Helen Duncan, the Blitz Witch.
Posted On May 7, 2020
What comes to mind when you picture a witch? Pointy hats, black cats, broomsticks? If you said all three, you would not be alone. It’s an image that has been reinforced by Halloween costumes and Hollywood. However, witches are and have always been real people.
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Whilst today, Wicca is a recognised religion with 53,172 followers in the UK, it was not always accepted. Between 1484 and 1750 an estimated 200,000 people across Europe were executed for witchcraft. Whilst there were male victims, the overwhelming majority of those targeted were women, especially older, poor women, who had no male influence in their lives. Suspicion came from many different places, neighbours, family and professional witch hunters like Matthew Hopkins. Once arrested the accused faced a number of tortures designed to make them confess. These included thumb screws, sleep deprivation, and the pricking of a wart or mole, which was believed to be a ‘Devil’s Mark’. The mark was poked with a needle, if the suspect was a witch it was believed that they would feel no pain. Matthew Hopkins, the famous witch finder, would use his own ‘needle’ which when pressed against a mark would retract into the handle ensuring the woman never felt any pain and was considered guilty. Another test widely used was the swimming test, in which a victim either had their thumbs tied to opposite big toes, or to a ducking stool, and dunked repeatedly into cold water, demonologists, believed that witches would float because of their supernatural powers, and that those who drowned were innocent. Either way, death awaited them.
(Depiction of mass executions witches. Image from www.history-uk.com/witch trials)
By 1750, the witch trials were at an end, but that was not to be the last time the charge was used. In 1943, Helen Duncan was convicted under the Witchcraft Act of 1735, and sentenced to nine months in Holloway Prison, making her the last woman in Britain to be tried as a witch. It is her life that is the focus of this article.
(Image of Helen Duncan. Image from www.Historic-uk.com/helenduncan)
Victoria Helen McCrae MacFarlane, was born on the 25th of November 1897 in Callander, Scotland. Helen is said to have begun to exhibit psychic abilities from a very young age. One story goes that whilst at school, Helen’s teacher wrote some questions on a blackboard for the pupils to answer on their slates. Helen, who did not know the answers, prayed for help and the answers appeared on her slate. When her teacher saw that the answers were not in Helen’s normal handwriting he accused her of cheating. Helen denied she had copied other children’s answers but had no answer for how the answers had appeared.
Initially, Helen’s parents, who both had female relations with the ‘gift’ were unconcerned by their daughter’s ability, believing she would grow out of it. Instead, her abilities seemed to grow, and by the time she was a teenager, her mother was so concerned that she took Helen to the local doctor to check if there was anything physically wrong. Nothing could be found. Whilst there, Helen is said to have warned the doctor not to go out that night, however, he did and his car skidded off the road in a snowstorm claiming his life. This led the local Presbyterian minister to accuse Helen of “consorting with the devil”. Faced with growing hostility and lack of employment opportunities, Helen moved away from home by the age of sixteen.
By the outbreak of World War One, Helen was living in Dundee. During the war years she worked first in a munitions factory and then later as a nurse. It was whilst working as a nurse, she was introduced to the man she would go on to marry, Henry Duncan. Henry, had been invalided out of the army due to a damaged valve in his heart caused by rheumatic fever, and worked as a cabinet maker. The two were married in 1916, throughout their marriage Henry supported Helens ‘gifts’ and encouraged her to use them.
Early married life was a financial struggle for the couple who had little income and six children; Bella, Nan, Lillian, Henry, Peter and Gena to provide for. Faced with the need to increase their income, Henry encouraged Helen to develop her psychic talent which at this time included clairvoyance, clairaudience, psychometry and precognition. However, given her early experiences, Helen was initially wary of sharing her talents, but the need for money and Helen’s desire to help people seek comfort after the war, soon changed her mind. Word quickly spread of Helen’s talent and by the mid 1920’s, her skills were in demand and each morning the post would bring requests for sittings and invitations for Helen to visit and hold séances, for which she would receive a small fee.
Whilst using her ‘gifts’ it is said that Helen would go into a deep trance, and that during one of these trance, “…the voice of a Dr. Williams materialised and told Henry that his wife had the potential to materialise spirits.” Henry was excited by this, and persuaded Helen to hold experimental séances with neighbours and friends as sitters. These were said to be “…unpredictable and even frightening at times…but, by saying a prayer at the start and keeping a Bible to hand, Henry learned from Dr. Williams how to develop his wife’s talent and keep her and those in attendance safe.” Henry went so far as to make a cabinet that when she was seated inside it, would act as a harness to Helen’s powers, allowing spirits to materialise and appear to sitters. Whilst using the cabinet, Helen is said to have begun to produce ectoplasm from her mouth and nostrils. Amazing those in attendance, who described it as a “magical mist” or “living cobweb” which glowed bright white and appeared as if it had a life of its own. This new talent saw Helen’s popularity continue to rise and requests for séances increase.
(Image of HelenDuncan producing ectoplasm. Image from www.express.co.uk)
The Scottish Spiritualist Society in Edinburgh, invited Helen to give regular séances to their members. They were so impressed by Helen, that they presented her with a certificate endorsing her talent. However, when Helen and Henry, who was by this point acting as Helen’s manager learned how much the sitters paid to attend these séances compared to how little they were paid they refused to be exploited. This began a dispute between the Spiritualist organisation and Helen that continued throughout her life.
Henry was so confident in Helen’s abilities, that in 1931, he agreed to allow Mr. Harry Price to witness a séance and test Helen’s abilities. Price, who was a prolific author and media personality, has authored several books on the supernatural and was director of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research (of which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was president). Price was determined to prove Helen a fraud, and during their first meeting, he announced that he thought all mediums were “guilty of fraud until proven genuine”. During a controlled test séances, he took a sample of ectoplasm which dissipated in the bottle before it could be examined. Price concluded that the spirits Helen produced were “…no more than trickery. Created with a sheet of cheesecloth.” This is disputed by believers, who argue that Helen was examined before every sitting, during which it was confirmed that no piece of cloth was concealed about or inside her body. In response, Price claimed Helen regurgitated the cheesecloth and that her refusal to be X-rayed was because she had a second stomach.
Despite Helen’s denials, Price’s theories had gained popularity, and in 1934 led to Helen’s first brush with the law. During a séance in Edinburgh, a member of the audience named as Miss Maule grabbed at one of Helen’s spirit guides known as Peggy. This led to a commotion and resulted in the police being called. Miss Maule claimed the ‘spirit’ which manifested was an under vest, in response, Helen claimed the garment had been stolen from her travelling bag and was being used as an attempt to discredit her. When offered the chance to bring charges against Miss Maule, Helen refused.
At Edinburgh Sheriff Court, Helen was accused of affray and fraud, to which she pleaded ‘not guilty’. Despite there having been eight people present at the séance, just three appeared for the prosecution. Miss Maule herself admitted that at the same time as the spirit guide was talking, Helen could also be heard breathing deeply whilst in a trance. Nobody disputed that several spirits had appeared and spoke and when Miss Maule created the disturbance Helen was seen to be sitting behind the cabinet before she was woken out of her trance. Dr. Marguerite Linck-Hutchinson, testifying, for the defence had examined the naked Helen before the séance and supervised her as she dressed in her black séance garments. Dr. Linck-Hutchinson was shown the seized vest and asked if Helen could have used it to replicate the young spirit guide Peggy, to which she replied, “It would have been impossible to produce anything like what was seen using a garment like that.” Furthermore, she dismissed Price’s regurgitation theory. Stating that Helen could not have regurgitated the amount of material required to produce the spirits, as she had eaten with Helen and remained with her until the séance, therefore, it would have been impossible for Helen to regurgitate material without also vomiting up the meal. A second defence witness, a Mr. Ernest W. Oaten, who was the President of the International Spiritualist Federation and the editor of the leading Spiritualist journal ‘Two Worlds’ stated that “The spirits were intelligences separate and distant from Mrs. Duncan and were decidedly different in form.” Despite the weak evidence and her strong defence, Helen was found guilty and given a ten shilling fine (around £25in today’s money).
Despite the court case, Helen’s popularity continued to grow and by the 1940’s she was travelling all around the UK holding hundreds of séances in Spiritualist churches and homes. The outbreak of World War Two, brought an increase in demand for séances, as those who lost family friends sought comfort. In 1941, Helen would hold two séances that were to have serious repercussions.
The first took place in Edinburgh on the 24th of May, 1941. Amongst those in attendance was Brigadier Firebrace, during the séance, Helen’s spirit guides made a number of claims including, British battleship had just been sunk, Russia would enter the war on the side of the allies, something which at the time seemed highly unlikely, and that the war would end with two big bangs. After leaving the séance the Brigadier returned home and listened to the news, wanting to know if a battleship had been sunk but there was no mention of one, and so he rang the Admiralty and the official denied it. However, the following morning the same official rang Brigadier Firebrace back and confirmed that HMS Hood had been sunk by the Bismarck and asked to know how he had the information before some sections of the Admiralty. Firebrace told him about Helen and the events of the séance, if they believed him or not, it put Helen on their radar.
(HMS Hood. Image from www.guardian.com)
The second séance of consequence took place inNovember of 1941, when Helen held a séance in Portsmouth, the home of the Royal Navy. During the séance the spirit of a sailor dressed in his uniform complete with the name ‘HMS Barham’ on his cap band appeared. Those in attendance, including his mother, heard him say that his ship had been sunk with a great loss of life, including his own. Shocked, his mother allegedly replied, that it could not be true as she had not been notified, to which the spirit sailor claimed she would be in three weeks’ time before fading away. So concerned for her son, the sailor’s mother contacted the Admiralty who sent two officials round to question her. The Admiralty knew through Enigma machine communications intercepted at Bletchley Park that the Germans thought only minor damage had been done to the HMS Barham, when the truth was that the ship had blown up a few minutes after being hit by a U-boat torpedo. The Royal Navy wanted the Germans to continue thinking that the HMS Barham was still a threat in the Mediterranean. As such they had gone to great lengths to keep the sinking from the public, and did not officially announce the sinking until late January 1942. Despite this, due to Helen’s séance rumours of the HMS Barham’s sinking began to spread around Portsmouth. Although they took no action at the time there were suggestions amongst the authorities that Helen was a potential security risk.
(HMS Barham. Image from www.uboat.net)
By 1944 D-Day was being planned at Southwick House, near Portsmouth, such was the importance of the invasion that secrecy was paramount. Training for D-Day had not got off to the best start, with many troops dying and paranoia about security reached new heights. After the disclosures at Helen’s séances three years previously, those in charge began to worry that a spirit of one of these soldiers could appear at one of Helen’s séances and tell the sitters how and where he had died. From this a sitter might make an educated guess as to when and where the invasion was to take place. Therefore, it was decided by the Chief Constable of West of Hampshire Police that a ‘better safe than sorry’ policy was the most sensible course of action, and for the sake of the soldiers preparing to storm the French coast Helen needed to be kept out of the way by any means necessary. On January 19th 1944, Helen was invited to hold a séance at a Master Temple above a chemist shop in Copnor Road, Portsmouth, which was raided by the police and Helen was arrested under section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824. Such was Helen’s fame, the BBC interrupted coverage of the Russian advances on the Eastern front to announce news of her arrest, and the trial made headlines in the newspapers.
The charge was changed to contravening the Witchcraft Act 1735, which covered “…fraudulent ‘spiritual’ activity…” and needed to be tried before a jury. Helen was not the only one charged, Ernest and Elizabeth Homer, who hosted the séance in Portsmouth, and Frances Brown who went with Helen to help with the séances when Henry was too ill to travel were charged with conspiracy to contravene the Witchcraft Act. During their raid, the police expected to find evidence of fraud and Helen’s fakery, but found nothing. Therefore, their case was based on the logic that Helen must have pretended to conjure up the spirits of the dead as no such thing existed. To prove her innocence, Helen would have to prove the existence of life after death.
The trial lasted between 23rd March and 3rd April 1944 and was presided over by Judge Dodson. Helen’s defence barrister, was himself a Spiritualist, and saw Helen’s trial as an opportunity to promote Spiritualism, and his strategy was to hold a séance in court and let everyone present, including the jurors, see the proof with their own eyes. However, Judge Dodson who initially rejected this request. The case made against Helen was weak and unconvincing, with the prosecution calling only five witnesses, two of which were policemen involved in her arrest. The defence, however, produced 49 witnesses including a District Sessions Judge, a Reverend, a doctor, a Wing Commander and a theatre critic. Witnesses claimed that the spirits that they had seen ranged from old people to young children and even pets, which had divulged family information that Helen could not possibly have known, or spoke in languages that Helen did not speak. Many had seen Helen apparently asleep in her cabinet and spirits at the same time. knowing that legally there was no limit on the number of defence witnesses he could call and with no shortage of volunteers, Loseby, believed he would wear the Judge down into allowing a séance in court and eventually he succeeded. On the condition Loseby called no more witnesses, Judge Dodson offered the jury a demonstration of a séance if they would think such a demonstration helpful. The jury, however, declined. Whilst their reasons for declining are unknown, it has been suggested that, as the jury had been brought to London from Portsmouth and were away from their families, they were eager to return home, especially as the trial was continually interrupted by bombing.
Unsurprisingly, Helen was found guilty and in his determination to get her the maximum possible prison sentence of one year, Chief Constable West described Helen as a “…national pest and unmitigated humbug…” and divulged that she had disclosed the sinking of the two ships before they were public knowledge. Quiet, how Helen could be guilty of ‘pretending’ to conjure up spirits, whilst also being condemned for being so accurate that she was a threat to national security was never explained. Whatever the rationale, Helen was shown no mercy and was sentenced to nine months in Holloway prison, and her subsequent appeal rejected. Helen was not in good health, she was overweight and suffered from diabetes, and many of her supporters feared she would not survive prison. However, Helen’s health actually improved during her time in prison. Her sentence was reduced to six months, and she was released on the 22nd of September 1944.
Upon her release, Helen vowed to stop conducting séances, but the loss of life suffered during the Second World War saw demand for her services increase and Helen, who had always wanted to help people could not ignore the requests. In 1951, the Witchcraft Act was repealed, and replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act, and three years later, Spiritualism was officially recognised as a legitimate religion by an Act of Parliament. Spiritualists celebrated this, pleased that frauds would be properly prosecuted, and the authorities would stop harassing true working Mediums.
Despite being a recognised religion, in 1956 another of Helen’s séances was raided by police, but again no evidence of fraud could be found. During the séance, the police woke Helen from her trance, which spiritualists believed to be dangerous, as it causes the ectoplasm to return to the medium’s body too quickly and can cause the medium immense pain or lead to death. When examined by a doctor after her abrupt wake up, Helen had two second degree burns the size of saucers on her stomach and breast which caused her severe pain and she was rushed to the hospital. The burns never healed, and just five weeks after that police raid, on December 6th 1956, Helen passed away.
Since her death, Helen has been considered a martyr amongst mediums and Spiritualists, and a campaign for Helen to be awarded a posthumous pardon has been continually rejected. A bronze bust of Helen Duncan, was presented to the town of Callander, but some which religious beliefs disapproved of it being on display and was moved to the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum, where it is currently on display.
(Bronze bust of Helen Duncan. Image from https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/helen-duncan
Whether Helen Duncan could actually contact and materialise spirits, but it is clear she had a desire to want to help people, and that that fear and distrust of what cannot be proved led not only to Helen’s imprisonment but the loss of over 200,000 lives during the height of the witch trials. Therefore, here at Sagas of She, we ask that whatever you believe or those around you believe, no matter if it’s Gods, magic, science or logic, that you be kind to yourself and to one and other.
A short Introduction to Witchcraft by Malcom Gaskill.
By Brian P. Levack.
The Two Worlds of Helen Duncan by Gina Brealey and Kay Hunter.