The Curious Case of the Last Witch in Britain
In the late 16th and early 17th Centuries, Europe found itself gripped by witch mania. After centuries of denying the existence of witchcraft, Church leaders incredibly came to believe that misfortunes such as plagues and crop failures were causes not by God’s will but rather individuals acting in league with the Devil. The resulting hysteria, stoked by the political turmoil of the Protestant Reformation and European Wars of Religion, resulted in thousands of people – most of them women – being arrested, tortured, tried, and executed for witchcraft. In Britain alone, between 1560 and 1700 513 people were put on trial for witchcraft, with 112 being convicted and executed. These convictions were based on a series of Witchcraft Acts passed by Parliament, the first being introduced in 1542 under King Henry VIII and the last in 1604 by King James I, himself a noted demonologist and witch-hunting enthusiast. But by the end of the 17th Century the hysteria had mostly died down, with the last execution for witchcraft taking place in Devon in 1685 and the last conviction in Leicester in 1717. In 1735, Parliament passed the last of the Witchcraft Acts, which rather than making witchcraft itself a crime, made it unlawful to:
“…pretend to exercise or use any kind of Witchcraft, Sorcery, Inchantment [sic], or Conjuration, or undertake to tell Fortunes, or pretend, from his or her Skill or Knowledge in any occult or crafty Science, to discover where or in what manner any Goods or Chattels, supposed to have been stolen or lost, may be found…”
This Act effectively brought the era of witch hunting in Britain to a close. However, like many outdated pieces of legislation, the Witchcraft Act of 1735 remained on the books for more than 200 years, obscure and forgotten, until 1941, when, in the dark depths of the Second World War, it suddenly reemerged into the public consciousness. This is the strange tale of Helen Duncan, the last person in the UK to be jailed for witchcraft.
Victoria Helen McCrae was born on November 25, 1897 in Callander, Scotland to Archibald McFarlane, a roof slater, and Isabella Rattray. From an early age Helen proved to be a strange and difficult child, her habit of getting into fistfights earning her the nickname “Hellish Nell”. She also became known for falling into hysterical trances, uttering prophecies, and claiming to see and hear spirits, much to the dismay of her strict Presbyterian parents. At age 16, Helen became pregnant out of wedlock and was forced to leave her family home. She moved to Dundee, where she worked for a time at a jute mill. In 1914, following the outbreak of the Great War she applied for munitions work, but was diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to a sanatorium to recover. Upon release she worked at a bleach factory and as an auxiliary at the Dundee Royal Infirmary, where in 1916 she met and married Henry Duncan, a cabinetmaker who had been invalided from the Front with rheumatic fever.
Life for the young couple was grim. Over the next 10 years Helen would become pregnant 12 times, from which only 6 children would survive. Henry soon became too ill to work, leaving Helen, racked with hypertension, diabetes, kidney trouble, and stomach pains, to provide for the family. But a potential solution to their problems soon emerged. Henry spent much of his time at home reading books on spiritualism, and eventually he convinced his wife to put her natural psychic abilities to the test. And so, in 1926, Helen Duncan set up shop as a spiritualist medium.
While individuals claiming the ability to speak to the dead have existed for all of human history, the modern spiritualist movement is a much more recent phenomenon, tracing its origins only as far back as 1848. In March of that year, two teenage sisters, Margaret and Kate Fox of Hydesville, New York State, claimed to be able to communicate with spirits via faint rapping sounds, heard in response to tapping or snapping their fingers. Connecting these rappings with letters of the alphabet, the Fox Sisters identified the spirit as belonging to one Charles B. Rosna, a travelling peddler who had been murdered by the house’s previous owner and hidden in the cellar. While a search of the cellar revealed no human remains, Margaret and Kate’s older sister, Leah, recognized the commercial potential of the girl’s abilities and became their manager, taking them on a nationwide tour financed by showman P.T. Barnum. Their act was a sensation, kickstarting a worldwide craze for psychic performances and seances. Famous mediums like Daniel Douglas Home [note: pronounced Hume] became wealthy superstars, while private seances became all the rage in parlours around the world. While in 1888 the Fox Sisters admitted that their abilities were a fraud – they had produced the rappings themselves by clicking their toe joints – it was already too late. Spiritualism had taken the world by storm, gaining such illustrious adherents as Emperor Napoleon III, H.G. Wells, T.E. Lawrence, and even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes.
Two major developments helped spur the worldwide fascination with Spiritualism, the first, ironically, being recent, seemingly miraculous developments in science and technologies. If mankind could peer into the human body with x-rays or communicate long distances via telephone or radio, the spiritualists reasoned, then why not communicate with the spirit world? The other major catalyst was the Great War and the subsequent Spanish Influenza pandemic, which combined killed more than 100 million people worldwide. Spiritualism, with its promise of direct, tangible communication with deceased loved ones, offered greater comfort to millions of the bereaved than the comparatively vague doctrines of traditional religion. The practice became especially popular amongst military personnel, to the degree that in 1941 the Royal Navy recognized spiritualism as a legitimate creed and allowed sailors to perform seances while at sea. Thus, when Helen Duncan began practicing in 1926, she found a ready audience.
Duncan’s seances were typical of the movement. Seated in a darkened room, tied to a chair or enclosed in a wooden cabinet, she would slip into a trance and manifest all manner of ghostly apparitions before her stunned onlookers, including rappings, disembodied voices, music, or even full-fledged figures of people – including her recurring spirit helpers, a grown man named Albert and a little girl named Peggy. Duncan’s particular speciality was the production of ectoplasm, a mysterious white substance said to be made of psychic energy that would emanate from the mouth, nose, or ears of certain mediums, sometimes forming itself into faces or other shapes. Charging 25 Pounds a seat – a considerable sum in those days – Helen and Henry quickly found their fortunes reversed, and were soon able to afford a house in a fashionable suburb of Edinburgh.
But this early success was not to last, for Duncan soon came under the scrutiny of debunkers and the local authorities. In 1928 photographer Harvey Metcalfe took photos at one of her seances which revealed the “ectoplasm” to be nothing but cheesecloth and newspaper, while in 1931 she came to the attention of Harry Price of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research, who set out to expose her as a fraud. While the NLPR had been founded to promote Spiritualism and its members adhered to its core tenets, they believed that the practice had been overrun with quacks and fraudsters and sought to separate the genuine mediums from the false. On a number of occasions Price attended Duncan’s seances to collect samples of ectoplasm, which was invariably found to consist of cheesecloth, wood pulp, or egg whites. On another occasion Price convinced her to swallow blue dye to rule out that she was simply regurgitating her ectoplasm. According to some reports she subsequently failed to produce any ectoplasm, while according to others it came out white as before. But when Price tried to X-ray Duncan’s body to discover where she was hiding her emanations, she erupted into hysterics and had to be restrained by her husband. In his final report, Price concluded that Duncan was definitely a fraud, citing the testimony of a Miss Mary McGinlay, who had served as her maid in London:
“After a sance [sic], Mrs Duncan would get me to wash out a length of muslin. It had a rotten smell. She would give it to me just as she had used it and then it would be much stained and smelly.”
Despite this, demand for Duncan’s services continued to grow, though this increasing popularity brought with it even greater scrutiny. During a seance in Edinburgh on January 6, 1933, Duncan caused an apparition of Peggy, her spirit helper, to appear. Suddenly, a sitter named Esther Maule leapt up, grabbed the figure, and turned on the lights, revealing the apparition to be nothing more than a doll sewn from a stockinette vest. The police were called, and on May 11 Duncan was convicted of fraudulent mediumship by the Edinburgh Sheriff Court and fined 10 Pounds. But this would not be Helen Duncan’s last run-in with the law, as her curious profession would soon run afoul of wartime secrecy and paranoia.
During a seance in Portsmouth in late November 1941, Duncan manifested the figure of a young sailor, who claimed to have died aboard the battleship HMS Barham when she was sunk in the Mediterranean. This pronouncement stunned two naval officers in attendance, for HMS Barham had indeed been sunk just days before on November 25, torpedoed by German submarine U-331 with the loss of 861 men. But fearing that the news would damage civilian morale, the Admiralty had decided to only inform the crew’s immediate next of kin, and would not announce the sinking to the public until two months later. The two officers reported what they had seen, and an investigation was launched to determine how this middle-aged Scottish medium had come by such classified military information.
Over the next year Military Intelligence kept a close eye on Helen Duncan. Then, on January 19, 1944 police raided one of her seances in Portsmouth, with officers attempting to prevent ectoplasm issuing from her mouth before placing her and three attendees under arrest. Initially Duncan was charged under the 1824 Vagrancy Act, section IV of which states:
“And be it further enacted, That every Person committing any of the Offences herein-before mentioned, after having been convicted as an idle and disorderly Person; every Person pretending or professing to tell Fortunes, or using any subtle Craft, Mean, or Device, by Palmistry or otherwise, to deceive and impose on any of His Majesty’s Subjects.”
However, the authorities soon discovered the obscure 1735 Witchcraft act, and Duncan was duly charged with two counts of conspiracy to contravene the Act, two counts of obtaining money under false pretences, and 3 counts of public mischief. Also charged were Ernest and Elizabeth Homer, who ran the Portsmouth Psychic Centre, and Frances Brown, Duncan’s agent who arranged and managed her clients. The seven-day trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse caused a minor media sensation, with several prominent spiritualist experts being called as witnesses for the defence. But in the end the Prosecution had little trouble convincing the jury of its case, which held that:
“…the whole performance was an elaborate pretence, a fraudulent performance, a mere imposition on human credulity…[and] a pretence that so-called materialisations, which were in fact produced by means of fraudulent devices and apparatus, were of a different nature altogether.”
Arthur Charles West, the Portsmouth Chief of Police, was even harsher in his evaluation:
“This is a case where not only has she attempted and succeeded in deluding confirmed believers in Spiritualism, but she has tricked, defrauded and preyed upon the minds of a certain credulous section of the public who have gone to these meetings in search of comfort of mind in their sorrow and grief. I can only describe this woman as an unmitigated humbug who can only be regarded as a pest to a certain section of society.”
When the jury returned with a guilty verdict on the first count, the judge dismissed them without hearing verdicts on the six others. Duncan was sentenced to 9 months and Frances Brown to four months in prison, while the Homers were Bound Over – a practice equivalent to being released on bail. Strangely, Duncan was denied the customary right to appeal to the House of Lords, leading her to cry out in court: “I have done nothing! Is there a God?”
The absurdity of the conviction was not lost on Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who following the trial wrote following memo to Home Secretary Herbert Morrison
“Let me have a report on why the Witchcraft Act, 1735, was used in a modern Court of Justice. What was the cost of this trial to the State, observing that witnesses were brought from Portsmouth and maintained here in this crowded London, for a fortnight, and the Recorder kept busy with all this obsolete tomfoolery, to the detriment of necessary work in the Courts?”
Helen Duncan served her nine month sentence in London’s Holloway Prison, where fellow prisoners and staff reportedly lined up for seances. She was released on September 22, 1945, and despite promising the court to stop practicing spiritualism, soon resumed her old practice. In November 1956 police raided a seance in Nottingham and arrested her for fraud. While she was released soon after, five weeks later on December 6, 1956, Helen Duncan passed away at the age of 59.
To this day, controversy surrounds the reason for the courts’ decision to arrest and try Helen Duncan under the 1735 Act. What is known is that none of the authorities involved actually believed that Duncan had psychic powers. According to historian Graeme Donald, even her supposedly inexplicable knowledge of HMS Barham’s sinking was not as mysterious as it seems:
“The loss of HMS Barham… was indeed kept quiet for a while, but letters of condolence were sent out to families of the 861 dead, asking them to keep the secret until the official announcement. So, allowing for perhaps 10 people in each family, there were about 9,000 people who knew of the sinking; if each of them told only one other person, there were 20,000 people in the country aware of the sinking, and so on – hardly a closely guarded secret. In short, news of the sinking spread like wildfire; Duncan simply picked up the gossip and decided to turn it into profit.”
Furthermore, upon her arrest in 1944 Duncan was found to have in her possession a naval hat band bearing the name of HMS Barham. However, after 1939 Royal Navy hat bands bore only the letters “HMS” and not the name of the ship, further indicating that Duncan had heard gossip of the sinking around Portsmouth and prepared props for her seance beforehand.
The likeliest motivation for Duncan’s arrest was the secrecy surrounding the impending D-Day landings, with military authorities fearing that if Duncan overheard any classified information she could reveal it in one of her seances. The 1735 Witchcraft Act was therefore simply the most expedient means of locking her up until after the landings had taken place. Consequently, there have been calls in recent years for Duncan’s conviction to be overturned, with the Parliament of Scotland receiving a 200-signature petition in February 2008 calling for her to be granted a full pardon. While the petition was eventually rejected, Duncan’s advocates continued to call for justice.
While Helen Duncan was the last person to be imprisoned under the Act, she was not the last to be convicted under it. That dubious honour belongs to Jane Yorke, who was arrested on the10th of July 1944 after claiming to have contacted the non-existent dead brother of an undercover police officer. Her prosecution was delayed until the verdict of Helen Duncan’s trial was heard, whereupon she was convicted but only Bound Over for three years on account of her advanced age of 72. Seven years later, the Witchcraft Act of 1735 was finally overturned by the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951. For the first time in more than 400 years, witchcraft was no longer a crime in the United Kingdom. In 1954, Pagan Witchcraft, better known as Wicca, was officially recognized as a religion by Parliament.
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