A Call for Exoneration of "Britain’s Last Witch"
In the 1930s and ’40s, Helen Duncan was Britain’s best-known medium, enjoying the same status Sylvia Browne and Jonathan Edwards have today in the U.S. Her old-school Spiritualism included the extretion of ectoplasm, seances, and trance-channeling of the dead. But in 1944, she was arrested and charged under section 4 of the Witchcraft Act of 1735. A jury declared her guilty in half an hour, and she was sentenced to 9 months in prison.
Mrs. Duncan, nicknamed “Hellish Nell” in her youth, was born Helen Mcfarlane in Scotland in 1897. She reportedly predicted WWI and the invention of the tank as a teenager. In 1918, pregnant and unmarried, she left her village of Callander and wed an invalid soldier named Henry Duncan, settling in Dundee. The Duncans had 5 more children. By the ’30s, Mrs. Duncan was traveling the country to conduct seances. In 1931 she was investigated by Harry Price, the controversial psychical researcher. She was able to manifest a large ectoplasmic shroud while locked in a booth, but hysterically refused to submit to an X-ray to prove she wasn’t engaged in fakery. She smacked her husband when he tried to convince her to go along with Mr. Price, dashed into the street, and tore her clothes like a madwoman.
Price wrote a book about phony psychics, Regurgitation and the Duncan Mediumship, in which he argued that most ectoplasm was really cheesecloth swallowed and brought back up by the mediums.
Government officials had been closely monitoring Mrs. Duncan since early in the war, when she revealed during a seance that a British battleship had been sunk. The government had suppressed this news for the sake of morale.
On November 25, 1941, the HMS Barham was struck by three German torpodoes in the Mediterranean. 861 men were lost, but the government decided to keep it a secret, going so far as to send forged Christmas cards to the sailors’ families.
A few days later, Mrs. Duncan described to her fellow seance sitters a sailor with “HMS Barham” on his hatband. The spirit informed her that his ship had been sunk. Mrs. Duncan was widely regarded as a traitor after this revelation became public.
Now, supporters led by the British Society of Paranormal Studies claim that Mrs. Duncan was arrested in 1944 to pre-empt her from revealing anything about D-Day. They insist she possessed genuine psychic abilities. There is no evidence, however, that Mrs. Duncan knew anything about the planned invasion.
She was charged not with witchcraft, but with fraud. During her 7-day trial at the Old Bailey, Mrs. Duncan stood accused of pretending to use “human conjuration that…spirts of the dead persons should appear to be present.” (1) 44 character witneses testified on her behalf, but she was convicted and sentenced to 9 months in Holloway Prison. (Churchill was outraged by the “tomfoolery” of this trial, and visited the woman in prison)
Despite her vow to never hold another seance again, she did.
The Witchcraft Act was repealed in 1951. Mrs. Duncan had been the last “witch” tried under it.
In 1956, Mrs. Duncan was again arrested during a seance. She wasn’t charged. She died in December of that year.
1. “Britain’s Last Witch Trial” by David Edwards, The Mirror online, 6 December 2006
2. “Call to Pardon ‘UK’s Last Witch’“, BBC Scotland online
3. Wikipedia entry for Helen Duncan
4. Skeptic’s Dictionary entry for ectoplasm