Helen Duncan – The medium who cheated?

As a child, Scottish-born Helen Duncan earned the nickname Hellish Nell for her tomboyish exploits. She alienated her peers with bizarre behaviour and sinister predictions, and her mother predicted that one day she would be burnt as a witch. In 1910 Helen, at the age of 20, married invalided soldier Henry Duncan, whom she had ‘first met in her dreams’, and Henry neglected his business of cabinet-making to help her develop as a psychic and to help raise their six children. 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 from friends and neighbours existing in a similar poverty to herself, 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. 

Helen Duncan


Helen’s spirit guide was ’Albert Stewart’, a sardonic Scots émigré to Australia; he was frequently accompanied by ‘Peggy’ who danced, sang and swung from curtain rails. Mrs Duncan became hugely popular as a medium, and even more so when she mastered the production of ’ectoplasm’ from her nose and mouth – and even when this was exposed as a simple piece of vaudeville chicanery her popularity seemed to increase. Despite being fined £10 for fraudulently procuring money from members of the public demand for her services increased, and by 1944 she was  a  twenty­-stone, chain-smoking, hard-drinking superstar who swore like a fishwife.
By the 1930’s and 1940’s she was traveling the length of wartime Britain giving regular seance’s in hundreds of Spiritualist churches and home circles. The evidence that flowed from these physical phenomena seance’s was astonishing. ‘Dead’ loved ones appeared in physical form, spoke to and touched their earthly relatives and 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, who 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 court room 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.
Helen at the seance allegedly produce ‘ectoplasm’ of the baby
On 25 November 1941, Helen’s 44th birthday, a German submarine sank HMS Barham in the Mediterranean, killing 868 men. Not long after, at one of Helen’s seances in Portsmouth. a dead sailor materialised for his mother clearly wearing a cap banded with the name HMS Barham. This was a great shock to the  woman, because for morale purposes the Admiralty had withheld all information about the fate of the Barham. The following morning the desperate mother telephoned the Admiralty for confirmation and two officers interviewed her, wanting to know the source of her information. The authorities, which were already prosecuting mediums for exploiting the bereaved, were concerned a medium, and Helen in particular, might betray details of the D-Day preparations. On 19 January 1944 Helen was arrested during a seance, and on 23 March she was tried for ‘pretending to raise the spirits of the dead’ – an offence under the 1735 Witchcraft Act, which was not repealed until 1951. Many of the 45 defence witnesses amazed the packed courtroom with accounts of tearful reunions with deceased relatives, and Helen’s offer to hold a seance in court – declined by the jury – caused a sensation. When the recorder gaoled Mrs Duncan for nine months the fur-coated witch screamed: ‘I didn’t do anything!’ and promptly collapsed. An appeal failed and she served six months in Holloway Prison.
Helen and her husband Henry Duncan
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. 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.
After her release, Duncan returned to mediumship, and in 1956 police stormed a materialisation seance in Nottingham. They ripped ‘ectoplasm’ from her, after which she displayed strange II-degree burns where the ethereal material had supposedly rushed back into her body. Police did not press charges and Helen returned home to Edinburgh, where she died six weeks later on 6 December 1956 – officially of diabetes and cardiac failure, though her family insisted she died of the trauma of ectoplasm not being allowed to finish its journey. In 1997 British spiritualist mediums launched a campaign to obtain a pardon for Helen, and in January 1998, at a spiritualist church in Castleford, she apparently materialised with a raised glass, toasting their efforts.
Helen Duncan is often mentioned in literature as the last person convicted under the 1735 Whichcraft Act but is is not true. Actually, Jane Rebecca Yorke from London was arrested in July 1944. At her trial in September at London’s Central Criminal Court she was found guilty on seven counts against the Witchcraft Act of 1735. Yorke was fined £5 and placed on good behaviour for three years, promising she would hold no more seances. The light sentence was due to her age of 72.