But Duncan’s ghostly claims eventually put her on the wrong side of the law and in 1944 she became the last person to be imprisoned under the Witchcraft Act of 1735. Her court case became one of the most sensational in wartime Britain and resulted in Duncan being sentenced to nine months in Holloway Prison. But could ‘Hellish Nell’, as she was often known, really conjure up the dead, or was she merely a talented fraudster? Here, BBC History Magazine’s deputy editor, Charlotte Hodgman, investigates…
Born in Scotland in 1897, Helen Duncan claimed even as a child to possess clairvoyant and spirit-seeing abilities. At the age of 18 she married Henry Duncan, an invalided soldier of the First World War, and the pair went on to have six children together. Struggling to provide for her large family and sick husband, Helen, encouraged by Henry, began holding evening séances, aided by her ‘spirit guide’ Albert Stewart – a sardonic Scottish émigré to Australia who ‘appeared’ regularly in séances throughout Duncan’s career. Albert was often accompanied by another of Duncan’s spirit guides, Peggy – a little girl who allegedly danced, sang and swung from curtain rails.
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Duncan’s reputation as a spiritualist and medium grew throughout the 1920s and by the 1930s she was travelling throughout Britain, entertaining and shocking audiences with her antics. The huge loss of life caused by the First World War provided Duncan with even more opportunities to ‘reunite’ families with their lost loved ones, many of whom sought one last conversation with their deceased relatives. But in Duncan’s séances, audiences could do more than just ‘converse’ with the dead: they could see and touch the deceased. The powers Duncan claimed to possess allowed her to produce a slimy supernatural substance known as ectoplasm through her mouth and nose, which would then transform into the physical beings of spirits who could communicate with their loved ones.
Vincent Woodcock was one of many who experienced the full séance experience with Duncan. Giving evidence at the Old Bailey during Duncan’s trial in 1944, Woodcock claimed his dead wife had appeared in 19 séances he had attended over a period of three years. On one occasion, he said, he was sitting with his sister-in-law when Duncan went into a trance and began producing ectoplasm from her mouth. The substance, he said, then took on the form of his recently deceased wife.
“My wife came through and invited… her sister-in-law, to come up to her in front of the cabinet, and my wife came up to me and took this ring off my finger, which I have here,” he is recorded as saying. “She pulled it round thus… and she put it on to my sister-in-law’s hand. She clasped our hands together and kissed them, and said, ‘It is my wish that this takes place for the sake of our little girl’. Twelve months after that, her sister-in-law and I got married. She expressed great satisfaction. She came through on another occasion and said how pleased she was for the sake of her little girl.”
But not everyone was convinced that Duncan’s performances were genuine. In 1928, photographer Harvey Metcalfe attended one of Duncan’s séances and took flash photos of her alleged ‘spirits’. His photographs revealed the conjured spirits to be fraudulent, made by draping a papier-mâché mask with an old sheet. Three years later, Duncan’s activities were investigated by famed ‘ghost hunter’ Harry Price, at the invitation of the London Spiritualist Alliance. A small sample of ‘ectoplasm’ was examined and revealed to be regurgitated cheesecloth and paper stuck together with egg whites, while a supposed “materialised hand” was found to be nothing more than a “housemaid’s rubber glove”.
Meanwhile, an attempt to X-ray Duncan after a controlled séance ended in fiasco. Price recorded her as having “jumped up and dealt him a smashing blow on the face which sent him reeling. She then made a lunge at Dr. William Brown, who fortunately avoided the blow… Suddenly, without the slightest warning, she jumped up, pushed Mrs. Goldney aside, unfastened the door, and dashed into the street, where she had another attack of alleged hysterics and commenced tearing her séance garment to pieces. Her husband dashed after her, followed by the other sitters. She was found clutching the railings, screaming, and Mr. Duncan was trying to pacify her.”
On her return to the laboratory, Duncan, who had previously refused to be X-rayed, allegedly demanded for one to be done, an insistence Price attributed to her having already passed the ingested fake ectoplasm cheesecloth to her husband during the scene in the street. On this occasion, no X-ray was performed.
Despite these investigations, Duncan’s popularity endured. But in 1933 she was arrested for fraud after a member of her audience who had lunged at a shape emerging from the side of her skirt revealed it to be a stockinette undervest. Duncan was arrested for fraud and ordered to pay a £10 fine at Edinburgh Sheriff’s Court.
A brush with the law did little to curb Duncan’s spiritualist activities: in 1941 she came to the attention of the police once more following a séance in which she allegedly conversed with a deceased sailor from the British battleship HMS Barham. During the evening, the sailor revealed that he had been one of more than 800 men who had lost their lives when the ship was torpedoed by a German U-Boat. The news shocked those present – no announcement of such a tragedy had yet been announced by the War Office or the press, yet the information given by Duncan and her sailor was correct: HMS Barham had indeed been destroyed on 25 November.
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The British government was alarmed. How was Duncan aware of classified military information? Fearing that she was in contact with the enemy or receiving leaked information from inside the War Office, and with the critical D-Day landings on the horizon, the British government ordered Duncan’s arrest: police raided a séance taking place in Portsmouth on 19 January 1944. Duncan and three members of the audience were arrested under the catchall Vagrancy Act of 1824, a charge later amended to one of Conspiracy – in wartime Britain this carried the sentence of death by hanging. But by the time the case was brought to the Old Bailey the charge had been changed again, this time to contravention of section 4 of the Witchcraft Act 1735, which covered fraudulent ‘spiritual’ activity.
The trial was a media sensation. Witnesses were called to the stand to recall séances they had attended and the ‘spirits’ they had encountered there, including a journalist who claimed he had seen Arthur Conan Doyle materialise at a séance he had taken part in. Photographs were produced, including one of the spirit guide Peggy appearing to slither out of Duncan’s nose – its face obviously that of a child’s doll.
Ultimately, it took the jury just 25 minutes to find Duncan guilty and on 3 April 1944 she was sentenced to nine months in prison. On hearing the verdict Duncan is reported to have collapsed in the dock, moaning “Oh, I have done nothing. I have never done anything. Oh God. Is there a God?” and sobbing “it’s all lies” as she was led away.
Duncan served just six months of her sentence and was released from Holloway Prison on 22 September 1944. Despite promising to stop conducting séances she continued to hold them and was arrested yet again during a police raid in November 1956. Just five weeks later, she died at her home in Edinburgh.
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Duncan was a woman who divided public opinion – to some she was a genuine medium, capable of conjuring the dead. To others, she was a fraudster who made money out of vulnerable people. Everyone, it seemed, had an opinion about her – even Winston Churchill, who was furious to discover that the 1735 Witchcraft Act had been used in a modern court of law. In an April 1944 memo to Herbert Morrison at the Home Office, Churchill scribbled furiously: “Let me have a report on why the Witchcraft Act, 1735, was used in a modern Court of Justice… What was the cost of this trial to the State, observing that witnesses were brought from Portsmouth and maintained here in this crowded London, for a fortnight, and the Recorder kept busy with all this obsolete tomfoolery, to the detriment of necessary work in the Courts?”
Helen Duncan became the last person to be imprisoned under the 1735 Witchcraft Act and one of the last to be prosecuted under it. In 1951 the act was repealed and replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act following a campaign by Thomas Brooks, an MP and spiritualist. Today Duncan’s legacy continues to divide and she has become something of a martyr for many spiritualists, some of whom are still actively seeking to clear her name.
Charlotte Hodgman is the deputy editor of BBC History Magazine.
Helen Duncan’s story is being explored in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford as part of its current exhibition Spellbound: Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft, which runs until 6 January 2019. Click here to find out more.