(Victoria) Helen MacFarlane was born in Callander, Perthshire on 25 November 1897, the daughter of a slater. 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. 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 seances in which she appeared 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.
In 1931, Duncan's method was examined by the London Spiritual Alliance. After an initial positive review, the Alliance denounced her as a fraud. Harry Price (director of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research) was also sceptical and had Helen Duncan perform a number of test seances. She was suspected of swallowing cheesecloth which was then regurgitated as 'ectoplasm'. 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. However her defenders claimed to have witnessed events that could not be explained by trickery.
In 1934, during a seance in Edinburgh, a sitter made a grab at one of her materialisations. The police were called, and the "spirit" was then alleged to be a stockinette undervest. Duncan was found guilty of affray and fake mediumship at Edinburgh Sheriff Court and sentenced to a £10 fine or one month in prison. Supporters of Duncan have later claimed that the verdict was not "guilty" but the Scottish verdict of "not proven", based on their interpretation that the conviction was for affray alone.
Helen Duncan with husband Henry
HMS Barham sinking
During World War II, in November 1941, Duncan held a seance in Portsmouth at which she indicated knowledge that HMS Barham had been sunk. Because this fact was only revealed, in strict confidence, 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 seance on 14 January 1944 and this was followed up on 19 January, when police arrested her at another seance as a white-shrouded manifestation appeared. This proved to be Duncan herself, in a white cloth which she attempted to conceal when discovered, and she was arrested. She was also found to be in possession of a mocked-up HMS Barham hat-band. 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. She was initially arrested under section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1854, 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 seances. 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. There were also concerns that she was exploiting the recently-bereaved, as the Recorder noted when passing sentence.
Duncan's trial for fraudulent witchcraft was a minor cause celebre 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.
Repeal of the Witchcraft Act
Duncan is often referred to as the last person to be convicted of being a witch, but this view is incorrect in two important aspects. Firstly, the Witchcraft Act 1735 under which she was convicted dealt not with witchcraft but with people who falsely claimed to be able to procure spirits. Secondly, there was a subsequent conviction under the act, of Jane Rebecca Yorke of Forest Gate in East Ham later in 1944; Yorke was bound over to keep the peace.
On her release in 1945, Duncan promised to stop conducting seances; however, she was arrested after another one in 1956. She died a short time later. 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 Paliament 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 a campaign to have her posthumously pardoned continues.