In 1944, a Scottish medium named Helen Duncan became the last person to be prosecuted under the archaic Witchcraft Act of 1735. Duncan was a popular medium, who held seances across Britain during the 1930s and 1940s, and claimed she had incredible paranormal skills, although these “powers” were often proven to be faked. For example, she said was able to produce ectoplasm, but when photographed and examined, this turned out to be regurgitated muslin cloth; she also claimed she could make spirits appear when under a trance, but these “spirits” proved to be nothing more than a sheet of cheesecloth with a cut-out picture from a movie magazine. Yet such was Helen’s charismatic appeal that she attracted many devoted followers and fans, including the then Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who believed Duncan had powerful psychic abilities.
Her psychic “talents” came to the notice of the Royal Navy after Helen claimed she saw an apparition of a dead sailor from the sunk ship HMS Barham, during a seance in Southampton. She said the dead sailor claimed his ship had been sunk with the loss of all life on board. As this was during the Second World War, official announcements about any sunk British vessel were held back so as not to damage morale. Duncan claimed she knew it HMS Barham as she had seen the ship’s name in the band of the dead sailor’s hat.
Ms. Duncan and her less than convincing ectoplasm.
Though this all sounds deliciously spooky, it is rather unlikely, as the names of ships were no longer written on sailor hats, and more importantly, the family members of all the ship’s crew had been notified of the loss of life, meaning the news of HMS Barham’s sinking was known locally in Southampton amongst a few families but not nationally. However, the Navy were so concerned that Helen Duncan may have been operating as a German spy that they kept tabs on her and her paranormal activities.
This eventually led to Duncan’s prosecution under the Witchcraft Act, and her incarceration for nine months in prison. At her trial, the respected historian and high-ranking Freemason, Alfred Dodd testified to Duncan’s authenticity. It was also known that Churchill took a personal interest in the case and questioned the use of the Witchcraft Act to prosecute Duncan. During the trial, the judge forbade Duncan from proving her psychic abilities in court (how she intended to do this is not quite clear). However, the resulting conviction and imprisonment seemed overly harsh for a woman who was considered to be fraudulent and no real security threat. If only Scooby-Doo had been around back then, eh?
Followers of Helen Duncan have consistently maintained her authenticity, and long after her death in 1956, she continues to hold considerable sway over those with an interest in the paranormal.
The following documentaries investigate Duncan’s claims to psychic powers and the events surrounding her trial. Each takes a different approach, from the supportive and personal, to the objective and scientific.
Excellent radio documentary on the ‘Witchcraft Trial’ of Helen Duncan.