A Scottish medium best known as the last person to be imprisoned under the British Witchcraft Act of 1735
1. Place of Birth/Death
B: 25 November 1897
D: 6 December 1956
2. Metaphysical Ability
Supposedly mediated communication between spirits of the dead and other human beings.
Early Life and Practising Medium
- (Victoria) Helen MacFarlane was born in Callander, Perthshire on November 25, 1897. At mother (a Presbyterian) became distressed began scaring other students with dire prophecies and hysterical behavior. By the year 1916 Helen married Henry Duncan, a cabinet maker and war veteran. He was supportive of her supposed supernatural talents. Helen became a mother of six and when she wasn't summoning worked part time in a bleach factory. In 1926 she developed from clairvoyant to medium by holding séances, during these séances she claimed to be capable of summon the recently deceased. When these spirits were summoned she would emit ectoplasm from her mouth.
- In 1928 Harvey Metcalfe, a photographer attended a series of séances with Duncan. During these events he took various photos of Duncan and her "spirits", including her spirit guide "Peggy". These photographs revealed to be fake, one photo revealed a papier-mache mask draped in an old sheet.
- During 1931 the London Spiritualist Alliance examined one of Duncan's method. They examined pieces of Duncan's ectoplasm and found it to be no more than cheesecloth. Duncan apparently would swallow the cloth and then regurgitate it later. Duncan would frequently have nosebleeds during séances, William Brown suggested that this was another of Duncans hiding places for her fake ectoplasm. Before one of her séances they asked Helen to methylene blue to be certain it was no trick. But the tablet prevented any ectoplasm from appearing during the séance. Her Husband Henry was suspected of aiding in these fake séances by hiding fake ectoplasm.
- January 6th, 1933 during a séance in Edinburgh, Helen's spirit guide "Peggy" appeared. But one sitter, Esson Maule discovered it was a doll being moved by Duncan's knee. When Esson went for "Peggy" a struggle began for the doll, with Esson taking the doll from Helen. Of course, when this happened Mrs. Duncan began to swear and threatening her hosts. The police were called and it was discovered that "Peggy" had been made from stockinette undervest. She was prosecuted and fined £10.
- Harry Price of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research was sceptical of her abilities and had her perform a number of test séances. When asked to be X-rayed she reacted violently at attempt. Ms. Duncan would run from the lab and into the street, Mr. Duncan would have to restrain her; this would destroy the controlled nature of the test. Harry Price also reported this of her abilities:
- 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.
- When he published his report his photographs revealed fake ectoplasm made of cheesecloth, rubber gloves and cut-out heads from magazine covers which Ms. Duncan would pretend these were spirits. Once this was revealed Helen Duncan's former maid Mary McGinlay confessed to having helped Ms. Duncan with her tricks, then afterward her husband admitted that the ectoplasm was result of regurgitation. Helen Duncan would later be caught in another false séance this time she was aided by Frances Brown, Ernest and Elizabeth Homer were all prosecuted and convicted. Duncan spent nine months in jail, Brown spent four months and the Homers were told refrain from futher activity and to pay a fine.
The HMS Barham
- November 1941, Duncan is held a séance in Portsmouth, this was during World War II. During this séance claimed a sailor materialized before and told her the HMS Barham had sunk. This information had only been revealed to family members of the casualties and was not made public until January 1942. The Navy took interest in her activities. Two lieutenants were at a séance on January 14, 1944 with another on the 19th. When the police arrested her again at another séance shrouded white manifestation appeared. It was proved to be Helen Duncan herself, in white cloth she attempted to conceal this when it was discovered and was then arrested. Graeme Donald reported she had no genuine psychic powers and could have easily found out about the HMS Barham.
- Later a leak concerning the Barham was discovered, secretary of the First Lord had been indiscreet to Professor Michael Postan of the Ministry of Economic Warfare. Postan escaped arrest by insisting that he had made a mistake by believing the information had been imparted on an official basis.
- Duncan had a mocked-up Barham hat-band, this apparently was related to an alleged manifestation of the sailor. She appeared unaware that sailors after 1939 sailors did not wear hat-bands. She was arrested under section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824, a minor offence tried by magistrates. However, this was later regarded as more serious. They eventually discovered 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 operated the Psychic centre in Portsmouth, and Frances Brown, who was Duncan's agent who went with her to set up séances. There were seven counts in total, two of conspiracy to contravene the Witchcraft Act, two of obtaining money by false pretences, and three of public mischief (a common law offence). The prosecution may be explained by the mood of suspicion prevailing at the time: the authorities were afraid that she could continue to reveal classified information, whatever her source was. There were also concerns that she was exploiting the recently bereaved, as the Recorder noted when passing sentence.
- Duncan's trial for fraudulent witchcraft was a minor cause célèbre in wartime London. A number of prominent people, among them Alfred Dodd, an historian and senior Freemason, testified they were convinced she was authentic. Duncan was, however, barred by the judge from demonstrating her alleged powers as part of her defence against being fraudulent. The jury brought in a guilty verdict on count one, and the judge then discharged them from giving verdicts on the other counts, as he held that they were alternative offences for which Duncan might have been convicted had the jury acquitted her on the first count. In 1944, Duncan was one of the last people convicted under the Witchcraft Act 1735, which made falsely claiming to procure spirits a crime. She was sentenced to nine months' imprisonment. When convicted, she cried out "I have done nothing; is there a God?" After the verdict, Winston Churchill wrote a memo to Home Secretary Herbert Morrison, complaining about the misuse of court resources on the "obsolete tomfoolery" of the charge.
Repeal of the Witchcraft Act
- On her release in 1945, Ms. Duncan promised to stop conducting séances, but was arrested again during another séance in 1956. Duncan's trial almost certainly contributed to the repeal of the Witchcraft Act, which was contained in the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951 promoted by Walter Monslow, Labour Member of Parliament for Barrow-in-Furness. The campaign to repeal the Act had largely been led by Thomas Brooks, another Labour MP, who was a spiritualist.
- Contrary to what spiritualists have written there was nothing odd about the death of Duncan and it was not caused by her "trance" being disturbed by the police. She died at her home in Edinburgh a short time later. Duncan's medical records showed that she had a long history of ill-health and as early as 1944 she was described as an obese woman who could only move slowly as she suffered from heart trouble.
4. Evidence of Metaphysical Abilities
- None; Was scientifically proven to be a fraud.
5. Possibility of Metaphysical Abilities
- Scotland's Last Witch - BBC
- Hellish Nell: Witch-hunt that led to capture of fake medium
- Helen Duncan - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia