Helen Duncan was
born in Callender on the 25th November 1897. From
an early age she displayed the gift of medium with the spirit world.
She made a living by conducting sťances throughout Britain, during
which the spirits of the dead were alleged to appear, talking and
actually touching their relatives. In time Helen Duncan was minister
to a network of Spiritualist churches and private homes.
During the years of the Second World War, Helen lived in
Portsmouth, the home of the Royal Navy, where her activities
attracted the attention of the establishment. In 1941 she informed
an audience about the sinking of a warship before the news had even
been released to the public. In 1943 the spirit of a sailor
appeared, announcing that he had just gone down on a vessel called
the Barham. The Barham was not officially declared lost until
several months later.
On the 19th November 1944, one of
Helenís sťances was interrupted by the loud blast of a whistle
coming from a plain-clothes policeman and a naval lieutenant. They
attempted to stop the ectoplasm then issuing from Helenís mouth, but
failed. After some order had been restored, Helen and three members
of her audience were surprised to be formally arrested.
has often been alleged that the reason for the raid was a fear that
the date of the D-Day Normandy landings might be revealed. The
original charge laid against the spiritualists by the Portsmouth
magistrates was that of vagrancy. Although the maximum fine for the
offence was a mere five shillings, Helen Duncan was refused bail.
Instead, she was sent to spend four days at Londonís Victorian
Holloway prison. The alleged crime was then changed to one of
conspiracy, which was still a hanging offence in wartime. By the
time the case came before the judge at the Old Bailey, however, it
had been altered yet again. The defendants were now accused of a
different kind of conspiracy: that of contravening the Witchcraft
Act of 1735.
In particular, the medium and her three sitters were
accused of pretending "to exercise or use human conjuration that
through the agency of Helen Duncan spirits of deceased dead persons
should appear to be present". The authorities also laid charges
against Helen under the Larceny Act. She was charged with taking
money "by falsely pretending that she was in a position to bring
about the appearances of the spirits of deceased persons".
fund was immediately established by her supporters in order to pay
for the expenses of defence witnesses. As the trial proceeded, it
caused a sensation in the newspapers.
At one stage,
the defence announced that Mrs Duncan was prepared to demonstrate
her abilities in the witness box. This amounted to conducting a
sťance in the court while in a state of trance. After considering
the proposal throughout the night, the prosecution refused the
The jury found Helen Duncan guilty under the terms of
the old Witchcraft Act. She was found innocent of all the other
charges. The defenceís right to appeal to the House of Lords was
withheld. After being sentenced to nine months imprisonment, all she
had to say was "I never heeíd so mony lies in aí my
During her time
in jail, Helen Duncan received many visitors, including Winston
Churchill. The Prime Minister was known to have spiritualist
sympathies. What Churchill said on these occasions to Helen is
unknown, but one of his first acts when he was re-elected to power
in 1951 was to repeal the Witchcraft Act. A formal act of parliament
three years later officially recognised spiritualism as a religion.
Helen Duncan was released from prison on the 22nd September
1944. In November 1956 the police raided a private sťance in
Nottingham in an attempt to prove fraud. Once again the
investigators failed in their objectives. Following the incident,
two second-degree burns were found across Helenís stomach. After
being examined by a doctor, Helen was taken back to her native
Scotland where she was eventually admitted to hospital. Five weeks
later, the woman who will always be remembered as the last witch,