It’s hard to resist referring to Helen Duncan as ‘Britain’s last witch’, but in truth her story hinges on the fact that she was wasn’t a witch. She was, however, one of the last people to be imprisoned under the Witchcraft Act of 1735.
Hellish Nell, as she was known, was a Scottish medium who earned a decent living conducting seances – in which she summoned the spirits of the recently deceased – in dimly lit rooms across Britain. Her act, which started to take shape in the mid-1920s, was notable for the spiritual ‘materialisations’ she appeared to conjure. As Duncan slipped into a trance like state and took on the persona of one of her spirit partners – Peggy or Albert – spectral figures appeared and she began to produce ‘ectoplasm’ from her moth.
It’s hard to know how convincing Duncan’s seances would seem to a modern eye but there was a huge appetite for spiritualism in the 1920s – seances and Ouija boards were every bit a fashionable as bobbed hair and jazz – and she clearly had a flair for theatrics.
Duncan’s act may have pulled in the punters, but it also attracted plenty of scepticism. Her stagecraft was first exposed in 1928 when a photographer, Harvey Metcalfe, took a series of flash photographs during one of her seances. Illuminated by the flash bulb, her materialisations were revealed to be fraudulent – crudely constructed dolls composed of white sheets and papier-mâché masks.
Her career survived despite a series of similarly concrete exposés. In 1931 the London Spiritualist Alliance (LSA) examined Duncan’s ectoplasm and found that it was a combination of cheesecloth, paper mixed with the white of egg and lavatory paper. It was surmised that Duncan would swallow her ectoplasmic concoction and regurgitate it during a séance. Further investigation had her swallowing a tablet of methylene blue, a dye which would have exposed her regurgitation trick. The séance that followed was notably bereft of ectoplasm.
Two years later Esson Maule, a sitter at one of Duncan’s séances, grabbed ‘Peggy’ upon her emergence. In that moment the lights came on and Duncan’s spirit partner was revealed to be fashioned from a cloth undervest. This time the revelation was reported to the police and Duncan was convicted of fraudulent mediumship at the Edinburgh Sheriff Court.
Duncan’s career as a crowd-pleasing medium continued through the 1930s, seemingly unaffected by the fairly conclusive debunking of her materialisations. In November 1941, at the height of World War Two, she performed a séance in her then hometown of Portsmouth that went beyond her usual vagaries, to the extent that it attracted the attention of the police and intelligence services.
Duncan summoned the spirit of a sailor who announced that he had just gone down with the battleship HMS Barham. It transpired that the Barnham, a Portsmouth based battleship, had indeed been sunk by a German submarine off the Egyptian coast on 25 November 1941, but its fate had been kept from the public. Indeed, the sinking wasn’t announced until late January 1942.
Duncan’s revelation of a state secret during wartime initially passed without censure but it made her a person of interest at a time of extra-attentive state secrecy. Two years later, in 1944, a pair of police lieutenants attended one of her séances and found evidence that she was acting fraudulently. A week later undercover police turned up at another séance and arrested her.
Duncan initially faced fairly minor charges relating to fortune-telling, astrology and spiritualism under the section 4 of the Vagrancy Act of 1824, but her indiscretion three years earlier came back to bite her. By then it was clear that Duncan’s HMS Barnham revelation was almost certainly obtained via a leak. The fact that she was also found to be in possession of a mocked-up HMS Barnham hat band probably didn’t help her cause.
Eager to make an example of her, the authorities turned to section 4 of the Witchcraft Act of 1735, which was triable before jury on the grounds of fraudulent spiritual activity. Duncan was found guilty and sentenced to 9 months in prison.
While Duncan’s seances were almost certainly fraudulent, her conviction is widely regarded as something of a sham. In retrospect it seems unlikely that the authorities would have bothered to unearth the antiquated Witchcraft Act if her HMS Barnham revelation hadn’t played on wartime intelligence paranoia. Indeed, the verdict was contentious enough to provoke the Prime Minister’s distain – in a memo to his Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, Winston Churchill complained that the charge was a waste of court resources and an act of “obsolete tomfoolery”.
Duncan served her time and promptly revived her spiritualist act, despite promising to stop conducting séances when she was released. She died, aged 59, in 1956, five years after the Witchcraft Act was repealed. Many still contend that she should be posthumously pardoned.