A true story of a Scottish housewife who found herself in the centre of a WWII legal battle which ended with her brutal conviction of a 'crime' under Britain's ancient Witchcraft Act and jailed for nine months simply for falling asleep on request.
Her name was Helen Duncan and in every respect but one she was just a normal housewife and mother of six. That single aspect that made her different from others and was destined to make her the confidante of wartime premier Winston Churchill and his colleagues, is that she had the astonishing ability to bring the dead to life.
Mrs. Duncan was a Spiritualist Materialisation Medium through whose ample body, milky ectoplasm flowed and formed into complete human figures, which could walk and talk and greet their living relatives with intimate secrets known only within their
This is the true story of a woman sent to prison accused of being a witch when she was a well-known and proven psychic. During WWII Helen's accurate 'death notices' were verified countless times. When she materialized the full form of a sailor with the name H.M.S. BARHAM on his cap, a ship which the English government denied had been sunk; she was arrested and jailed as a spy and then a witch. Even after she was proven correct, she was held as a witch.
Helen Duncan and 'Predictions'
HELEN DUNCAN was a remarkable Spiritualist Materialisation Medium and campaigners have spent over a decade now researching her life and work. Now over 60 million surfers have visited this website.
To date we have not found any record that she ever made predictions for her clients. Recent claims in American and German tabloids that she has given predictions about the American President Elect Obama are not based on facts.
These claims do not conform to the traditions that Mrs Duncan was trained to observe which firmly maintained that all evidence given during her many sittings was completely confidential. It is also worth noting that since she was in a trance state she had no knowledge of what took place during her seances.
We are trying to trace the original source of these claims which appear to conform to the modern approach of 'scry and tell' psychics and do not reflect the long standing traditions of confidence observed by all properly trained Spiritualist Mediums.
During the second world war Helen was in great demand from anxious relatives, especially those who had lost close family on active war service. One of many such sittings took place in a private house in the home port of Britain's Royal Naval fleet, the southern coastal city of Portsmouth on the evening of 19th January 1944. It was a dangerous place to hold any meeting - such was the German Luftwaffe's intent on reducing Portsmouth to rubble and disable Britain's fleet.
But the real danger lay not in a hail of enemy bombs but with the skepticism and fear of the establishment. For that night her séance was disrupted by a plain clothes policeman who blew his whistle to launch a raid. Police hands made a grab for the ectoplasm but the spirit world was too quick for them and it dematerialised quicker than they could catch.
Thus Helen Duncan, together with three of her innocent sitters, were taken up before Portsmouth magistrates and charged with Vagrancy. At this hearing the court was told that Lieutenant R. Worth of the Royal Navy had attended this séance suspecting fraud. He had paid 25 shillings (then worth about $5) each for two tickets and had passed the second ticket to a policeman . It was this policeman who had made the unsuccessful grab for the ectoplasm, believing it to be a white sheet. But the subsequent finger tip search of the room immediately after the raid failed to discover any white sheets.
Even if she had been found guilty under this charge the maximum fine at that time would have been some five shillings ($1) and she would have been released. But, very oddly Helen was refused bail. Instead she was sent to London and forced to spend four days in the notorious women's prison called Holloway. It was this same Victorian goal where suffragettes had been force fed by prison warders and where the grisly gallows waited for all female murderers, spies and traitors.
Meanwhile an anxious establishment debated the best charge to lay against this dangerous war criminal Helen Duncan. One her first appearance before the Portsmouth magistrates she had been charged under the catchall act of Vagrancy. This was later amended to one of Conspiracy which, in wartime Britain, carried the ultimate sentence of death by hanging. But by the time the case had been referred to England's central criminal court - know as the Old Bailey - the charge had been changed yet again . This time to one of witchcraft and an old Act of 1735 had been dredged out of the dusty law libraries.
Under this ancient rune Helen Duncan and her innocent 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'.
But, lest this single charge may falter, the authorities scoured their dusty law precedents for further charges and they found them. One such was the Larceny Act which accused her of taking money 'by falsely pretending she was in a position to bring about the appearances of these spirits of deceased persons'.
The prosecution were determined to prove Helen Duncan was a fraud. Her trial took place barely a few months before the famous D-Day landings and lasted for seven grueling days. Spiritualists everywhere were up in arms that one of their most treasured and gifted demonstrators should be treated in such a tawdry manner. A defence fund was quickly raised. It was used to bring witnesses from all over the world to testify to her genuine gifts. Because of this her case rapidly became a cause celebré which attracted daily headlines in tabloid and broadsheets alike.
One telling development that this was no ordinary case was that in a rare example of cross border co-operation both the Law Societies (senior legal bar councils) of England and Scotland jointly and simultaneously declared this case to be a travesty of justice.
As a debunking exercise the case failed miserably. Skeptics must have winced at the daily reporting of case after case where 'dead' relatives had materialised and given absolute proof of their continued existence . One Kathleen McNeill, wife of a Glaswegian forgemaster, told how she has attended such a séance at which her sister appeared. Her sister had died some a few hours previously, after an operation, and news of her death could not have been known. Yet Albert, Helen Duncan's guide, announced that she had just passed over. And, at a subsequent séance, some years later Mrs. McNeill's father strode out of the cabinet and came within six feet of her to better display his single eye, a hallmark of his earthly life.
By the penultimate day of this ridiculous trial, the defence was ready to call their star witness Alfred Dodd, an academic and much respected author of works on Shakespeare's sonnets. Alfred told the court that during 1932 and 1940 he had been a regular guest at Helen Duncan's home seance's. At one of these sittings his grandfather had materialised, a tall, corpulent man with a bronzed face and smoking cap, hair dressed in his customary donkey-fringe. After speaking with his grandson the spirit then turned to his friend Tom and said; "Look into my face and into my eyes. Ask Alfred to show you my portrait. It is the same man".
Two equally respected journalists, James Herries and Hannen Swaffer then took their places in the Old Bailey witness box - a place where for hundreds of years many a murderer has given evidence and many a witness has pointed an accusing finger. The chain smoking Swaffer, who had already won acclaim as the acerbic uncrowned father of Fleet Street (home of England's newspaper quarter) and co-founder of the Spiritualist weekly "Psychic News", told the court that anyone who described ectoplasm as "butter muslim" would be a child. Under a red light in a séance room it would look yellow or pink whilst these spirit forms all displayed a white appearance".
James Herries, himself a Justice of the Peace, a much respected psychic investigator of some 20 years standing and the chief reporter of the prestigious and influential "Scotsman" broadsheet affirmed that he had seen Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, famed author of the Sherlock Holmes books, himself materialise at one of Helen Duncan's seance's. He had especially noted the distinctive Doyle rounded features, moustache and equally unmistakable gravelly voice.
But, wisely or otherwise, the defence had decided that the best test of Helen Duncan's genuine gifts were for her to give a demonstration of physical phenomena whilst in trance from the very witness box of England's Central Criminal Courts. This suggestion really did cause a frightened flurry in the ivory dovecots of the establishment. If she pulled it off, they debated, then instead of the censure they sought, her cause would be spread throughout the land and even beyond. And this would mean that the famed British legal system adopted by so many former colonies - including America - would be held to total ridicule.
Hurried conferences with the best legal minds were held throughout the night. Their solution was to reject this offer and suggest instead that Mrs. Duncan be called as a witness - thus giving the prosecution an opportunity to cross examine this ordinary Scottish housewife and, in doing so, attempt to destroy her credibility. But Helen's defence lawyers saw through this ploy. They pointed out that Mrs. Duncan could not testify since she was in a trance state during these seance's and could not, therefore, discuss what had transpired.
The jury only took half an hour to reach their verdict; Helen and her co-defendants were found Guilty of conspiracy to contravene that ancient 1735 Witchcraft Act but Not Guilty on all other charges.
Portsmouth's chief of police then described this new 'criminal's' background. Mrs. Duncan was married to a cabinet maker and had a family of six children ranging from 18-26 and she had been visiting Portsmouth for some five years. He then described her as "an unmitigated humbug and pest" and revealed that in 1941 she had been reported for announcing the loss of one of His Majesty's ships before the fact had been publicly known .
The presiding judge announced a weekend's delay whilst he considered sentence. Helen herself left the dock weeping in her broad Scottish dialect; "I never hee'd so mony lies in a' my life".
The following monday morning the judge declared that the verdict had not been concerned with whether 'genuine manifestations of the kind are possible . . .this court has nothing whatever to do with such abstract questions'. However he interpreted the jury's findings to mean that Helen Duncan had been involved in plain dishonesty and for this reason he therefore sentenced her to nine months imprisonment.
The shocked Spiritualist movement immediately demanded a change in the law. They felt that she had been prosecuted to stop any leakage of classified wartime information. As one of many, many examples during 1943 and once more in that ungrateful city of Portsmouth, Helen Duncan had given a séance during which a sailor materialised reporting that he had gone down with His Majesty's Ship "Barham", whose loss was not officially announced until three months later.
But, the defence right of appeal to the House of Lords, Britain's highest court of appeal, was denied. The establishment had achieved its objective and certainly did not want one single inch of further publicity. Helen was sent back to London's Holloway prison, that Victorian monstrosity for female prisoners still being used today.
It was not only the best legal minds in the country that felt this case had been a major miscarriage of justice. So too did her prison warders. They refused to 'bang her up'. For the entire nine months of her unjust incarceration, Helen Duncan's prison cell door was never once locked! What's more, she continued to apply her psychic gifts as a constant steam of warders and inmates alike found their way to her cell for spiritual upliftment and guidance.
And many senior Spiritualists who were close to Helen report, it was not only prisoners and staff who made pilgrimage to the dreaded Holloway Goal. So too did some of her other more notable sitters, including Britain's Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill himself.
Churchill was no stranger to psychic phenomena. Recalling the events of the Boer War when he had been captured, had escaped and seeking sanctuary he explained in his autobiography how he was "guided by some form of mental planchette (a Spiritualist tool) to the only house in a 30 mile radius that was sympathetic to the British cause". Had he knocked on the back door of any other house he would have been arrested and returned to the Boer commanders to be shot as an escaping prisoner of war. Many years prior to this he had been ordained into the Grand Ancient Order of Druids. And throughout his life he experienced many times when his psychic sixth sense saved his life.
Churchill was exceeding angry indeed when the Helen Duncan case began. He penned an irate ministerial note to the Home Secretary; "Give me a report of the 1735 Witchcraft Act . What was the cost of a trial to the State in which the Recorder ( junior magistrate) was kept busy with all this obsolete tomfoolery to the detriment of the necessary work in the courts?"
But his civil servants were over-ridden by the all powerful intelligence community. D-Day was coming and their levels of paranoia had reached an all time high and even a Prime Minister's anger was to be set aside. Helen Duncan, mother of nine and part time bleach factory employee was considered a risk and they wanted her out of the way when the Allies struck. Her case was a transparent conspiracy to frame her ' in the interests of national security'
Meanwhile, having served her full sentence, Helen Duncan was released on 22 September 1944, vowing never to give another séance.
Latest legal moves to secure Helen's Pardon
NEW LEGAL MOVES to clear the name of Spiritualism's materialisation heroine Helen Duncan are announced to mark the 50th anniversary of her premature promotion to the next world on 6th December 1956, shortly after yet another mischievous police raid.
I can now report that earlier this year I submitted 500 pages of legal arguments to the Criminal Cases Review Commission on behalf of her eldest surviving grandson and his family.
The CCRC replied stating that they did not consider her case to be "in the public interest", declined to consider the application and returned my submission unread.
This curious response has baffled both campaigners and the 40 million global internet surfers - the equivalent of two thirds Britain's total population - who have now logged on to this website over the past decade.
Following advice from prominent Members of Parliament, including Lord Ancram and Michael Howard QC, the Minister who introduced the Commission who explained that cases like Mrs. Duncan's were the very reason that the CCRC was set up, I sought expert advice from counsel.
We have now secured the invaluable help of the prominent expert barrister, Mr Timothy Barnes QC from the leading London Chambers of Bedford Row.
Mr Barnes has an impressive track record. He is ranked as a leading silk in Fraud in the legal Directories. He has expertise in handling submissions to such technical legal subjects with the Criminal Cases Review Commission.
After reading our detailed submission Mr Barnes has commented; To state that defence counsel was clearly erroneous in the way that he presented the defence is overgenerous". He adds the flaws in the defence by Counsel showed a level of professional incompetence, most probably caused by Mr Loseby not being a practicing Criminal Barrister.
As a direct result of his advice, we can now submit that Mrs. Duncans defence barrister, Charles Loseby, failed to present Mrs. Duncan to give evidence. In the subsequent appeal, he also submitted that the Judge had allowed the prosecution to bring forward her previous conviction. The details of that were given to the jury of her prosecution in the Edinburgh Sheriffs Court when she was found guilty, according to the prosecution, of fraudulent mediumship and affray and find the sum of £10. If he had investigated to that previous conviction, he would have clearly found that she was found £10 for the affray but the case of fraudulent mediumship was "not proven".
Regrettably Mr Loseby being a civil barrister and noted constitutional lawyer, appears not to have known the correct criminal procedure. Neither had he prepared himself adequately in Criminal procedure for this case. But he was no match to the two Prosecution barristers, who were well versed in Criminal law and procedure.
There is no doubt that Mr Loseby had a knowledge of Spiritualism since he had represented the Spiritualist National Union and other Spiritualist organisations in his submission to the Home Office in 1943, to change the law in respect of the Vagrancy Act and Witchcraft Act. Unfortunately, because of the limit on Parliamentary time, the Home Secretary did not have time to put these amendments into law.
However, it is seen from correspondence passing between the Home Secretary and Chief Constables that there was a direction not to prosecute Spiritualist Mediums when they were acting in scientific discovery and sciences.
There is no doubt that Mrs. Duncan was somewhat of an embarrassment to the authorities. In particular, her guide, Albert, in a séance in Edinburgh announced that HMS Hood had been sunk earlier that day in the North Atlantic. The time of this séance was 3:30 pm.
Brigadier Firebrace, a very enthusiastic believer in Spiritualism, who was the Chief of Security at the time in Scotland, attended that séance. He returned to his office and telephoned the Admiralty to see whether, as he called it, the rumour of the sinking was true. At that time it was denied.
By 9:30 p.m., as he was leaving the office, a telephone call was received from the Admiralty confirming the sinking at 1:30 p.m.
The evidence given by Mrs. Duncan's guide was accurate. However, the authorities were clearly worried that this information coming from a third party rather than Central Government could undermine public morale. Particularly, when this country was secretly preparing allied troops for the D-Day landings.
Within six months, a young man materialised in the séance who had been severely burnt and died in the sinking of HMS Barham. The editor of Psychic News, Maurice Barbanell, attended this séance. He returned to make a telephone call to the Admiralty and Home Office, asking why this information had not been divulged to the parents and families of those who had perished. Again, the reason was given that it would have had a serious impact on public morale.
With Helen's name reoccurring, the authorities felt they had a cause for concern. And they acted with a very heavy hand.
The conclusion can only be that Helen Duncan was NOT convicted of being a Fraud instead she was imprisoned because her sources told The Truth. And the Government of the day wanted her out of the way !