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The WWII Trial of Helen Duncan – Famous British Medium
When it comes to splitting public opinion, it seems there is nothing quite as divisive as the question of whether a spiritualist medium can really contact deceased loved ones.
This was especially true of perhaps the most famous medium of the twentieth century Helen Duncan, who toured the country extensively during the 1930s and 1940s giving sittings to grieving relatives and holding séances to prove to sitters there was life after death.
During the time she was working she attracted many loyal followers, who defended any attempts to smear her reputation or debunk her spirit communications, and an equally vocal band of detractors who believed she was a fraud who was using people’s grief to make money.
But what really placed Helen Duncan firmly in the public eye was when she was brought to trial at the Old Bailey in London in 1944, prosecuted under the ancient 1735 Witchcraft Act.
So how did this Scottish housewife from a humble background find herself plastered across the front pages of the British tabloids at a time when a World War was raging and there was certainly more newsworthy events taking place every day?
Especially being tried for a crime laid out in an Act which had been brought into law to persecute and demonise women several centuries earlier?
Her story starts when she was only a little girl. She was born Victoria Helen MacFarlane in Callander in Scotland on 25th November 1897.
She was said to have been able to contact the other side from a very young age; her revelations and predictions not going down at all well with her family who were strict Presbyterians.
She was also reported to have been a volatile young girl, easily excitable and prone to hysteria. So erratic and occasionally vicious was her behaviour that she began to be avoided by her friends and earned the nickname ‘Hellish Nell’.
In 1916 she married a cabinet maker called Henry Duncan, who had been invalided out of the fighting in the Great War with rheumatic fever.
He was more supportive of her spiritual gifts and talents than her family had been and she soon started giving demonstrations and holding séances.
The couple went on to have six children despite her numerous health problems and growing weight. Even her biggest fans would admit she was not the easiest of personalities to deal with, swinging from extreme passivity to impassioned rages when crossed.
Helen Duncan claimed she worked with her spirit guides Albert and Lucy to bring forward spirits with messages for their loved ones and one of her ‘trademarks’ during a séance was the production of ectoplasm, which is a creamy white vapour or substance that flows out of the medium’s mouth or from their body allowing the deceased to take form and speak to the sitters.
It was this production of ectoplasm and other physical apports that most attracted the attention of the sceptics. She was investigated several times as her detractors believed the ectoplasm she was supposed to produce was actually cheesecloth she swallowed or secreted on her body before the séance began.
She was investigated by the famous ghost hunter Harry Price at his London Psychic Laboratory in 1931. Even though she was being paid what was then the princely sum of £50, Helen Duncan reacted badly to the idea of being x-rayed before the test sitting, running out into the street and assaulting her husband.
Moreover, the ectoplasm she did produce during some of the experiments proved to be nothing more than paper dipped in egg white. Harry Price was so convinced she was a fraud and had offloaded the cheesecloth to her husband during the altercation in the street that even many years later he would testify against her during her trial in 1944. The Morning Post newspaper also declared her a fraud in 1931 and a few years later in 1933 she was prosecuted in Edinburgh at the Sheriffs Court for ‘affray’ and being a fraudulent medium.
Britain was plunged into war with Nazi Germany in 1939 and it was an incident during this tragic conflict which may have been what brought Helen Duncan to the attention of the authorities. In 1941 the medium was living in the naval port of Portsmouth on the south coast and giving regular sittings and demonstrations.
In one of these demonstrations during November 1941 she brought through the spirit of a young sailor on behalf of his distressed mother who was anxious to know if her son was all right. The mother was devastated when the spirit claimed he was dead and that he had perished when the royal naval vessel HMS Barham was sunk along with most of the crew, because the naval authorities had not yet released this information to the relatives.
Not surprisingly the news of the sinking of the HMS Barham spread like wildfire after the séance and soon came to the ears of the authorities. For security reasons and to bolster morale in the armed forces, news of tragedies like a ship being sunk was sometimes withheld for a period of time until the military were sure the enemy would gain no advantage from the knowledge.
So when a German U-boat fired three torpedoes into the HMS Barham off the island of Malta on 25th November 1941, sinking the vessel and killing 800 of the crew, the news was not officially released until the following January.
Helen Duncan’s followers pointed out there was no other way she could have known this information unless it had been passed onto her from the spirit world. However, there had been nearly 400 survivors from the sinking of HMS Barham and they would have been desperate to let their relatives and loved ones know they were still alive.
In a close-knit, wartime community like Portsmouth this news would have travelled fast, so it is entirely possible that Helen Duncan had already learned of the fate of the ship in a much more mundane fashion than via the hereafter.
Despite many of her followers later saying that when she was arrested in 1944 it was because the government thought she was a spy because of the information she had revealed about the demise of HMS Barham and the real reason she was being detained was to prevent her from exposing any further sensitive military information in the lead up to the D-Day Landings and the invasion of Normandy, there is no real evidence for this.
If the government was so concerned about what the medium had been saying during her séances, why did they allow her to continue for such a long time?
Because it wasn’t until the 19th January 1944 that the police raided one of her séances; arresting Helen Duncan along with her assistant and two of the organisers.
The reason the séance was attended by the plain clothes police officer is that they had been given a tip off by a naval officer who had attended an earlier demonstration where he had been given false information on a sister he had never had and was given a message from a dead aunt he also did not have.
The police officer had grabbed some of the cloth produced as ectoplasm during the demonstration, but the lights were switched off and the cloth snatched back after which it disappeared never to be seen again.
The trial of Helen Duncan took place at the Old Bailey and was to last for seven long days. Along with those arrested with her she was accused under the 1735 Witchcraft Act of ‘exercise or use human conjuration through the agency of Helen Duncan, spirits of deceased dead persons should appear to be present.’
What she was really being tried for was being a fraudulent medium and she was also simultaneously tried under the Larceny Act for taking money under false pretences.
The trial caused public uproar and the kind of media attention we now associate with celebrities. On the one side, the prosecution and her detractors were determined to prove she was a fraud and her supporters and members of the spiritualist movement were as equally determined to defend her.
So much so they started contributing to a defence fund, the money from which was used to bring in witnesses from many parts of the globe to testify on her behalf and uphold her good name.
Several senior figures in government and some organisations viewed the case as a farce, a total waste of time and money and a travesty of justice. For the first time the Law Societies of both Scotland and England worked together to condemn the bringing of what they regarded as a trivial case to the Old Bailey.
Even Winston Churchill took time out from the war to send the Home Secretary Herbert Morrison a note asking how much this case was costing to prosecute and demanding a report on the Witchcraft Act. The great statesman dismissed the whole affair as ‘obsolete tomfoolery to the detriment of necessary work in the court’.
Indeed, Churchill was so unhappy that this antiquated law had been wheeled out; he had it repealed when he returned to power in 1951 and it was replaced by the Fraudulent Mediums Act.
Do you believe Helen Duncan was a genuine medium?
Despite many witnesses, such as the historian Alfred Dodd, coming forward to testify she was genuine and that the evidence she gave of life after death was true, she was convicted to nine months in prison. When she was released in 1945 she made a promise to stop holding séances and communicating with spirits.
However, this was a promise she did not keep and she was arrested again in 1956. She died not long after in Edinburgh and her followers protested this was the fault of the police crashing into the demonstration and breaking her from her trance. But the truth is that Duncan was an ageing, obese woman who had lived with serious health problems for many years.
Helen Duncan has never been pardoned for being prosecuted as a witch, although her granddaughter petitioned the Scottish parliament to give her a posthumous pardon in 2008.
If she committed any crime it would have been that of fraudulently taking money from grieving relatives and loved ones after falsely claiming she had been in communication with the spirits of their deceased relatives. But was Helen Duncan a fraud or was she genuinely a gifted medium in contact with the spirit world?
Opinion on this is polarised and probably always will be, but in real life things are not always so black and white. Few people are wholly saints or sinners. For this was an ailing woman with a disabled husband unable to work and six children to feed.
I believe that Helen Duncan did have talent as a medium, but was driven into producing false evidence and tricking sitters either by her own greed or a desperate need to provide for her family.
Sources for Helen Duncan information:
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