Helen Duncan

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For the former New Zealand politician, see Helen Duncan (politician). For the American geologist and paleontologist, see Helen M. Duncan.
Helen Duncan
Portrait of Helen Duncan.jpg
Born Victoria MacFarlane
(1897-11-25)25 November 1897
Callander, Perthshire, Scotland
Died 6 December 1956(1956-12-06) (aged 59)
Edinburgh, Scotland
Other names Hellish Nell
Occupation Medium
Spouse(s) Henry Duncan (1916-1967)

Victoria Helen McCrae Duncan (25 November 1897 – 6 December 1956) was a Scottish medium best known as the last person to be imprisoned under the British Witchcraft Act of 1735.

Early life[edit]

(Victoria) Helen MacFarlane was born in Callander, Perthshire on 25 November 1897, the daughter of a slater.[1] 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.[1] 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.

Practising medium[edit]

Photograph of a 1928 séancerevealing Duncan with dolls (by Harvey Metcalfe).

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".[2] The photographs that were taken reveal the "spirits" to be fraudulently produced, such as a doll made from a painted papier-mâché mask draped in an old sheet.[3]

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.[4]

In a séance on January 6, 1933 in Edinburgh, a little girl called Peggy emerged in the séance room. A sitter named Esson Maule grabbed her and the lights were turned on and the spirit was revealed to be made from a stockinette undervest.[5] The police were called and Duncan was prosecuted and fined £10.[6] The undervest was used as evidence which led to Duncan's conviction of fraudulent mediumship at the Edinburgh Sheriff Court trial on May 11, 1933.[7] Duncan's husband was also suspected for acting as her accomplice for hiding her fake ectoplasm.[8] Duncan would frequently have nosebleeds during séances; William Brown suggested that this was another of Duncans hiding places for her fake ectoplasm.[9]

Duncan with fake ectoplasm made of cheesecloth and a cut out face from a magazine.

Harry Price (director of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research) was skeptical of Duncan and had her perform a number of test séances. She was suspected of swallowing cheesecloth which was then regurgitated as "ectoplasm".[10] Price had proven through analysis of a sample of ectoplasm produced by Duncan that it was made of cheesecloth.[11] 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:

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.[13] 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 materializations were the result of regurgitation.[4] 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 Homer and Elizabeth Homer were prosecuted and convicted. Duncan was jailed for nine months, Brown for four months and the Homers were bound over.[14]

HMS Barham sinking[edit]

Duncan with a roll of cheesecloth held by her mouth and poked in her right nostril.

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 HMS Barham had been sunk.[4] Because the sinking of 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.[15] This proved to be Duncan herself, in a white cloth which she attempted to conceal when discovered, and she was arrested.[16] Researcher Graeme Donald wrote that Duncan could have easily found out about HMS Barham and she had no genuine psychic powers. According to Donald:

A leak concerning 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.[18]

Duncan was found to be in possession of a mocked-up HMS Barham hat-band.[19] 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.[20] 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.[21] There were also concerns that she was exploiting the recently bereaved, as the Recorder noted when passing sentence.[22]

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.[23]

Repeal of the Witchcraft Act[edit]

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?".[22][24]

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.[1] 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.[25][26]


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.[4]


The naval investigation and subsequent trial was dramatised 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.[27]


  1. ^ a b c Gaskill, Malcolm (January 2008). "Duncan [née MacFarlane], (Victoria) Helen McCrae (1897–1956)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. 
  2. ^ Malcolm Gaskill. (2001). Hellish Nell: Last of Britain's Witches. Fourth Estate. p. 100. ISBN 978-1841151090
  3. ^ Jason Karl. (2007). An Illustrated History of the Haunted World. New Holland Publishers. p. 79. ISBN 978-1845376871
  4. ^ a b c d Simeon Edmunds. (1966). Spiritualism: A Critical Survey. Aquarian Press.
  5. ^ Renée Haynes. (1982). The Society for Psychical Research 1882-1982: A History. London: MacDonald & Co.
  6. ^ Raymond Buckland. (2005). The Spirit Book: The Encyclopedia of Clairvoyance, Channeling, and Spirit Communication Visible Ink Press. p. 117. ISBN 978-1578592135
  7. ^ Harry Price. (1933). Leaves from a Psychist's Case-book. Gollancz. p. 176
  8. ^ Mary Roach. (2007). Six Feet Over: Adventures in the Afterlife. Canongate books, p. 127. ISBN 978-1847670809
  9. ^ Malcolm Gaskill. (2001). Hellish Nell: Last of Britain's Witches. Fourth Estate. p. 237. ISBN 978-1841151090
  10. ^ Harry Price. (1931). Regurgitation and the Duncan Mediumship. (Bulletin I of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research, 120pp with 44 illustrations.)
  11. ^ Marina Warner. (2008). Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media into the Twenty-first Century. Oxford University Press. p. 299. ISBN 978-0199239238
  12. ^ A report written by Harry Price on the mediumship of Helen Duncan in Paul Tabori. (1961). The Art of Folly. Chilton Company.
  13. ^ Paul Kurtz. (1985). A Skeptic's Handbook of Parapsychology. Prometheus Books. p. 599. ISBN 978-0879753009
  14. ^ Helena Normanton. (1945). The Trial of Mrs. Duncan. Edited with a Foreword by C. E. Bechhofer Roberts. Jarrolds Publishers.
  15. ^ Correspondent (24 March 1944). "Alleged Séance Deception". The Times (London) (49813): 8. 
  16. ^ Correspondent (25 March 1944). "Alleged Séance deceptions. Further evidence for the prosecution.". The Times (London) (49814): 2. 
  17. ^ Graeme Donald. (2009). Loose Cannons: 101 Things They Never Told You About Military History. Osprey Publishing. p. 48. ISBN 978-1846033773
  18. ^ Nigel West. (2010). Historical Dictionary of Naval Intelligence. Scarecrow Press. p. 98. ISBN 978-0810867604
  19. ^ Correspondent (31 January 1998). "British Lion, the Witch and Her Wardrobe.". The Times (London) (49814): 2. 
  20. ^ The BS Historian. "If she weighs the same as a duck...". Retrieved 2009-08-21. 
  21. ^ Spell broken for 20th century witch. BBC, 31 January 1998
  22. ^ a b "Medium Sentenced For Fraud". The Times (London, England: The Times Digital Archive). 1944-04-04. p. 2. 
  23. ^ Mantel, Hilary (3 May 2001). "Unhappy medium". Essays from the London Review of Books. The Guardian. Retrieved 2008-02-29. 
  24. ^ McSmith, Andy (29 February 2008). "Toil and trouble: the last witch?". The Independent (London). Retrieved 1 June 2012. 
  25. ^ Howie, Craig (24 October 2005). "Fraudulent medium or powerful psychic: the trial of a Scottish witch". The Scotsman (Edinburgh). Retrieved 12 September 2011. ""Mediums demand pardon for the murder of Helen Duncan'." 
  26. ^ "Hellish Nell: Witch-hunt that led to capture of fake medium". The Scotsman. 24 February 2009. Retrieved 31 May 2012. "many spiritualists, who have campaigned to have her 1944 conviction quashed" 
  27. ^ "Afternoon Drama, The Last Witch Trial". BBC Online. Retrieved 30 May 2012. 


Further reading[edit]

  • Gaskill. Malcolm. (2001). Hellish Nell: Last of Britain's Witches. Fourth Estate. 400 pp. ISBN 978-1841151090
  • Shandler, Nina. (2006). The Strange Case of Hellish Nell. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press. 289 pp. ISBN 9780306814389
  • Stemman, Roy. (1976). The Supernatural. Danbury Press. 144 pp. ISBN 978-0717281053
  • Tabori, Paul. (1961). The Art Of Folly. Kessinger Publishing. 280 pp. ISBN 978-0548442432

External links[edit]