25 November 1897
Callander, Perthshire, Scotland
|Died||6 December 1956
|Spouse(s)||Henry Duncan (1916-1956)|
(Victoria) Helen MacFarlane was born in Callander, Perthshire on 25 November 1897, the daughter of a slater. At school, to the distress of her mother (a member of the Presbyterian church), she alarmed her fellow pupils with her dire prophecies and hysterical behaviour. In 1916 she married Henry Duncan, a cabinet maker and wounded war veteran, who was supportive of her supposed supernatural talents. In 1926 she developed from clairvoyant to medium by offering séances in which she claimed to summon the spirits of recently deceased persons by emitting ectoplasm from her mouth. A mother of six, she also worked part-time in a bleach factory.
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". The photographs that were taken reveal the "spirits" to be fraudulently produced, such as a doll made from a painted papier-mache mask draped in an old sheet.
In 1931 the London Spiritualist Alliance examined Duncan's method. An early examination of pieces of Duncan's ectoplasm revealed it was made of cheesecloth, paper mixed with the white of egg and lavatory paper stuck together. One of Duncan's tricks was to swallow and regurgitate some of her ectoplasm and she was persuaded to swallow a tablet of methylene blue before one of her séances by the London Spiritualist Alliance to rule out any chance of this trick being performed and because of this no ectoplasm appeared.
On January 6th, 1933 in Edinburgh at a séance a little girl called Peggy emerged in the séance room, a sitter Esson Maule grabbed her and the lights were turned on and the spirit was revealed to be made from a stockinette undervest. The police were called and Duncan was prosecuted and fined £10. The undervest was used as evidence which led to Duncan's conviction of fraudulent mediumship at the Edinburgh Sheriff Court trial on May 11th, 1933. Duncan's husband was also suspected as acting as her accomplice for hiding her fake ectoplasm. Duncan would frequently have nosebleeds during séances, William Brown suggested that this was another of Duncans hiding places for her fake ectoplasm.
Harry Price (director of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research) was sceptical of Duncan and had her perform a number of test séances. She was suspected of swallowing cheesecloth which was then regurgitated as "ectoplasm". Price had proven through analysis of a sample of ectoplasm produced by Duncan, that it was made of cheesecloth. 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 Harry Price in a report of the mediumship of Duncan:
|“||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. 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 materialisations to be the result of regurgitation. Later Duncan was caught cheating again pretending to be a spirit in the séance room, this time Duncan and her traveling companions, Frances Brown, Ernest and Elizabeth Homer were prosecuted and convicted. Duncan was jailed for nine months, Brown for four months and the Homers were bound over.
HMS Barham sinking
During World War II, in November 1941, Duncan held a séance in Portsmouth at which she claimed the spirit materialization of a sailor told her the HMS Barham had been sunk. Because the sinking of the HMS Barham was revealed, in strict confidence, only to the relatives of casualties, and not announced to the public until late January 1942, the Navy started to take an interest in her activities. Two lieutenants were among her audience at a séance on 14 January 1944 and this was followed up on 19 January, when police arrested her at another séance as a white-shrouded manifestation appeared. This proved to be Duncan herself, in a white cloth which she attempted to conceal when discovered, and she was arrested. Researcher Graeme Donald wrote that Duncan could have easily found out about the HMS Barham and she had no genuine psychic powers. According to Donald:
|“||There was no shroud of secrecy; The Times of London carried news of the disaster on the Monday. The loss of HMS Barham, torpedoed off the coast of Egypt on 25 November 1941, was indeed kept quiet for a while, but letters of condolence were sent out to families of the 861 dead, asking them to keep the secret until the official announcement. So, allowing for perhaps 10 people in each family, there were about 9,000 people who knew of the sinking; if each of them told only one other person, there were 20,000 people in the country aware of the sinking, and so on - hardly a closely guarded secret. In short, news of the sinking spread like wildfire; Duncan simply picked up the gossip and decided to turn it into profit.||”|
A leak concerning the HMS Barham was later discovered. A 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 was found to be in possession of a mocked-up HMS Barham hat-band. This apparently related to an alleged manifestation of the spirit of a dead sailor on HMS Barham, although Duncan appeared unaware that after 1939 sailors did not wear hat-bands identifying their ship. She was initially arrested under section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824, a minor offence tried by magistrates. However, the authorities regarded the case as more serious, and 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. Duncan was imprisoned for nine months. 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
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?".
On her release in 1945, Duncan promised to stop conducting séances; however, she was arrested during another one in 1956. She died at her home in Edinburgh a short time later. 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. Duncan's original conviction still stood, and it was the subject of a sustained campaign to have it overturned.
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. 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.
The naval investigation and subsequent trial was dramatized as a radio play. The Last Witch Trial by Melissa Murray, starring Joanna Monro as Duncan and Indira Varma as the undercover investigator, was broadcast by BBC Radio 4 on 4 June 2010.
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