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26th August 2002
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BBC Online - History - Scottish History

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Scotlandís Last Witch

Helen Duncan SpiritualistHelen 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.

It 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".
A 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 offer.

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 life".

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, died.

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