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The WWII Trial of Helen Duncan – Famous Spiritual Medium

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Cynthia is an author who has written a series of science fantasy books. She also writes short stories and is busy writing two more novels

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.

Portrait of Helen Duncan

Portrait of Helen Duncan

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 producing supposedly fake ectoplasm

Helen Duncan producing supposedly fake ectoplasm

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.

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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.

Helen Duncan producing either ectoplasm or a roll of cheesecloth

Helen Duncan producing either ectoplasm or a roll of cheesecloth

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.

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:

© 2014 CMHypno


Enelle Lamb from Canada's 'California' on September 21, 2015:

I too enjoyed reading this article. Thanks for the interesting read :D

Will be checking out a few more - haven't been around much and lots of catching up to do LOL

Demas W Jasper from Today's America and The World Beyond on August 26, 2015:

You missed this one, but only one: " there was certainly more newsworthy events"

Good magazine article for such publications as "Psychology" magazine. Where there are people so anxious to know something that they will pay a medium, there will be mediums.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on April 26, 2015:

Thanks for reading the hub and leaving a great comment Dolores. Physical mediumship (ectoplasm, producing apports etc) was far more popular in the UK in the first half of the 20th century than it is now. It takes a long time to develop as a physical medium and you need to sit in circle with people who are there solely to help you to develop your abilities. Most people nowadays want to work on their own development, so it is very hard to put this kind of circle together.

I agree, the two world wars created so much grief and loss, that many people were desperate for consolation and for some sort of assurance that their loved ones were free from suffering and happy in the world of spirit.I think she was put in the 'hazmat' suit by the people running the experiment to prevent fraud,but it doesn't look like it worked out too well on that occasion!

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on April 18, 2015:

It's an interesting world, that of those mediums who so often become popular during or after wars. I think they can offer comfort to grief stricken people. But the pictures of Helen with what looks like toilet paper coming out of her mouth are hilarious. And why was she wearing a hazmat suit? Great hub, tweeted and shared!

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on August 07, 2014:

Thanks James-wolve. Glad you enjoyed reading the hub and that you found it interesting.

Tijani Achamlal from Morocco on August 06, 2014:

Very interesting article and I really enjoyed reading this work of you.Well done !Voted up!

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on August 06, 2014:

Thanks for the visit and reading the hub FlourishAnyway. None of us knows what is really going on in someone else's mind, so Helen Duncan may have been a cold-hearted charlatan, totally genuine or a bit of both. Maybe she thought that if the producing of fake phenomena was comforting people she was helping them and doing no harm?

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on August 06, 2014:

Hi Suzette, thanks for reading the hub. I do think Helen Duncan was scape-goated by the authorities. If they wanted to prosecute her they could have just fined her again for being a fraudulent medium or obtaining money under false pretences. But it was a point in history when tensions were running high and she was an easy target to offload some of the grief and anger engendered by the war on.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on August 06, 2014:

Thanks for reading the hub and leaving a great comment Alastar. There is indeed not so much ectoplasm floating around these days! In the mid-20th century there were many fine British physical mediums who produced ectoplasm, apports etc. But to develop as a physical medium you need to sit in circle for many years and the other sitters need to be committed solely to the development of the medium rather than developing their own gifts. Most people these days would not make that sacrifice and want to sit for their own development. I went to the College of Psychic Studies for 5 years and my tutor told us it took on average 8 years to develop as a platform medium and longer for working as a trance or physical medium. I've not come across Dynamo before, but will look him up!

FlourishAnyway from USA on August 05, 2014:

At minimum she was an unusual, difficult lady with eccentric tendencies. This was such an interesting hub. Whether she was deceiving others or in fact some target, no one truly knows. The cheesecloth yacking is very odd behavior. People do all kinds of things to feel special and gain recognition, assuming it was fake.

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on August 05, 2014:

Very interesting article and I had never heard of her or her story before reading this. I find that the British pulling out the Witchcraft Act of 176-whatever was draconian to say the least. Thank goodness Churchill changed that. I would never say she was or she wasn't a medium. I know I have premonition dreams that sometimes come true, and its not funny. I wish it didn't happen to me. One thing that struck me as an important factor was her behavior as a child and an adult. She seemed unstable and/or high strung. Those types of people sometimes do really connect with the dead and/or truly believe that they do. If she helped lonely heartsick people think they were connecting with the dead and this eased their pain, I see nothing wrong with what she was doing. It is the ectoplasm that does look fake in the photos and so makes me skeptical of all of her claims. Whatever, I don't think she deserved to be convicted and imprisoned for even nine months. Sounds a bit like mass hysteria on the part of the community and government.

alastar packer on August 05, 2014:

Very fine breakdown on Duncan. Many research has shown that scots often have an overabundance in the Meta-physical realm. Interesting she would be arrested in WW2 if the PTB that there was noting to her. As mediums age so do their powers and under intense pressure to perform have been known to blatantly cheat, despite the fact that in prime years under strict scientific observation no fraud was ever found. Don't see the ecto-plasma much any more these days. Btw Cynthia, what make you of Dynamo?

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on August 04, 2014:

Thanks for reading the hub Jodah. Unfortunately the charlatans make it very difficult for the genuine psychics and mediums, as every time some new evidence of fraud is unveiled it impacts on their reputation and gives the sceptics new ammunition

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on August 04, 2014:

Glad you enjoyed it Brie and thanks for the read and leaving a comment

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on August 04, 2014:

Thanks for reading the hub Alicia and glad you enjoyed learning about Helen Duncan

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on August 03, 2014:

Interesting read CMHypno. I think there are some genuine psychics and many more charlatans It isn't always that easy to tell, and even genuine fortune tellers can be swayed by the popularity and celebrity status to use special effects etc to make it more exciting. I reserve my opinion on Helen Duncan, but it does seem that she used a few tricks like fake ectoplasm. Voted up.

Brie Hoffman from Manhattan on August 03, 2014:

Very interesting article, voted up.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on August 03, 2014:

This is a very interesting hub and analysis, Cynthia. I enjoyed learning more about Helen Duncan, who seems to have been a complex character. Thank you for sharing the information.

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