The remarkable story of
Helen Duncan Spiritualist and medium branded a traitor in WWII.
Helen was born in Callander,
a small Scottish town on the 25th of November 1897 the daughter of a master
cabinet maker. Her family was far from rich. Like many of her fellow Celtic
lassies she struggled to earn a living even after her marriage at the age of
20. Her husband, Henry, another cabinet maker, had been injured during WW1.
She had 12 pregnancies, but only six children survived. To sustain this
large family and a disabled husband she worked in the local bleach factory
by day and her Spiritual work and domestic duties by night. The small amount
of cash she made from her sittings,
mostly token donations rom
friends and neighbours existing in a similar poverty to her would often
discreetly go to their local doctor to pay for those patients who were
destitute. This was in the time before Britain's National Health Service
concept of free medicine for all had been introduced. But her skill lay in
Mediumship of a particular kind, that rare psychic gift of being a vehicle
for physical phenomena whilst in trance state. A precious gift that brought
comfort to thousands, but one which was eventually going to cost her earthly
By the 1930s and 1940s she
was travelling the length of wartime Britain giving regular seances in
hundreds of Spiritualist churches and home circles. The evidence that flowed
from these physical phenomena seances was astonishing.
'Dead' loved ones appeared
in physical form, spoke to and touched their earthly relatives and in this
way brought both proof of survival and much comfort to thousands of
traumatised and grieving wartime families.
One such sitting was
attended by a man named Vincent Woodcock, he had brought his sister in law
for an evening's demonstration. Those 60 minutes changed both their lives.
Vincent gave evidence in London's premier Old Bailey courtroom that the
medium Helen Duncan slipped into trance and began producing the much-scoffed
'ectoplasm'. Then his 'dead' wife materialised from this ectoplasmic matter
and asked both Vincent and his sister in law to stand up.
The materialised spirit
then removed her wedding ring and placed it on her sister's wedding finger,
adding, "It is my wish that this takes place for the sake of my little
girl". A year later the couple were married and returned for a further
seance during which the dead woman appeared once more to give her renewed
blessings to the happy couple.
But this touching human
story, along with other similar unsolicited and genuine testimonials to her
remarkable gifts, were ignored by the law courts for Helen Duncan was
destined to 'go down' to appease an establishment terrified that she might
accurately discern the date of the D-Day Normandy Landings.
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 homeport of Britain's Royal Naval
fleet, the southern coastal city of Portsmouth on the evening of January 19
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
scepticism and fear of the establishment. For that night a plain-clothes
policeman who blew his whistle to launch a raid disrupted her seance. 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 seance
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
guilt 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 forced 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 was
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 gruelling
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 celebre which attracted daily headlines in
tabloid and broad sheets 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. Sceptics 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 seance 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 seance, 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 seances. 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
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 un-crowned
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 seance room it would look yellow or pink whilst these spirit forms all
displayed a white appearance".
James Herries himself, a
Justice of the Peace and much respected psychic investigator of some 20
years standing and the chief reporter of the prestigious and influential
"Scotsman" broad sheet, affirmed that he had seen Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,
famed author of the Sherlock Holmes books, himself to materialise at one of
Helen Duncan's seances. He had especially noted the distinctive Doyle
rounded features, moustache and equally unmistakable gravely 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 dovecotes 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
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
seances 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 cabinetmaker 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 seance 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 that 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, then later
escaping 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 seance. Despite her declaration with in a few months
she felt that strong call from the Spirit World to continue her work and was
soon spending more time than ever in trance state. Perhaps too much so, for
the quality of her seances since imprisonment appeared to have had
deteriorated even to the point where Spiritualism's governing National Union
actually withdrew her diploma at one stage. Helen's Spiritualist friends say
that during his visits to her cell Prime Minister Churchill made promises of
making mends to Helen. True or speculative it is a fact that in 1951 the
damning 1735 Witchcraft Act, which had been used to imprison Helen, was
finally repealed. In its place came the Fraudulent Mediums Act and some four
years later in 1954 Spiritualism was officially recognised as a proper
religion by formal Act of Parliament. And Spiritualists everywhere knew why
and they rejoiced that whilst frauds would be properly prosecuted the
authorities, especially the police, would stop harassing true working
They were wrong. In
November 1956 police raided a seance in the Midlands City of Nottingham.
They grabbed the presiding medium, strip searched her and took endless
flashlight photographs. They shouted at her that they were looking for
beards, masks and shrouds. But they found nothing. The medium was Helen
Duncan and in their ignorance the police had committed the worst possible
sin of physical phenomena, that a medium in trance must NEVER, ever be
touched. As the Spirit World's teachers have patiently explained so many
times when this happens the ectoplasm returns to the medium's body far too
quickly and can cause immense - sometimes even fatal - damage.
And so it was in this case.
A doctor was summonsed and discovered two second degree burns across Helen's
stomach. She was so ill that she was immediately taken back to her Scottish
home and later rushed to hospital.
Five weeks after that
police raid she was dead.
The Society has been
fortunate to acquire a rare 1st Edition
of the transcript of the
Trial at the Old Bailey
||My thanks goes to
Michael Colmer (Author) for his kind permission to use his article on
the life of Helen Duncan spiritualist and medium.