A talk by Tania Ewing about Helen Duncan
What do witchcraft, state-secrecy and a spiritualist have in common? None you may think, but back in the 1940s these three seemingly unconnected words were very much on people’s minds.
In late November 1941 the British battleship HMS Barham was attacked and sunk by a U-boat off the coast of Egypt. In March of 1944 Mrs. Helen Duncan, a well-known Scottish spiritualist and medium, went on trial in London’s Old Bailey for conspiracy to violate the 1735 Witchcraft Act. These two seemingly unconnected events came together in a time of war, secrecy and fear.
On the afternoon of November 25, 1941 HMS Barham and two other battleships of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet cruised off the Egyptian coast providing cover for convoys. Unbeknown to them a U-boat was in the area. The U-boat fired three torpedoes which exploded against HMS Barham and within four minutes the Barham had exploded and sunk with the loss of 861 lives.
Due to the fear of being fired upon itself, the U-boat was forced to submerge without knowing if it had a kill or not so the sinking of the Barham was unknown to the Germans at that time.
When the British realized the Germans remained unaware of Barham’s destruction, they decided to use the opportunity to mislead the Germans. No one was informed of the sinking and the British went to great lengths to protect the secret.
But the British had not reckoned on the desire of those now on the other side to let family members know what had happened to the Barham and that they themselves had passed to Spirit.
Forty-four years earlier, Helen Duncan was born and would come to play a big part in the history of the Barham. Helen first communicated with Spirit when she was a young child, but her mother told her not to let others know of her gift due to fear of persecution.
Helen grew up, putting aside her gift and later married a disabled World War I veteran who was poorly skilled and unable to provide for his family. Helen was to have twelve children, but only six survived to adulthood. She was plagued by constant ill health, but to make ends meet, worked in a bleach factory by day, and encouraged by her husband, held séances at night.
Helen became very popular for her séances. She was a physical medium who was able to produce Spirit via ectoplasm. There were, however, skeptics who called her a fraud, claiming she regurgitated cheesecloth to simulate the ectoplasm and in the early 1930s she was put on trial in Scotland and fined for falsely claiming to communicate with dead spirits.
Despite her court appearance, Helen remained a popular spiritualist and much sought-after medium during World War II. She organized frequent séances for people seeking to communicate with deceased relatives. During one séance held shortly after HMS Barham’s sinking in late 1941, the spirit of a sailor from the Barham appeared to an astonished audience with the announcement “My ship is sunk.” Due to the secrecy surrounding the sinking of the Barham, it came as a shock to the sailor’s mother who was present at the séance.
The admiralty were contacted to see if the sinking the Barham was true. Military intelligence was not too happy that this “top secret” information had leaked out into the public so soon after the event. The admiralty feared that Helen and her séances would unravel their secret. It was not until 1942 that the sinking of the Barham was made public.While Helen was not arrested for the information regarding the Barham and possible subversive conduct, the authorities watched her more closely as she continued with her séances throughout the country.
In 1944, Helen was conducting a séance in Portsmouth, England when a plainclothes police officer disrupted the circle and blew his whistle to start a raid. The officer made a grab for the ectoplasm believing it to be a sheet, but Spirit had other ideas and the ectoplasm vanished before he could touch it. Others in the audience turned on the lights and ushered in more police officers. Undercover naval and police officers had infiltrated the meeting, and Helen and three other shocked participants were arrested and charged with vagrancy before the Portsmouth magistrates.
Under the law at that particular time, had she been found guilty of this offence Helen would probably only have had to pay a small fine and would have been released. But oddly she was refused bail and sent to London and spent four days in Holloway prison. The Vagrancy charge against Helen was later amended to one of Conspiracy, which during wartime, carried the death sentence. However, by the time the case came to court at the Old Bailey, Helen’s charge was for violating the 1735 Witchcraft Act, a law that had not been in use for over a hundred years.
Helen’s trial at London’s Old Bailey court began on March 23, 1944 and lasted a week. The prosecutors introduced evidence that Helen revealed the loss of Barham in 1941 while it remained an Admiralty secret. For her defense the jury heard from nineteen witnesses who testified that Helen had truly summoned the spirits of their dead relatives and friends. The defense team also proposed that Helen hold a séance in the courtroom, but the prosecution refused.
Despite her surprisingly strong defense, a jury found Helen and her associates guilty of a conspiracy to violate the Witchcraft Act and a judge sentenced her to nine months in London’s Holloway women’s prison. Helen was denied any appeal – some say that this was because of the upcoming D-Day invasion and the government was worried that she would let the cat out of the bag.
After the trial, many people, including Winston Churchill wanted to know why the 1735 Witchcraft Act was used in a British Court in 1944. Churchill visited Helen in prison and made promises to make amends. It is even said that Helen gave Churchill a reading. In 1951, Churchill kept his word and the Witchcraft Act was repealed. The Act was replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act, but more importantly Spiritualism was recorded as an officially recognized religion by an Act of Parliament.
As part of her sentence Helen had agreed to no more séances, but she couldn’t stop. In 1956, the Nottingham police raided a séance Helen was giving. When they were admitted to the home, they went for the medium’s cabinet where Helen was sitting in trance. They took flash photographs and took hold of Helen causing the ectoplasm to return so quickly to her body that she received two second degree burns on her stomach. She was so ill that she was immediately rushed back to her home in Scotland and later into hospital. Five weeks after the Police raid, Helen died.
Helen Duncan became known as the last witch convicted under the 1735 Witchcraft Act and still today, the Spiritualists National Union in the UK is working to clear her of that title.