen of wearing at the start of the seance and then taking off and using to imitate ectoplasm. However Helen was a large, stocky woman and the slip was about five sizes too small for her; nevertheless the court still found her guilty and fined her ten shillings. The press reinforced their derision of Helen Duncan and it was only in the specialist Spiritualist newspapers that she found any support. The editor of the Psychic News (see: http://www.psychicnews.org.uk/) wrote an article highlighting a large number of discrepancies in Maule’s testimony; also none of the other witnesses in the Spiritualist Church would back up Maule’s statement. The tiny cotton slip and Esson Maule’s testimony formed the cornerstone of the case. So why did Helen lose? We’ll come back to that later.

Over the following years, despite all the negative publicity, Helen continued to practice as a physical medium. In 1939 the UK declared war on Germany and World War II began; with all the people killed in the Blitz and mounting casualties in the armed forces, interest in Spiritualism burgeoned. Helen did not miss cashing in on this growth in the industry, however soon her activities would stray away from the world of Spiritualism into the realm of politics and espionage; the resulting calamity would make the Edinburgh trial pale into insignificance.

In 1941 Helen conducted a series of seances all around the country in which “Albert” appeared to the sitters in ectoplasmic form. The procedure for these seances was standard. The sitters would gather on rows of chairs in the Spiritualist Church or seance room. Helen would strip off her clothes and undergo a thorough examination by a nurse to verify that she was not concealing anything about her person; this would be witnessed by several female members of the audience. Then Helen would put on a plain black dress and walk into the seance room and sit on another chair behind a curtain. The lights would all be switched off except for a single forty watt red bulb. Then the curtains would be parted and the seance would begin. But Helen’s life changed forever when she conducted one of these events on the 27th of May 1941. “Albert” appeared as usual and announced to the sitters: “I’m sorry to have to tell you that a British battleship has just been sunk. I have fourteen hundred spirits newly arrived who were among her officers and men.” There was a gasp from the audience; nobody had heard of any Royal Navy battleship being sunk. Such an occurrence would surely have been in the news, but it hadn’t. Fatefully, one of the audience members was Brigadier Roy Firebrace, a famous astrologer and spiritual researcher, but also an army intelligence officer. After the seance he went straight to his office and made some enquiries with the Admiralty. It turned out that, yes, a British ship had been lost, HMS Hood, an Admiral-class battlecruiser, had been destroyed by the guns of the German warships, Bismark and Prinz Eugen. One thousand four hundred and fifteen men had gone down with her. Hood was the largest and most powerful ship the Royal Navy had and her loss was a major blow to the war effort. This came at a time when morale was very poor on the home front, it was the height of the Blitz and just one year since the Dunkirk Evacuation, people were expecting Hitler’s forces to land at Dover any day; therefore the Government decided to keep the loss of Hood top secret. Firebrace was astounded; as a believer in Spiritualism himself he would have immediately understood what was going on. It seemed Helen Duncan was able to reveal state secrets via the testimony of the dead. You can bet this well and truly marked her card, in fact Firebrace confirmed this after the war, see here at about 13.00: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ao0pmxxirpA. In November that same year Helen went on a tour of southern England and held a series of events in Portsmouth at a small makeshift Spiritualist centre called the Master Temple; it was just a room in a house above a chemists shop. On the 25th during a seance at 4.30 PM Helen materialized a man who identified himself as a sailor aboard the battleship HMS Barham which was currently fighting in the Mediterranean theatre of operations. He told the audience that he had just been drowned as the ship sank. Again the audience was dumbstruck; they had heard nothing of the sort in the newspapers or on the radio. A woman in the second row recognized the apparition as her son and broke down with grief. The news delivered during the seance spread like wildfire all over Portsmouth and beyond. The wartime intelligence services would probably have started keeping an eye on Helen because of that, even if agents hadn’t already been planted in her audiences. As with Hood, the Government chose not to publicize the loss of Barham; even relatives of the eight hundred and fifty crew members killed had not been informed. What was being whispered in hushed voices in the cabinet war rooms is not known, but Brig. Firebrace did confirm that he was consulted by the security services about what could be done. However the Government must have had a few Skeptics who spoke out against anybody who took Firebrace seriously. It seems that they chose not to act immediately because Helen was permitted to carry on practicing her mediumship for the next two years. Everything changed in January 1944 when Helen returned to Portsmouth. What happened next is one of the most unusual legal dramas in history; why you think it took place will depend on your point of view. Helen was arrested and prosecuted for fraud, as she had been in Edinburgh twelve years earlier; however this time her accusers drove it all up to a completely new league.

Helen was probably expecting to be sent to the local magistrates again for another moderate fine or, at the very worst, a week or two inside under the Vagrancy Act; this was the usual way the law dealt with mediums, but to her shock her case was transferred to no less than the Central Criminal Court of London. Here Helen stood trial under the Witchcraft Act of 1735, an archaic statute very rarely used in over a hundred years. However if convicted the felon could be sentenced to as much as nine months in jail. The arrest occurred on Wednesday the 19th of January; when one of her seances was “busted” in the same way Esson Maule did it twelve years earlier. During one of the sessions two of the sitters switched on torches, leapt forward and “grabbed the fake ectoplasm”. The two moles were a young naval officer Lt. Stanley Worth, and a policeman, Rupert Cross. It was an organized raid, a posse of policemen had been waiting outside and as soon as the two men disrupted the seance they burst in. The photo above shows Helen walking to the Old Bailey with her husband; I can imagine the confusion and distress that was going through her head. Why had her charge been escalated the way it had? Why was she appearing in a court that was usually used for trying lords, traitors and serial killers? Why was she denied bail? As I said above, how you analyze this event will depend on your opinions on the paranormal and how honest you think the Government is. On one level it was an open-and-shut case: Helen Duncan was advertizing herself as a psychic medium when all she was doing was psychological tricks and sleights of hand, the kind of scam James Randi would have exposed, if he hadn’t been too busy at the time escaping from handcuffs while hanging over Niagra Falls. The State had a cast iron case because there was multiple, firsthand eyewitness testimony of her chicanery in action as well as a former conviction for the same offence and a psychical expert who rejected her paranormal abilities fourteen years earlier. What’s more the pre-sentencing character witness, the Chief Constable of Portsmouth Police, told the Judge that she was “pest on society” a heartless exploiter of vulnerable, grief-stricken people; this left the Judge no choice but to impose the most severe sentence: nine months in prison, which, as far as a superficial glance can tell, she richly deserved. But is it really that simple?

Firstly, we need to look at the background of the personnel involved in the trial and Robert Hartley, the author of Helen Duncan- The Mystery Show Trial has done some painstaking research into their histories. Firstly the Crown chose John Cyril Maude KC to be the prosecuting counsel. This was despite the fact that Helen was being tried in Court Number 4 and Maude was simultaneously conducting another case next door in Court Number 1; he was defending a man accused of murder in, funnily enough, Portsmouth, the same place Helen has been arrested. One of the key witnesses to that case was Chief Constable Arthur West, the same Chief Constable who hammered home Helen’s maximum sentence. As we shall see this was not the only role Chief Constable West played in the imprisonment of Helen Duncan. What’s more the defendant in that other trial had accused West of framing him, and he ended up being acquitted. Maude was constantly nipping between Courts 1 and 4 as he juggled both cases. In his absence from Court 4 his assistant, Henry Elam, conducted the Crown’s case against Helen. Why didn’t the Crown simply bring in another barrister to prosecute Helen, somebody who could concentrate 100% on putting her away? Well, it’s certainly true that John Maude KC was regarded as one of the finest and most successful barristers in the country, but could there be another reason for picking him? His education is almost monotonously textbook elite, Eton College, then Christ Church College, Oxford. He was also a member of the Middle Temple, one of the quasi-secret societies, the Inns of Court, which all barristers have to join. What’s more a year after he sent Helen Duncan down Maude was elected a Member of Parliament. But perhaps most importantly of all John Maude was head of MI5’s Section B19, a wartime unit responsible for tracking the sources of rumours; the kind of human intelligence gathering that would be necessary to monitor Spiritualist mediums. If that is the case then he would have investigated Helen in his job as an intelligence officer as well as jailing her in his job as a lawyer. The choice of judge is interesting too. It was His Honour the Recorder of London Sir Gerald Dodson, and there is an authentic letter in existence from the Department of Public Prosecutions (since 1986 called the Crown Prosecution Service) specifically recommending Dodson to preside over the trial of Helen Duncan. Sir Gerald Dodson was a former officer in the Royal Navy who was very active in charities and advocacy groups to do with the Navy and naval veterans; and he would therefore have been deeply involved emotionally in the sinking of HMS Hood and HMS Barham. Another man who would almost certainly have advized the prosecution was a senior Naval Intelligence officer called Commander Ian Fleming. He had previously spied on Spain and also had monitored the Moscow Show Trials in 1933, and the manner in which Helen’s trial was conducted indicates his influence. In a way Helen’s prosecution was a show trial, hence the title of Hartley’s book. Fleming was also very interested in the paranormal and occult. He was a member of the Society for Psychical Research as well as a close friend of the famous purveyor of Magick, Aleister Crowley. Like Firebrace, Fleming would have immediately grasped the implications of Helen’s activities. If Ian Fleming’s name sounds familiar to you, this is probably because he is today very famous for being the author of the James Bond novels, which have of course spawned a very popular series of films. Helen’s defence counsel was Charles Loseby; he was not a barrister, so was not a member of any of the furtive and slippery Inns of Court, but he was a highly experienced solicitor and also an ardent Spiritualist. He believed passionately in Helen’s cause and wanted badly to win the trial for her, but sadly he made some fatal mistakes; he thought that by proving Spiritualism true he could get Helen acquitted. The most obvious problem with that is that the indictment was against the personal machinations of a particular medium, not mediumship in general; the second problem was that he hinged his case on the false assumption that the court would give him the chance.

The prosecution witnesses all reported that they had been lured to the seance in Portsmouth by promises of seeing something truly supernatural and had instead been confronted merely with Helen Duncan herself covered in a white sheet pretending to be ectoplasm. The only problem was that this white sheet was never found even though one of the sitters reported seizing it at the moment the police rushed in. It is odd that on every occasion people have lambasted Helen for faking her act using white sheets or cheesecloth, they have never actually produced said textiles; even though she had performed innumerable times in both Spiritualist institutions and psychical research laboratories. The closest anybody came to it was Esson Maule and the extra-small vest mentioned above. Their case was centred around a series of witness testimonies; luckily for them the principle witness was a highly respected pillar of the community, a young naval officer called Lieutenant Stanley Raymond Worth. Worth is still alive and living in New Zealand; he reports that he was invited to the Portsmouth seances by some friends who regularly used to attend Spiritualist events, what they called “the spooks”, as a form of entertainment. As soon as he saw Helen Duncan in action he could plainly see that she was a complete mountebank and made it his “duty to bring her to justice!” He reported her to the police and this is why the raid took place, and for no other reason. Lt Worth’s links to the police are interesting. He’s the son of one senior police officer and the nephew of another. He was also was a part-time Special Branch constable himself; not to mention the fact that his closest family friend was the aforementioned Chief Constable Arthur West he also knew the police officer in charge of the raid. Perhaps the dodgiest factor in the role of Lt. Stanley Worth is that he lied under oath when asked directly by Loseby if he was involved with the intelligence services. His direct answer was “no” and that he was simply “spying on his own account”, whatever the hell that means! In fact it has been revealed since that he had been selected for detachment to the Naval Provost’s intelligence division. This could well mean he could be reporting to Fleming and Maude; how strange considering the role of those two men in other parts of the trial. All the personnel on the prosecution side of Helen’s trial are distinctly starting to look like some kind of secret cabal. Lt. Worth is further implicated because it seemed one of his acquaintances tried to make some money off Worth’s clandestine campaign against Helen. One of the other regular sitters at Helen’s events made a bet with a friend of his in Oxford that Helen Duncan would be arrested in Portsmouth within two weeks and that her principle accuser would be named Stanley Worth; he won the bet. The only way he could have known all this beforehand is that if Worth knew in advance what was planned and had let it slip, either accidentally or deliberately; did he even have a cut in the bet? The suspicious factors stack up even further when back into Helen’s life came psychic investigator Harry Price; you’ll recall they had met fourteen years earlier and he had allegedly revealed her trickery to the world. The DPP asked Price to consult, but he was not ordered to appear as an expert witness; his job was to brief the prosecution witnesses! In other words Worth, Cross and the other prosecution witnesses were coached. This is highly irregular and could be interpreted as an attempt to pervert the course of justice.

Over the course of the trial all the sitters present at Helen’s seances in Portsmouth were put in the witness box. The testimonies varied enormously between defence and prosecution witnesses. For example, all of the Crown’s witnesses report the same basic effect: the curtains opened and a human figure that looked like Helen Duncan moved around with a white sheet draped over her; the voices they heard were all very like Helen’s. Sometimes she revealed her face and it was definitely Helen Duncan’s face. Clearly Harry Price coached them well. As I said above though, no white sheet was found by the police even though Worth and Cross said they “grabbed it” and the police were on the scene too in a matter of moments. When questioned by Loseby on this point Worth’s answer was: “Well, obviously somebody hid it just in time.” Obviously? This is very much a circular argument fallacy: Nobody found any sheet because somebody hid it- How do you know somebody hid it?- Well, how else could we have failed to find it? Worth said that somebody sitting in the audience wore an arm sling and that was where it must have been hidden. However it seems strange that the police didn’t think of that and search for it there, even if somehow the concealment of a piece of linen big enough to cover a twenty stone woman could be secreted quickly enough to escape their gaze by somebody with one a bad arm; in the chaos of the raid too. Loseby’s witnesses on the other hand, who received no coaching that I’m aware of, tell a very different story; they report seeing Helen sitting securely in a chair while a mysterious white semi-fluid substance issued from her mouth and nose. The fluid morphed into the shapes of people, dead people, whom some audience members recognized; for example, in the case of the Barham sailor. “Albert” and “Peggy” also appeared from time to time and were described in detail that matched from witness to witness. These entities conversed with the sitters, touched them and even in one case, kissed them. Another witness, Mrs Anne Potter, saw her mother who spoke to her from just two feet away and she was easily recognizable, down to the moles on the skin of her face. A parrot, a cat and several other animals also materialized in ectoplasm. When the spirit withdrew from the ectoplasm the witnesses report that it sank into the floor and evaporated. The prosecution placed a great deal of emphasis on the seance lighting. The seance room was a converted upstairs lounge above a chemists shop at 301 Copnor Road, Portsmouth. You can see from the modern photo of the premises below that it has a large bay window; that was the room in which Helen’s events took place. However this was covered by a blackout blind, as most windows were during the Blitz. The room was lit by a white light when not in use, but when the seance started that light was switched off and the bulb was removed for safety; bright light can harm a medium in trance. The only light left on in the room was a forty watt red lamp; in fact occasionally “Albert” even requested that somebody put their handkerchief over it to shade it more. According to Lt. Worth the light was so deeply red and so dim that it was impossible to see the details the defence witnesses claimed they saw; but there’s a contradiction here: Lt. Worth and PC Cross were in the second row of seats; yet they were very positive that they could identify Helen Duncan as the ghostly figure. Then they try to claim that the witness who saw their dead friends and relatives should not make such a claim because the light was too bad to be sure; this was even though some of those witnesses were in the front row, just a foot or two from the curtains. There were also multiple contradictions between their police statements, their preliminary magistrate testimonies and their Crown Court testimonies. Unfortunately Charles Loseby did not challenge these discrepancies enough during his cross-examination of the Crown’s witnesses. This was because the plan for his defence was to wait until the next phase of the trial when he thought he could have the entire case dismissed in one fell swoop; he would get Helen to hold a seance in the courtroom and so prove that she was a genuine psychic!

“If Mrs Duncan is a materialization medium, then there is a Spiritworld near her at this moment… and a guide right here… possibly waiting for an opportunity to help her. Let us call him! Yes, here in the Central Criminal Court of London. Why not? She requires a curtained off partition and a red light; nothing more.” So petitioned Loseby to the court. The judge refused point blank. After an appeal by the defence counsel Dodson agreed to let the jury decide. He polled them and they elected not to. I wonder how close that poll was! Who on the jury did not want to see something like that!? If I’d been there I’d have voted “yes” without a second thought. Dodson’s refusal is of course legally understandable on one level, for the reasons I said above. The reality of Spiritualism was not on trial; a particular self-proclaimed Spiritualist medium was; whether the true manifestation of spirits was possible, or if it were even possible, whether Helen Duncan herself was capable of doing that herself, was not relevant to the case. She could have been the greatest medium the world had ever seen, spewing out ectoplasmic entities left, right and centre at will… but if on just one occasion in Portsmouth she decided to cheat with cheesecloth; that, and that alone, was the concern of the court. But there is another level to the issue; if Helen had been allowed to demonstrate her powers in court in front of the judge and jury it would devastate the prosecution’s case because they would be in a position in which they’d have to prove that a woman who was provably capable of producing genuine psychic phenomena would need to cheat. Did she just have her off-days and had developed fool-proof illusionism for those occasions? Maude and Elam had spent the entire trial portraying Helen as a ruthless harridan who had made a life-long career of double-dealing artifice; a successful demonstration to the court would show her to be a very different kind of woman indeed. What’s more, if it were true that Dodson, Maude, Worth and all the rest were in league with each other to put Helen away on the orders of their Government then there’s no length they would not go to the secure such an outcome… including rigging jury polls.

On Friday the 31st of March 1944, the judge summed up and the jury retired to consider their verdict; this took less than thirty minutes: Guilty. The following Monday Chief Constable Arthur West gave her a such damning character assessment that Helen could not have expected less than the maximum penalty: nine months in Holloway Prison. As she was taken down poor Helen cried out in her broad Scottish accent: “I ha’ nae even done anythin’!… Oh God! Is there a God?” In June she appealed unsuccessfully against the sentence and was finally released at the completion of her term on Friday the 22nd of September. Mr and Mrs Homer, the couple running the Master Temple in Portsmouth, were convicted as accessories and given a four month suspended sentence. On June the 6th, while Helen was languishing in her prison cell, there was a massive amphibious invasion of Normandy, France by British and Allied forces in Operation Overlord, catching the enemy completely unawares; history would come to know it as “D-Day”.

The connection between the supernatural and warfare is stronger than you might think. It has a long history; both Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great used to consult soothsayers before going into battle. In 1429 a teenage peasant girl called Jeanne Roumée was put in charge of the French army because the king believed she was receiving divine guidance. The advice from Joan of Arc gave France victory over England at the Siege of Orleans. All through the Cold War both sides used psychic spies to keep tabs on what their enemy was up to. In the modern world paranormal powers are still a major part of government machinations, despite public ridicule of the notion, for example see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TYO-iABnQd4. We are told that Helen Duncan’s case was a simple and straightforward matter: she was a cheat and she had happened to be caught cheating. She had a fair trial and the outcome was that she was fairly convicted and punished for her crimes. But based on the fact of paranormal intervention into matters of statesmanship in the past, plus the other suspicious elements of her conviction, let me offer an alternative hypothesis: Helen Duncan was a real physical medium. The reason she was imprisoned was because her powers allowed her to gain classified information about the War from those who had been briefed into it and had subsequently passed away. She could then relate this information to anybody who happened to attend one of her seances, including Nazi spies. By 1944 preparations were underway for D-Day, a battle that was absolutely crucial to the outcome of the War. Preparations for the Normandy Landings included a massive top secret operation of training, logistics and deception. A fake village was even built in Dorset which you can visit today as a museum piece! The operation consisted of thousands of people sworn to secrecy; it was, to use my own terminology, a dangerously “top-heavy conspiracy”. The planners knew very well how precarious the whole endeavour was. Helen Duncan represented an unpluggable leak; it would only take one of the people involved in D-Day to die before June the 6th, and only one enemy spy to be in the seance room when that person appeared in spirit, for secrecy of the whole invasion to be blown. Therefore the Government concocted a plan to put Helen somewhere where she could not practice her mediumship for the duration of the run-up to D-Day. They used intelligence agents in the police and legal system to frame Helen and imprison her. In fact in a way I’m pleased Helen was convicted and jailed because if that plan had failed they would probably have killed her. It’s clear that the Prime Minister Winston Churchill was not cleared for the plan because he commented himself on the case on the 3rd of April. He sent a memo to the Home Secretary saying: “Let me have a report on why the Witchcraft Act of 1735 was used in a modern Court of Justice. What was the cost of this trial to the State, observing that witnesses were brought from Portsmouth and maintained here in this crowded London for a fortnight, and the Recorder kept busy with all this obsolete tomfoolery, to the detriment of necessary work in the Courts.” Skeptics often claim that Helen was not a real medium at all, but because Winston Churchill was a believer in Spiritualism there was a sort of “climate of Woo” hanging over the British Government during his premiership; this memo comprehensively disproves that. To this day, the elderly Stanley Worth stands by his story, see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ao0pmxxirpA. He doggedly maintains that he ended up at Helen Duncan’s seance quite by chance because one of his mates invited him “to the spooks” for a laugh. He reported her to the police purely out of a feeling of personal indignation, and he feels that she got her just desserts. Is he being honest or is he still just doing his duty under the Official Secrets Act. Perhaps after sixty-nine years of telling this story, he has come to believe it himself. There’s a fictional allegory in a novel by Brian Aldiss, a local Oxford science fiction writer, Helliconia Winter, the last book in a trilogy. The novel is set on an alien planet in which the inhabitants all have mediumistic abilities and regularly commune with their dead ancestors, a practice called “pauk” that is as common to them as eating and sleeping. One day the government on the planet decide to outlaw “pauk” because they’re terrified that the spirits of the dead will reveal state secrets. When you can’t silence somebody even by killing them, what do you do? Interestingly the government justified its policy by falsely claiming that “pauk” causes the spread of disease.

Helen Duncan went back to Spiritualism after being released from jail and had a few more brushes with the law, although none nearly as serious as the one in 1944. She was the last person ever to be tried under the Witchcraft Act; it was soon replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951, which made life difficult for many Spiritualists until it itself was repealed in 2008; there have happily been no equivalent replacements. However, in all the years since and with new laws on their side, the UK Government have never come down as hard on anybody as they did on Helen Duncan in 1944. Helen performed her last seance on the 28th of October 1956 at West Bridgford Spiritualist Church in Nottingham. The establishment was raided by the police and Helen was badly injured. She had never enjoyed good health in all her life; the shock of what happened in Nottingham probably aggravated her condition and indirectly caused her death just a few weeks later on the 6th of December, back home in Edinburgh. However, her supporters have not gone away; here’s their website: http://www.helenduncan.org.uk/. They say that Helen has been in regular contact ever since.

Maybe there was a deeper issue at stake in the strange case of Helen Duncan. Maybe it explains why Recorder Dodson blocked Helen’s courtroom demonstration and also why Esson Maule got her nailed in 1932. Maybe there was a far more long-term and strategic goal involved than just D-Day. It all comes down to the fact that the acceptance of the truth of Spiritualism would inevitably result in the acceptance that there is such thing as Life-After-Death. At a senior level of Government I think there are people who know very well that the Afterlife exists; but they just don’t want us to know. They’ve kept it secret for much more fundamental reasons than merely the concealment of military attacks. The official acknowledgement that when we die our consciousness neither ceases to exist forever, nor is tossed into the merciless hands of some vengeful God because you didn’t put enough money onto the church collection plate, would have a profound effect on every aspect of human society. Atheo-Skeptics like Richard Dawkins and Andrew Copson claim that Life-After-Death would somehow reduce the value of our current life on Earth; I’ve never understood why they think that. I speculate that the official Governmental revelation that the Afterlife exists would probably have a very positive effect on the human morale (unless your self-esteem is tied up with being an MBA-er of course! See: http://hpanwo-tv.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/dr-peter-fenwick-mba-destroyer.html). It would probably eliminate the fear of dying; it would make grieving over the death of a loved one far easier to endure because it would constitute only a temporary separation, not a permanent loss; one which would eventually end with a happy reunion. From what I’ve seen, the Illuminati-controlled authorities guard the secret of spiritual reality closest of all. It’s a bigger secret than the UFO’s, bigger than Free Energy, bigger than 9/11, bigger than Atlantis, bigger than the Reptilians. This entails that its successful suppression must be even more quintessential to the survival of the New World Order than any of those other snippets of hidden knowledge. Why? I’m still not a hundred percent sure. I know why the Church wouldn’t like it; it would mean that they could no longer control people using fear of Hellfire and damnation any more, but on a secular level it’s more complicated. I suspect that the cover-up is still a long way from ending; in fact a few days ago I attempted to revise Helen Duncan’s very biased Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_Duncan and it was very speedily edited back. I think this is maybe the subject for another dedicated article. Perhaps one day we will all know the truth about the Afterlife and, who knows, in future court cases it may become perfectly normal legal practice to subpoena a ghost in the way Loseby wanted to subpoena “Albert”.

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The truth about the UK’s last witch Helen Duncan

News

8th May 2018

The truth about the UK’s last witch Helen Duncan

By Hamish MacPherson

Journalist

Duncan made fake ectoplasm using cheesecloth

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SHE is often called Britain’s last witch, but Scottish medium Helen Duncan was nothing of the sort. Instead she was merely a fraudster apart from one extraordinary phenomenon that still has not been explained fully.

In 1944, Hellish Nell, as she became known, was indeed the last woman to be sent to prison for a breach of the Witchcraft Act of 1735, but she was no witch because that Act was brought in to stop people pretending to be witches and mediums.

Duncan wasn’t even a particularly good medium – the way she earned her living was to hold seances and charge plenty for her services, but she was rumbled several times as a fraud.

Nor was she the last person convicted under the 1753 Act – now repealed and replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951 – because in fact three other people were on trial alongside her and one of them was sent to prison, too. Yet somehow the “last witch” nickname has stuck, though records clearly show that some months after her trial and imprisonment in September 1944, one Jane York, 72, from Forest Gate, East London, was charged under the same act with seven counts of pretending to conjure up spirits of the dead. Incredibly, York was simply bound over for the sum of £5 to be of good behaviour for three years.

Ah, but that happened after D-Day, and there is no question when you examine the evidence that the authorities wanted to make an example of Helen Duncan and put her away for the summer of 1944. We will see why.

Helen Duncan was born Victoria Helen MacFarlane in Callander in Perthshire on November 25, 1897. From an early age her own family saw her as fey, and her mother was mortified when the child’s behaviour became impossible – she would predict doom and destruction for all sorts of people and was given to outbursts of hysteria.

Her early life was otherwise normal. She moved to Dundee and worked at the Royal Infirmary where she met Henry Edward Duncan, a wounded war veteran and a cabinet maker. They were married in 1916, and Duncan would eventually have six children by Henry who saw a great way of making money from his wife’s talents in clairvoyance – she read tea leaves and made predictions and earned a few shillings for doing so.

By 1926 she had become a fully-fledged medium giving seances during a time when spiritualism was all the rage. Moving to Edinburgh, her seances were soon the talk of the town – even the ghost of that local man turned Sherlock Holmes creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a great believer in spiritualism, was said to have materialised at sittings.

A prominent feature of her seances was her apparent ability to produce “ectoplasm” from her mouth during her trances when she was transformed into her spirit partners Albert or Peggy, a young girl whose voices “spoke” through Duncan. She had grown quite obese and the contrast between this 20-stone woman and the childish voices was part of the reason why people believed in her.

It was at a seance in January 1933 that Peggy emerged in the seance room and a sitter named Esson Maule grabbed her. The lights were turned on and the spirit was revealed to be made of a cloth undervest which used as evidence that led to Duncan’s conviction on the Scottish offence of fraud at Edinburgh Sheriff Court in May 1933.

The conviction does not seem to have harmed her career. Duncan was by then making a good living by conducting seances throughout Britain at which “the spirits of the dead were alleged to have appeared, sometimes talking to and even touching their relatives”.

But there were suspicions about her. Renee Haynes in The Society for Psychical Research 1882–1982: A History recalled: “The London Spiritualist Alliance had 50 sittings with her between October 1930 and June 1931; for these sittings she was stripped, searched and dressed in ‘seance garments’. Two interim reports in Light were favourable, a third found indications of fraud. Pieces of ‘ectoplasm’ found from time to time differed in composition. Two early specimens consisted of paper or cloth mixed with something like white of egg. Two others were pads of surgical gauze soaked in ‘a resinous fluid’; yet another consisted of layers of lavatory paper stuck together. The most usual material for ‘ectoplasm’ however, seemed to be butter muslin or cheesecloth, probably swallowed and regurgitated. Distressing choking noises were sometimes heard from within the cabinet; and it was interesting that when she was persuaded to swallow a tablet of methylene blue before one of the seances at the London Spiritualist Alliance, no ectoplasm whatsoever appeared.”

She also refused to be X-rayed or allow infra red photography which was then in its infancy.

During World War Two, the Duncans lived in Portsmouth, headquarters of the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet, and this is when something seriously unusual happened.

At one of her seances a “sailor” appeared announcing that he had just gone down with the battleship HMS Barham. The Portsmouth-based Barham was sunk by a German submarine on 25 November 1941, with the loss of 859 of her crew, but the sinking had been made a state secret to hoodwink the Nazis and keep morale. You can see its loss on Youtube.

Word of Duncan’s amazing revelation got to the police and intelligence services. It was all very harmless, really, but an even bigger secret needed to be kept – the destination of the D-Day landings.

On 19 January 1944, police attended one of her seances and pounced on the evidence. Duncan was originally charged under section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824, under which most charges relating to fortune-telling, astrology and spiritualism were prosecuted at that time.

Yet the Crown decided to throw the book at Duncan and her co-accused sending her to be tried by jury at the Old Bailey for contravening section 4 of the Witchcraft Act 1735, which carried the heavier penalty of a prison sentence.

The court record says it all: “Helen Duncan is a professional medium, who was engaged at a substantial fee to give a series of seances in a registered church or temple, as it was called, at 301 Copnor Road, Portsmouth, maintained by Ernest Homer over a chemist’s shop which he had kept for many years. Elizabeth Christine Jones, known as Mrs Homer, lived with him, and had done so for some twenty-five years. Frances Brown assisted Duncan and acted as her booking agent.”

Again from the court records: “The case for the Prosecution was that the whole performance was an elaborate pretence, a fraudulent performance, a mere imposition on human credulity.”

It was a fair cop – the witnesses were impeccable, and the evidence for the jury was of “a pretence that so-called materialisations, which were in fact produced by means of fraudulent devices and apparatus, were of a different nature altogether.”

The jury had no trouble in convicting her. Portsmouth’s chief of police, Arthur Charles West, then gave a speech which sent her to prison for nine months.

“This is a case where not only has she attempted and succeeded in deluding confirmed believers in Spiritualism, but she has tricked, defrauded and preyed upon the minds of a certain credulous section of the public who have gone to these meetings in search of comfort of mind in their sorrow and grief. I can only describe this woman as an unmitigated humbug who can only be regarded as a pest to a certain section of society.”

A few years ago Graham Hewitt, who began fighting for a pardon for Duncan, said: “She was tried under an old piece of legislation that shouldn’t have been used at the time and advice had been issued by the Director of Public Prosecutions that alternatives were available.

“Winston Churchill even described the whole episode as ‘obsolete tomfoolery’ in a memo to the then Home Secretary Herbert Morrison.

“She was viewed as a potential threat by the authorities back then. They feared what she was telling people might lead to a crisis in the security services or to soldiers defecting.”

Academic and filmmaker Robert Hartley agreed: “In the run-up to D-Day, the authorities were paranoid about potential security leaks and Duncan was in danger of disclosing military secrets during her seances. Helen Duncan was giving out very accurate information. There were other mediums round the country giving out news on soldiers that had died and someone in authority took it seriously, whatever the source of the information. D-Day was coming up and it was absolutely essential to keep the Allied deception plans intact.”

Duncan’s appeal against conviction failed, she served her time and left prison to carry on much as before only now with people believing she really was a witch. Well, she had the conviction, didn’t she? She died in Edinburgh in 1956 at the age of 59.

To this day people still argue about her, especially spiritualists. Many want her pardoned because of the excessive sentence and it does seem that the British state is taking a very heavy-handed attitude to her.

Here is what the Home Office said to a petition for a free pardon: “It is extremely rare for the Home Secretary to use his power to recommend a posthumous Free Pardon.

“In modern times, only one such Pardon has been recommended.

“It would also be particularly difficult to apply current knowledge, morality and other criteria to events, which took place some fifty years ago.”

So no pardon for the ‘last witch’ that wasn’t.

Robert Hartley claims fresh research into the trial documents – released to the National Archive – points to a state conspiracy to crack down on security leaks ahead of D-Day.

The academic and award-winning film-maker says that Helen Duncan, the woman hailed as “Britain’s last witch”, was convicted in 1944 at the Old Bailey as an example to others.

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Throughout the 1930s and 1940s Duncan, a mother of six, was a celebrated medium performing seances for the wives and widows left at home during the war.

Her technique was to go into a trance and produce ectoplasm through her mouth and nose which would form human shape and speak.

However, on 19 January, 1944, during a sitting in Portsmouth, Duncan conjured up a sailor from HMS Barham to talk to his surprised mother – who didn’t know he was dead. The sinking of HMS Barham had been kept a secret by the navy for three months for operational reasons.

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Fears that Duncan could be a spy led to an investigation by MI5 and Naval Intelligence who were alarmed by her access to secret information.

Only months before D-Day, Duncan was arrested and put on trial at the Old Bailey accused of contravening the Witchcraft Act of 1735.

“The authorities were terrified about potential security leaks and Duncan was in danger of disclosing military secrets during her seances,” said Dr Hartley.

“Helen Duncan was giving out very accurate information. There were other mediums round the country giving out news on soldiers that had died and someone in authority took it seriously, whatever the source of the information.”

After examining all the available documents for a new book on the conspiracy, Helen Duncan: The Mystery Show Trial, Dr Hartley suggests that among those responsible for the conspiracy to convict Duncan was James Bond author Ian Fleming, who was a key figure in the intelligence services at the time.

“I am convinced Naval Intelligence were working with MI5 and when I began looking at that connection, Ian Fleming’s name kept cropping up as being involved with people either involved in the case or on the sidelines,” said Dr Hartley.

On the basis of the evidence, much of which Dr Hartley claims appears to have been fabricated or at least exaggerated, Duncan was convicted and jailed.

More than half a century later, her case continues to be a cause clbre with more than 30,000 websites, translated into several languages, detailing her story.

The official Helen Duncan website claims to have received at least 42 million visitors in the last few years, leading to a worldwide campaign for justice and a petition to the British government calling for the dowdy, plump housewife, who died in 1956, to be pardoned.

“We want to clear her name,” said Michael Colmer, campaign co-ordinator and founder of the British Society of Paranormal Studies.

“There is no doubt that she was framed by the admiralty and our campaign has uncovered evidence that it was a conspiracy.”

Duncan’s supporters are now confident they can put right the original verdict and have petitioned the government for a full pardon.

Graham Hewitt, legal adviser to the campaign, is on the verge of completing a submission to the Home Office with evidence that Duncan was the subject of an admiralty conspiracy.

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