Helen Duncan “The Last Witch”

by | Jul 14, 2017 | Blog

[cs_content][cs_section parallax=”false” style=”margin: 0px;padding: 45px 0px;”][cs_row inner_container=”true” marginless_columns=”false” style=”margin: 0px auto;padding: 0px;”][cs_column bg_color=”hsl(0, 16%, 86%)” fade=”false” fade_animation=”in” fade_animation_offset=”45px” fade_duration=”750″ type=”2/3″ style=”padding: 0px;”][cs_text]Helen Duncan born Callender, Scotland (1897 to 1956) aka “The Last Witch” , a Scottish medium best known as the last person to be imprisoned under the British Witchcraft Act.

Arguably the most controversial medium of the 20th Century, Duncan was celebrated, fined, imprisoned, questioned as an enemy spy, courted by Sir Winston Churchill who visited her as a client, feted and reviled in the press, the subject of feverish debate in the House of Commons, and was the cause celebre which saw the repeal of the Witchcraft Act of 1735.

(Victoria) Helen MacFarlane was born in Callander, Perthshire on November 25, 1897. As a child, her other worldly behaviour frightened her mother and scared her friends and school mates.

She married Henry Duncan and became a mother of six, but fell pregnant a dozen times. In 1926 she began holding séances, during these séances she claimed to be able to summon the recently deceased, and when these spirits were summoned she would emit ectoplasm from her mouth.

Duncan was a Spiritualist Materialisation Medium through whose body, milky ectoplasm flowed and formed into complete human figures, which could walk and talk and greet their living relatives with intimate secrets known only within their families.

In 1928 Harvey Metcalfe, a photographer attended a series of séances with Duncan. During these events, he claimed he took various photos of Duncan and her “spirits”, including her spirit guide “Peggy” but the photographs were subsequently exposed as fraudulent, an accusation also levelled at her production of ectoplasm.

In 1933 she was prosecuted and fined £10. She served a nine-month prison sentence for providing a “false séance” in a later offence.

By the 1930s and 1940s she was travelling the length of wartime Britain giving regular seances in hundreds of Spiritualist churches, the evidence that was provided caused a sensation.

During WWII, Duncan’s accurate ‘death notices’ increased her fame, she was in great demand from anxious relatives, especially those who had lost close family on active war service or who were listed as missing.

In November 1941, during World War II, Duncan held a séance in Portsmouth, which took her infamy, notoriety, and celebrity to a new level.

During this séance, she claimed a sailor materialized before and told her 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 became interested in her as a result. Two naval lieutenants were sent to attend further séances, following which she was arrested under suspicion of her being a spy or German agent.

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.

Initially she was arrested under section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824, a minor offence tried by magistrates, as a holding charge. After investigation, this was then upgraded to a charge under 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 reflected wartime paranoia about where she was obtaining classified information and concern that she was exploiting the recently bereaved, as the Recorder noted when passing sentence.

That paranoia included a fear that she would divulge the date of the D Day landings.

The trial was a sensation in wartime London. A number of prominent people, among them Alfred Dodd academic, historian and Shakespeare expert, testified positively on her authenticity.

Two equally respected journalists, James Herries and Hannen Swaffer also testified on her behalf.

Swaffer was a London media celebrity and darling of the Theatre world. He was also co-founder of the Spiritualist weekly “Psychic News”, with Arthur Findlay.

Contemporary accounts show he milked the occasion for all it was worth. James Herries, himself a Justice of the Peace, a much-respected psychic investigator of some 20 years standing and the chief reporter of the prestigious and influential “Scotsman” broadsheet affirmed that he had seen Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, famed author of the Sherlock Holmes books, himself materialise at one of Helen Duncan’s seances.

He had especially noted the distinctive Doyle rounded features, moustache and equally unmistakable gravelly voice.

Herries and Findlay were well known friends on the Glasgow social circuit.

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.

She was not given leave to appeal to the House of Lords. 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 and subsequently visited her in Holloway prison in London.

Churchill spoke of his psychic beliefs in his autobiography and was a member of the Grand Ancient Order of Druids.

There was a sense that an injustice had been done, and it is reported that extended to the warders at Holloway.

For the entire nine months Helen Duncan’s prison cell door was never once locked and she continued to apply her psychic gifts as a constant steam of warders and inmates alike found their way to her cell for spiritual upliftment and guidance.

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.

Some have claimed that the death of Duncan was caused by a “trance” meeting being disturbed by the police, but her medical records showed that she had a long history of ill-health.

Some Spiritualists claim that they have made contact with her sine her passing and that in September 1982, she came through the direct voice medium Rita Goold and spoke to her own daughter, Gina, who confirmed the authenticity of the contact.[/cs_text][/cs_column][cs_column fade=”false” fade_animation=”in” fade_animation_offset=”45px” fade_duration=”750″ type=”1/3″ style=”padding: 0px;”][x_image type=”none” src=”https://jane-osborne.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Helen-Duncan.jpg” alt=”” link=”false” href=”#” title=”” target=”” info=”none” info_place=”top” info_trigger=”hover” info_content=””][/cs_column][/cs_row][/cs_section][/cs_content]

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