20th Mar 2012
The life and times of one of the worlds most respected mediums, is to made into a film.
Helen Duncan Known as the last Scottish Woman to be convicted under the Witchcraft Act of 1735. Helen's family have campaigned to clear her name, this film can only help put right a terrible INJUSTICE !
WHAT IS KNOWN:- about Helen Duncan
(Victoria) Helen MacFarlane was born in Callander, Perthshire on 25 November 1897, the daughter of a slater. At school, to the distress of her mother (a member of the Presbyterian church), she alarmed her fellow pupils with her dire prophecies and hysterical behaviour. In 1916 she married Henry Duncan, a cabinet maker and wounded war veteran, who was supportive of her supposed supernatural talents. In 1926 she developed from clairvoyant to medium by offering séances in which she appeared to summon the spirits of recently deceased persons by emitting ectoplasm from her mouth. A mother of six, she also worked part-time in a bleach factory.
In 1931 the London Spiritualist Alliance examined Duncan's method. After an initial positive review, the Alliance denounced her as a fraud. Harry Price (director of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research) was also sceptical and had Helen Duncan perform a number of test séances. She was suspected of swallowing cheesecloth which was then regurgitated as "ectoplasm". She reacted violently at attempts to X-ray her, running from the laboratory and making a scene in the street, where her husband had to restrain her, destroying the controlled nature of the test. However her defenders claimed to have witnessed events that could not be explained by trickery.
In 1934, during a séance in Edinburgh, a sitter made a grab at one of her materialisations. The police were called, and the "spirit" was then alleged to be a stockinette under vest. Duncan was found guilty of affray and fake mediumship at Edinburgh Sheriff Court and sentenced to a £10 fine or one month in prison. Supporters of Duncan have later claimed that the verdict was not "guilty" but the Scottish verdict of "not proven", based on their interpretation that the conviction was for affray alone.
During World War II, in November 1941, Duncan held a séance in Portsmouth at which she indicated knowledge that HMS Barham had been sunk. Because this fact was revealed, in strict confidence, only to the relatives of casualties, and not announced to the public until late January 1942, the Navy started to take an interest in her activities. Two lieutenants were among her audience at a séance on 14 January 1944 and this was followed up on 19 January, when police arrested her at another séance as a white-shrouded manifestation appeared. This proved to be Duncan herself, in a white cloth which she attempted to conceal when discovered, and she was arrested. She was also found to be in possession of a mocked-up HMS Barham hat-band. This apparently related to an alleged manifestation of the spirit of a dead sailor on HMS Barham, although Duncan appeared unaware that after 1939 sailors did not wear hat-bands identifying their ship. She was initially arrested under section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824, a minor offence tried by magistrates. However, the authorities regarded the case as more serious, and eventually discovered section 4 of the Witchcraft Act 1735, covering fraudulent "spiritual" activity, which was triable before a jury. Charged alongside her for conspiracy to contravene this Act were Ernest and Elizabeth Homer, who operated the Psychic centre in Portsmouth, and Frances Brown, who was Duncan's agent who went with her to set up séances. There were seven counts in total, two of conspiracy to contravene the Witchcraft Act, two of obtaining money by false pretences, and three of public mischief (a common law offence).
The prosecution may be explained by the mood of suspicion prevailing at the time: the authorities were afraid that she could continue to reveal classified information, whatever her source was there were also concerns that she was exploiting the recently bereaved, as the Recorder noted when passing sentence.
Duncan's trial for fraudulent witchcraft was a minor cause célèbre in wartime London. A number of prominent people, among them Alfred Dodd, an historian and senior Freemason, testified they were convinced she was authentic. Duncan was, however, barred by the judge from demonstrating her alleged powers as part of her defence against being fraudulent. The jury brought in a guilty verdict on count one, and the judge then discharged them from giving verdicts on the other counts, as he held that they were alternative offences for which Duncan might have been convicted had the jury acquitted her on the first count. Duncan was imprisoned for nine months. After the verdict, Winston Churchill wrote a memo to Home Secretary Herbert Morrison, complaining about the misuse of court resources on the "obsolete tomfoolery" of the charge.
Duncan is often referred to as the last person to be convicted of being a witch, but this view is incorrect in two important aspects. Firstly, the Witchcraft Act 1735 under which she was convicted dealt not with witchcraft but with people who falsely claimed to be able to procure spirits. Secondly, there was a subsequent conviction under the act, of Jane Rebecca Yorke of Forest Gate in east London; on 26 September 1944 at the Central Criminal Court she was convicted on seven counts of "pretending...to cause the spirits of deceased persons to be present" and bound over.
On her release in 1945, Duncan promised to stop conducting séances; however, she was arrested during another one in 1956. She died at her home in Edinburgh a short time later. Duncan's trial almost certainly contributed to the repeal of the Witchcraft Act, which was contained in the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951 promoted by Walter Monslow, Labour Member of Parliament for Barrow-in-Furness. The campaign to repeal the Act had largely been led by Thomas Brooks, another Labour MP, who was a spiritualist. Duncan's original conviction still stood, and a campaign to have her posthumously pardoned was started in September 1997 by the UK publication Psychic World Newspaper and is still on-going.
Scotland’s Last Witch
Helen Duncan was born in Callender, Scotland, on the 25 November 1897. From an early age she is said to have displayed the 'gift' of medium with the spirit world. A prominent feature of her sittings was her ability to emit 'ectoplasm' from her mouth during her trances - a stringy white substance that is supposed to give form to spirits and allow them to communicate.
She made a living by conducting séances throughout Britain, during which the spirits of the dead were alleged to have appeared, talking to and even touching their relatives.
Duncan was accepted as a minister to a sizeable network of spiritualist churches and private homes, but her work was not without controversy. In 1931 she was denounced as a fraud by both the Morning Post newspaper and an organisation called the London Psychic Laboratory, which had examined her. She was also prosecuted at Edinburgh Sheriffs Court in 1933 for affray and being a 'fraudulent medium', for which she was sentenced to a fine of £10 or a month's imprisonment.
During World War Two, Duncan lived in Portsmouth, the home of the Royal Navy. In 1941, the spirit of a sailor reportedly appeared at one of her seancés announcing that he had just gone down on a vessel called the Barham. HMS 'Barham' was not officially declared lost until several months later, its sinking having been kept secret to mislead the enemy and protect morale.
Unsurprisingly, Duncan's activities attracted the attention of the authorities and on 19 January 1944, one of her séances was interrupted by a police raid during which she and three members of her audience were arrested.
Duncan was remanded in custody by Portsmouth magistrates. She was originally charged under section 4 of the Vagrancy Act (1824), under which most charges relating to fortune-telling, astrology and spiritualism were prosecuted by magistrates in the 20th century. This was considered a relatively petty charge and usually resulted in a fine if proved. She was eventually tried by jury at the Old Bailey for contravening section 4 of the Witchcraft Act of 1735, which carried the heavier potential penalty of a prison sentence.
In particular, the medium and her three sitters were accused of pretending 'to exercise or use human conjuration that through the agency of Helen Duncan spirits of deceased persons should appear to be present'. Duncan was also charged with offences under the Larceny Act for taking money 'by falsely pretending that she was in a position to bring about the appearances of the spirits of deceased persons'.
The trial caused a media sensation and was extensively covered in the newspapers, many of which revelled in printing cartoons of witches on broomsticks. At one stage, the defence announced that Duncan was prepared to demonstrate her abilities in the witness box. This amounted to conducting a séance in the court while in a state of trance and the offer was refused.
Duncan was found guilty as charged under the Witchcraft Act and sentenced to nine months in Holloway Prison, London, but she was cleared of the other offences. She was the last person in Britain to be jailed under the act, which was repealed in 1951 and replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act following a campaign by spiritualist and member of parliament Thomas Brooks.
There are two common misconceptions about Duncan's conviction. The first is that she was the last person in Britain to be convicted of being a witch. In fact, the Witchcraft Act was originally formulated to eradicate the belief in witches and its introduction meant that from 1735 onwards an individual could no longer be tried as a witch in England or Scotland. However, they could be fined or imprisoned for purporting to have the powers of a witch.
The second misconception is that she was the last person to be convicted under the Witchcraft Act. Again this is incorrect. Records show that the last person to be convicted under the Witchcraft Act was Jane Rebecca Yorke in late 1944. Due to her age (she was in her seventies) she received a comparatively lenient sentence and was fined.
Additionally, it has often been suggested that the reason for Duncan's imprisonment was the authorities' fear that details of the imminent D-Day landings might be revealed, and given the revelation about the Barham it is clear to see why the medium might be considered a potential risk. Nonetheless, then prime minister Winston Churchill wrote to the home secretary branding the charge 'obsolete tomfoolery'.
Helen Duncan was released from prison on the 22 September 1944 and seems to have avoided further trouble until November 1956, when the police raided a private séance in Nottingham on suspicion of fraudulent activity. No charges were brought and shortly afterwards, on 6 December in the same year, the woman who is sometimes remembered as the 'last witch' died.
A campaign by her descendents to clear her name continues to this day.
Front row R to L: Don Gilroy, Harry Barrett,Lily Hughes. Julia Blakelock, Agnes Teale Jane Hillmer, Isobel MacGregor,Doug. Heath, ? .
Second row L to R: Kathleen Blakelock, Jean Lamb, Helen Duncan, Ann Calverley, Lois Lunau, Barbara Lawson, Nora Parnaby, Nancy Hart, Winnie Hughes, Betty Carley, ? .
Third row L to R: Gordon Roser, Betty Chambres, Georgette Gallow, Margaret McCleary, Joan Lankin,, Irene Woods, Doris Litchfield, Bill Cator, Charlotte O'Grady.
Fourth row L to R: John Buckley Black, Peter Moorhouse, Bill Russell, Bob Snowball, Charley Howard, Stu Smith.
Fifth row L to R: Betty Taylor, Frances Watts, ? , Eleanor Walsh, Lily Prentice.
The Helen Duncan Story
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 life.
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 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 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 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 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 Mediums.
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 Mediumship Of Helen Duncan
by David J. Nicholls Dip.Th(Camb), B.A.(Hons), M.Phil
The primary interest in Helen Duncan's mediumship invariably gravitates towards her trial in 1944 and subsequent imprisonment. While these events are obviously of considerable importance, the concentration given to them may be somewhat disproportionate and consequently, Helen's actual mediumship is possibly only seen as an accompaniment to the period. Therefore, in writing the following, I will concentrate on the subject of Helen Duncan, her mediumship, and its development: in doing so, I am particularly grateful to Gena Brealey, one of Helen's daughters, and Kay Hunter for their excellent work, The Two Worlds of Helen Duncan. Helen was born Victoria Helen McCrae MacFarlane on 25 November 1897. As a child there were signs of what was to follow in later years, i.e. her reference to people, by name, who had died years before, and her statements that she could both see and hear them: as so often happens in such cases, she was chided and rebuked. When her schooling finished, she went to Dundee to work in the mills, although at the outbreak of the First World War, Helen volunteered for work that would assist the war effort, but already overweight and in poor health, she was rejected. Nonetheless, possibly through suffering poor health herself and thereby realizing its effect on people's lives, she took up work in nursing. It was during this time that Helen met Henry Duncan, a soldier who had been injured. Henry had a strong belief in post-mortem survival and he became aware that the young Helen possessed mediumistic abilities; he explained to her the meaning of some of the things she had experienced in her life. Their friendship led to marriage on 27 May 1916, and the young medium became "Helen Duncan": a name that would be later firmly inscribed in Spiritualism's history. Shortly after moving to Edinburgh, Helen once again suffered from the blight of poor health. As Henry also had difficulty finding work, the young couple returned to Dundee where Henry was able to find employment. At this stage Henry became determined to develop his wife's mediumistic abilities and the couple began testing these using objects to psychometrise. It was not long before Helen became entranced and a communicator, calling himself Dr Williams, spoke independently of Helen. The communicator chastised Henry for concentrating on psychometry and advised him regarding the development of Helen's obvious talents. It was decided that a circle be formed and it would meet on Thursday evenings; at these gatherings, the circle was given instructions by Dr Williams, one of which was that: 'They were never to accept anything at face value, but always question anyone claiming to come from the world of spirit, asking for evidence and proof which could be verified. In addition to the hardships that Helen and Henry were experiencing, more were to follow when Henrietta, their third child was born severely disabled; she was only thirteen months old when she later died. The result was Henry suffering a complete breakdown in health. Following this, fate was not prepared to leave the Duncans alone as Isabella, their eldest child, was attacked by a wild animal and suffered disfiguring facial injuries (Helen and Henry had a total of nine children, three of whom died in childbirth). Hardship continued to make its mark on the Duncan household, and with Henry unable to work, Helen had to take up various types of part-time work to provide for the family and this led her, still unwell herself, to take up demanding work for which she had to begin at 5am. It was in this period when Helen became aware of her healing skills, and despite her own serious health problems, she continued this work, even though she would often take on the ailments of those she was trying to heal. Notwithstanding all the turmoil and strain in their lives, the Duncans decided to persevere with their Thursday circle. In this, development was slow but successful: 'Due to the sincerity and psychic ability of the sitters, materialisation was slowly being achieved. A hand would sometimes appear on the small table in the corner, and a head which was recognised by one of the sitters as his father, appeared more than once'. In time, full materializations joined the circle although in the early stages, the forms were rudimentary and it was clear that much more work needed to be done; moreover, there was violent activity that directed the circle to be more discerning and careful about what they did. Dr Williams communicated and advised that a cabinet was necessary and this would aid Helen's development and the circle was also told to acquire a red light and a trumpet. Despite all their family responsibilities and hardships, the Duncans continued and this eventually produced the desired outcome: 'Voices were now coming through each week. Indeed, sometimes two or three voices could be heard talking at the same time. The trumpet would circle the room at great speed'. In time, a second trumpet was brought in for use at the circle, and both would move around simultaneously, and be used by different communicators to speak to different sitters at the same time. It was during one such occasion that the circle witnessed the formation of ectoplasm emerging from the cabinet where Helen was seated, entranced; as they watched enthralled, a rod of ectoplasm appeared and Dr Williams told one of the sitters to test its strength which he duly did, even balancing it between two chairs and sitting on it. In addition to the new development, the séances included the manifestation of lights. At this time, the materializations were still in a basic stage and Dr Williams explained this was purely for testing in order to perfect the process. However, as time went on, 'the materialised forms began to take on a proper physical appearance, and began to appear less artificial or unreal'. Subsequently, after a period of difficulty with a control called Donald, another, called Albert Stewart, took on this role. In 1931, Helen gave sittings at the LSA (London Spiritualist Alliance); one sitter, a physician, reported seeing Albert aside Helen and other materializations, including a small child. Furthermore, 'standing under the red light, ectoplasm was pouring out of the medium's mouth almost up to the floor, after which it was reabsorbed'. Nonetheless, as Cassirer notes, events during the series resulted in the LSA reports ending on a sour note. Disturbed in this period, Helen encountered the 'psychic investigator' Harry Price and she was, not surprisingly, disturbed by his outlook and manner of working. According to Tabori, Price attended four séances, the last of which ended in uproar with Price wanting to X-ray. Price subsequently accused Helen of fraud saying that the ectoplasm was produced by regurgitating material from within her body. This accusation was published in his Regurgitation and the Duncan Mediumship (NLPR, 1931).In fact, as noted, after carrying out a thorough examination, 'he admitted that examination had failed to disclose anything'. The report obviously had some detrimental effect on Helen, but fortunately there were some, hardly sympathetic to physical mediumship, who would not associate themselves with Price and his report: Cassirer notes how the Journal of the American Society of Psychical Research refused to publish Price's notes. After gaining a diploma from the Psychic Union, the Duncans moved to Edinburgh and Helen began journeying to the different churches to demonstrate her mediumship. To no great surprise, it did not take long before Helen was the target of those who rejected the idea of mediumship and that she could facilitate communication between the two worlds. At a séance in a Glasgow Spiritualist church, Albert advised that Helen should take great care later that day; after the séance had ended, Helen travelled to an address in order that she might give a sitting to a group of people, this having been arranged after someone had written to Helen about having a séance with her. After the séance began and Helen had become entranced, she awoke to find herself being handled by one of the sitters who was accusing her of fraud. The sitter then went on to say that the police had been called and produced a vest that she claimed had been used by Helen to produce Peggy, a child guide. Despite Helen's vociferous, and somewhat colourful protestations, the police arrived and Helen was cautioned and then charged with fraud. Her trial began on May 3, 1933 and was held at the Edinburgh court, lasting two days; at this she was accused of fraudulently materializing the forms of the dead. In their book, Brealey and Hunter refer to, and comment upon the numerous inconsistencies of the prosecution witnesses. Acquainted-One of the interesting features of the matter was that it was ascertained that one of the sitters, and main prosecution witnesses, was acquainted with Harry Price . . . Fortunately, the trial that resulted in Helen being fined, did not harm interest in her mediumship and she went on to give a number of very successful test séances for researchers; eventually her workload became considerable. In this time she had been able to reverse the poverty of her earlier years, e.g. purchasing a bungalow in which to live, although this attracted criticism from various quarters. About this, Brealey and Hunter make a number of salient comments: firstly, those who criticized Helen and indeed other mediums, would say little about the vast income and comfortable lifestyles of religious leaders, who could bring little, if any, tangible comfort to the bereaved. Furthermore, there was the worry of Henry's continuing ill health and the simple fact that Helen had to be only too aware of the uncertainty of what lay ahead (i.e. her poor health continued and she was now an insulin-dependent diabetic). Moreover, 'travel and accommodation had to be paid for, and family supported. Only her family and close friends know how much of her services were given free to those in need . . . Many churches still thriving today owe their origins to the free demonstrations given by Helen Duncan'. As the First World War, the Second brought untold misery and grief for so many who sought reassurance from mediums. In this period, Helen was able to fulfil this important role, and one of the locations to which she regularly travelled was a location in Portsmouth called the Master Temple. Here, 'a proportion of all collections at their services and séances were always given to a charity, nobody in need was ever turned away from their door'. On 1 January 1942, Gena had a disturbing premonition about her mother and implored Henry to stop Helen travelling to Portsmouth. But despite her pleas, Helen left for Portsmouth and gave demonstrations of her mediumship to those sitters who attended the Master Temple.
During the period in which Helen held séances at the Master Temple, Albert gave instructions to those organizing the events that caution should be exercised concerning those who attended: however, this was ignored and a short time later a naval officer was allowed to attend and other sitters noted his suspicious behaviour, e.g. the lack of enthusiasm for the proceedings. More warnings were issued by Albert but on 19 January 1944, after Helen became entranced and Albert had materialized, three of those who had been allowed to attend, rushed forward, seized the ectoplasm and turned on the lights: amidst the chaos, the men effected the entrance of the police into the room, the police officers already waiting nearby to do this. Attempts by genuine sitters, including those responsible for the séance, to assist Helen, were prevented by the police. At her trial it was argued that Helen was manipulating some material while the séance was taking place, but at the time that the attack occurred, Helen actually asked that both she and the room be carefully examined. However, as Brealey says: 'It seemed strange then, and even now, that this was not done'. One illustration of the authorities' hostility was that Helen was refused bail and duly remanded in custody. Helen engaged the services of a barrister and only then, was she allowed bail. Nonetheless, in time matters became even more bizarre: having secured bail, the case was referred to the DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions), although the initial charge was comparatively minor. But things began to become clear when Helen discovered that she was being charged with conspiracy. In contrast to the three prosecution witnesses, there were numerous ones for Helen's defence, but she and those others who had also been charged with her (Mrs Brown and Mr and Mrs Homer), were soon to discover 'the Establishment wanted blood'. After various charges were introduced, i.e. under The Vagrancy Act and of conspiracy, the authorities decided the 1737 Witchcraft Act would be appropriate; as Roberts says in his own account of the trial, this at least would ensure 'a sort of makeweight against Mrs Duncan and her fellow defendants, a net to catch them if they escaped conviction on the other counts'. I do not intend dealing with the proceedings of Helen's trial that began on 23 March 1944, as the details are well known being covered in Maurice BarbanellÕs book, The Case of Helen Duncan (London: Psychic Press Ltd, 1945), and the later book Medium on Trial by Manfred Cassirer. The end result of the trial was that Helen received a sentence of nine months imprisonment. An appeal was rejected and Helen served her sentence, and she was released from Holloway Prison in September 1944. As Cassirer notes, she then broke away from the SNU and no longer held a diploma with them. On Helens release, it was only too obvious that her health had clearly suffered a very great deal. Despite this, it was not long before she once again began to give demonstrations of her mediumship to those who needed reassurance: 'When she looked at the naked misery in the faces of those she knew who had lost sons, husbands, lovers, she just could not refuse to help'. The Duncan family welcomed Barbanell's book about her trial, published in 1945, although it was felt 'there were some facts he had wrong'. Nevertheless, it did offer a contrast to the media reporting of the case. In addition to the upset caused through the trial and Helen's imprisonment, the family believed the subject of Helen's earnings through her mediumship had been distorted out of recognition; moreover, various attempts to champion her case were more related to combating the Establishment's hostility towards Spiritualism rather than Helen's innocence which almost seemed incidental. An appeal was launched by Barbanell for Helen's costs, but 'the response was so poor it had to be abandoned'. This in itself may indicate to a student of Spiritualism's history that by the close of the Second World War, British Spiritualism had now begun to lose direction. Despite these hardships, Helen continued to supply quality evidence. For example, at a séance in Edinburgh, 'a small negro boy came through and put his little hand on a gentleman's knee. They had a long conversation in Swahili'. The gentleman knew the boy, the son of one of his employees, and stated 'the evidence he had received had given him irrefutable proof of life after death'. To present Helen Duncan the person, rather than just the medium, a statement by her daughter is worth quoting: 'Into her home she took many in need of care and love, some just for a short visit, others for much longer periods...There was a 'gentleman of the road' who would call every Sunday morning. Always he was given a hot meal and a few pence'. She also relates how various young persons in distress were taken in by Helen, at her own cost, until they were able to deal with the problems that had broken them. The diversity of communicators made possible through Helen is surely indicative of not only the genuineness of her mediumship, but also its range. Again, after her release from imprisonment, she gave demonstrations that included a number in Stoke-on-Trent: in one case an airman materialized for his mother, complete with the birthmark that he had on his face before his passing. Another man materialized for his wife, lacking the two fingers that he had lost while working. Further proof was given on the occasions when Albert, over six foot in height, brought Helen, only five foot, four inches, out of cabinet, still entranced, and stood beside her. To demonstrate their separateness even further, Albert would ensure that the sitters could see Helen while he was standing, and speaking up to four feet away. It was in this time that some sitters made unreasonable demands on Helen, despite her ever-worsening health, and it was obvious that her health was deteriorating at an alarming rate. Her diabetes was often out of control and she required surgical operations for the complications that arose. In fact, 'each illness took longer to get over'. When Fodor deals with Helen's mediumship, he refers to the antics of Harry Price and the accusation of fraud made against her in Light (17 July, 1931). Many Spiritualists and non-Spiritualists defended her; one person in the latter category was Dr Montague Rust, who 'deplored the precipitate conclusions and despite the adverse report maintained that Mrs. Duncan was the most remarkable physical medium in Europe'. Another was Will Goldston, the well-known professional magician and illusionist, who said that what he had witnessed could not have been effected through trickery. What Fodor says in his introduction may say much more about Helen's mediumship than the accusations that were cast about. He notes how in a séance with Helen, 'ectoplasm, was seen in quantities . . . figures of adults and children appeared under voluminous drapery, movement of objects beyond the reach of the medium were observed and as a means of control the medium was placed nude into a sleeved sack with stiff buckram fingerless gauntlets sewn to the sleeves of her suit. The sack was sewn in at the back and fastened with tapes and cords to the chair. At the end of the sitting the medium was often found outside the bag, the seals, tapes and stitchings remaining intact'. Beloff, writing later in 1990, refers to persons who witnessed the mediumship of Helen Duncan (whom he says was 'an uneducated woman of gross appearance whose manners and language were anything but ladylike'), and says they 'all tell much the same story': two of these witnesses being 'good friends of mine and prominent members of the S.P.R'. He goes to to detail how: 'They all speak of watching figures emerging from the cabinet or sometimes taking shape out of swirling masses of amorphous ectoplasm, sometimes they are of recognizable individuals whom the sitter had known in his life, sometimes they engage in conversation, but, invariably, they soon disappear by sinking through the solid floor'. The next notable stage in Helen's mediumship was a séance held in Nottingham in the closing months of 1956. Cassirer describes how in this, 'a violent assault took place . . . and [the police] tore down the cabinet curtains. More men arrived, grabbed the medium and took flash photographs'. It was only two months after the police attack that Helen died. Cassirer notes that 'no legal action was taken against the police, incommensurable with the supposed offence of which in any case, there does not seem to have been any proof'. HelenÕs daughter recalls how her mother received notification of the Nottingham police's intention to prosecute although by this time her mother was becoming seriously ill. She goes on to record how on one night, shortly afterwards, she heard a knocking on her bedroom door and a voice saying 'God be with you till we meet again'. The next morning, on 6 December 1956, it was discovered that Helen had died sometime during the early hours. And so, the police and establishment were cheated of further pursuit of their prey, and one of the greatest physical mediums of this country passed into the world about which she had given so much evidence, and to so many.
Helen Duncan 1897 - 1956
Helen was born, Victoria Helen McCrae MacFarlane on 25th November 1897, in a small Scottish town called Callender. The Daughter of a master cabinet maker. She married at the early age of twenty to another master cabinet maker named Henry Duncan. Henry had been injured during the war years of WWI and was unable to work. She had 12 pregnancies but only 6 of her 12 children survived. To maintain this large family of six children and a disabled husband, Helen worked in a local bleach factory by day, and worked at her spiritual and domestic duties at night.
Helen's particular mediumship skill was that of Physical Phenomena whilst in a Trance state. A very precious gift that brought comfort to hundreds of grieving people the length and breadth of the country. But, one that eventually cost Helen her life.
During WWII Helen was in great demand as she toured the country giving demonstrations of her mediumship, especially to those who had lost close family on active war service. One particular sitting was in a private home in the Navel City of Portsmouth, on an evening in January 1944. Portsmouth was not the best place in the world to be at this critical point in the war. The German Luftwaffe being hell bent on turning it in to rubble hoping to destroy the British Navel Fleet.
The real danger on that night came from within the arranged sitting, when a plain clothes 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 was to quick for him and it vanished before he could touch it. Helen and three of her sitters were arrested and charged with Vagrancy. At the hearing the court heard testimony that Lieutenant R Worth RN, had attended the seance suspecting fraud. He claimed he had £2.10shillings for two tickets, one of which he gave to the police officer who instigated the raid and grabbed for the ectoplasm.
Then something strange happened. Under the law at that particular time, had she been found guilty of this offence she would probably only have had to pay a five shillings fine and she would have been released. Oddly she was not, also she was refused bail and sent to London and spent four days in Holloway prison. The Vagrancy charge was later amended to one of Conspiracy, which during wartime, carried the death sentence by hanging. But by the time the case came to court at the Old Bailey, this had also been amended to one of Witchcraft, an old Act of 1735 had been dredged out of the old and dusty law libraries.
Under this old act, Helen and her three sitters were accused of pending "to exercise or use human conjuration that through the agency of Helen Duncan spirits of deceased dead persons should appear present". But in case this charge failed others were brought also. 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'.
Her trial, which took place at the Old Bailey, lasted for seven dreadful days, and only a few months before the D-Day landings in France. Spiritualists from all over the country were angered that one of their most treasured demonstrators was being treated in this way. A defence fund was quickly set up and was used to bring witnesses from all over the world to testify on her behalf about the genuiness of her mediumship abilities. Because of this, her case soon became a "cause celebre" which attracted news papers from all over the world. Sceptics must have cringed at the continual reporting of case after case were 'dead' relatives had materialised and given proof after proof of their continued existence.
On the next but last day of the trial, the defence called their star witness, Alfred Dodd, an academic and very respected author on the works of Shakespear's sonnets. He had been interested in psychic things for over 40 years. Alfred informed the courts that during 1932 and 1940, he had been a regular visitor at Helen Duncan's home seances. During one of these seances in Manchester in 1932 the Voice of Albert Mrs Duncan's guide said; "there is a big man coming out for you" referring to Mr Dodds. "The curtain of the cabinet went to one side, and out there came the living form of my Grandfather. I knew it was him because he was a very big man, tall, about six feet one inch at least. He looked around the room very quizzically until his eyes met mine. He then strode across the room from the seance cabinet to where I was. He pushed the heads of the two strangers that were before me to one side, and he put out his hand and grasped mine. He said as he grasped it, 'I am very pleased to see you, Alfred, here in my native city'. I was very surprised to see him and looked closly at him and said, 'why, you look just the same'. He next said, 'I am sorry you are having such a rough time' (which was true). After talking with me for some period, he put his hand on my friends shoulder and said ''Stand up Tom' my friend looked up at him, then the voice of Albert said "Stand up ; stand up', So Tom Waller stood up, my Grandfather said, 'Look into my face, and look into my eyes, will you know me again Mr Waller?' 'Yes' - replied Tom, 'You ask Alfred to show you my portrait which is hanging in his dining-room, and you will see it is the same man that is speaking to you now'. He turned round and walked back into the cabinet, he lifted up his leg and slapped his thy three times. He then turned and rose himself to his full height and smacked his chest three times, he said, so that all could hear, 'It is solid, Alfred; it is solid,' and went back into the cabinet."
Hannan Swaffer and James Herries, both highly respected journalists of the time, took their turn in the witness box at the Old Bailey. Swaffer, who had already recognised as the uncrowned father of Fleet Street, and co-founder of of the Spiritualists weekly paper "Psychic News, told the court that "anyone who described ectoplasm as butter muslim, would be a child, under the red light of the seance room it would look yellow or pink, whilst all these materialised spirits forms appear white." Herries, who was himself a Justice of the Peace. A psychic investigator for over twenty years, testified that he had witnessed the materialisation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Homes books.
The defence, wishing to prove beyond doubt that Helen's mediumship was beyond repute, wanted to conduct a seance within the Old Bailey. The suggestion caused absolute panic from the establishment. Think of the consequences. If she pulled it off, the press would have had an even better hey day thatn they were already, it would bring her fame instead of censure, and this would make the British legal system held to ridicule. Needless to say the idea was rejected, and instead call Mrs Duncan as a witness, giving the prosecution a chance to cross examine her. To try and destroy her credability. Helens defence was quick to point out that Mrs Duncan was in a state of trance, and could not therefore, having no knowledge, discuss what had gone on.
The Jury took all of thirty minutes to reach a verdict. Helen and her co-defendants were found guilty of conspiriacy to contravene the ancient 1735 Witchcraft Act, but not guilty on all other charges.
Portsmouths Chief of Police, described Mrs Duncan as an unmitigated humbug and pest, and revealed that in 1941 she had been reported for announcing the sinking of one of His Majesty's ships before it had been publiclly anounced.
The following Monday the judge summed up stating that the verdict had not been concerned with whether genuine manifestations are possible ot not, and that the court had nothing to do with such questions. What he did do was to interperet the jury's findings to mean that Helen Duncan had been involved in plain dishonesty, and for this reason alone he imprisoned her for nine months at Holloway.
Even Sir Winston Churchill who was then Prime Minister and no stranger to physical phenomena, wanted to know why such a charge using the 1735 Witchcraft Act was used in a British Court, and at what cost to the state. Churchill visited Helen in Prison and made promises to make amends. True to his word in 1951 the 1735 Witchcraft Act was repealed and replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act.
In 1951, to the rejoicement of Spiritualists all over the country, Spiritualism was recorded as an officially recognised religion by an Act of Parliment. This meant that while frauds would be properly brought to justice by the police and those head hunters of the Spiritualist movement, It also meant that bonifide working mediums could carry on working without fear of harrament.
Well thats what was supposed to happen, In November 19576, police raided a seance in Nottingham. They grabbed the presiding medium, strip searched her and took endless flashlight photographs. Shouting at her that they were looking for beards, masks and shrouds. They found nothing. The medium was Helen Duncan, and in their ignorance the police had committed the worst possible crime involving physical phenomena, that of a medium in trance never being touched. Our spiritual teachers have explained to us so many times what damage can be done with the ectoplasm returning to the mediums body to quickly which can cause terrible injuries to the sitters and possible fatel injuiries to the medium. As it was with Helen Duncan, a doctor who was summoned to attend to Helen discovered 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 was dead.
Spiritualists are no strangers to scorn and hypocrisy at the hands of disbelievers. But this was without doubt the most disgusting and hanius crime against any person. For what? Bringing confort to those grieving souls who have lost loved ones to spirit. Giving them the comfort of knowledge that they are not dead, just moved into a different life pattern from which, from time to time, they can bridge that gap between our world and theirs to return and speak to us once more through mediums like Helen Duncan.
Helen has returned on a number of occasions now in Spiritualist home circles, but her first contact was to her daughter Gina.
THE HELEN DUNCAN CASE
by Hannen Swaffer
In the fifth year of our war for freedom! - Orthodoxy was to arrest Helen Duncan, our best materialising medium, after submitting her to a physical examination that was indecent, refuse her a doctor until morning, ill with diabetes and suffering with shock though she was - and to invoke the Witchcraft Act of 1735.
Orthodoxy was back to broomsticks!
While she was giving a séance at Portsmouth, a whistle was blown. Policemen rushed into the room, took part in a sort of Rugby scrum, and, because they could not find the white “sheet “- that is what they called the ectoplasm the medium had exuded - were childish enough to believe that she had swallowed it, or else that the sitters, who demanded in vain that they should be searched, had secreted it on their persons.
Baron Schrenck-Notzing, who spent many years on psychical research, had analysed ectoplasm. Dr. W. J. Crawford, of Queen’s University, Belfast, had weighed it, traced its flow - and even certified that one medium, while exuding it, lost 54 lbs. of weight!
Thousands of Spiritualists all over the globe knew it to be living matter, out of which they had seen built up solid spirit forms that walked about the room, talked with their earth relatives, had been photographed - Sir William Crookes took lots of photographs of a materialised “Katie King” which a member of his family
destroyed after his funeral, although some of the pictures still survive - and played musical instruments.
But the Portsmouth police said it was a sheet! More, the Public Prosecutor’s department bought cheese-cloth - and just because Harry Price, who had apparently forgotten that he once brought me a piece of ectoplasm which he said was cut from Mrs. Duncan’s body and which he had analysed, declared that her materialisations were cheese-cloth which she had regurgitated.
So cheese-cloth, bought by Whitehall for Helen Duncan’s trial at the Old Bailey, was actually held up by Treasury counsel before every defence witness, each of whom was asked in turn, “Isn’t this what you saw?” Yes, this took place in 1944!
Did the Treasury, the Public Prosecutor, or the Home Office underling who afterwards boasted of his cleverness in remembering the Witchcraft Act know that this Duncan prosecution would put every Spiritualist, every medium, and every psychical researcher in Britain in perpetual jeopardy? Someone must have known.
This is no attack on Spiritualism,” said Treasury counsel, time after time. The Recorder of London, who tried the case, stressed the same thing.
But the truth is that, since Helen Duncan’s conviction proved that mediumship of any kind is, in law, “a pretence at conjuring up spirits of dead persons,” public trance has been barred, in Altrincham, in a municipal hall - in case the town council were guilty of conspiracy! More, free speech on the subject is so barred that, when I wanted to address a meeting of protest in Altrincham, I had to do so in Sale, a neighbouring borough. No local minister who was approached would lend his chapel! “It is contrary to the teaching of our religion,” they said - or else dodged it.
When questions were asked about this in Parliament, the Home Secretary was truculent and defiant. When he said that it had been arranged that an address was to be given “by the spirit of a dead man,” and that a collection would be taken, M.P.s roared with laughter.
Little did they know, but the Duncan case had caused such a scare about the Witchcraft Act that two printers who had read about the illegality of mediumship were afraid to print a pamphlet dealing with the subject and planned for distribution in the Commons. One suddenly got cold feet even after he had set up the type.
You saw, no doubt, many comic headlines in the newspapers during the Duncan case. You did not know that it might be destined to rank, one day, with the trial of Socrates, who was condemned to death because he said he had a spirit guide, and with the conviction of Joan of Arc because she obeyed spirit voices, that, remembering Helen Duncan’s conviction, Spiritualists recalled Rome’s threat to torture Galileo, whom it forced to recant, because he said the sun did not move round the earth.
The fact that Helen Duncan is a fat Scotswoman of working-class origin and with a desire to earn more money as a medium than we thought wise for her, does not affect the issue. She had demonstrated to countless numbers of people all over the land that it was possible for the spirits of the dead to materialise, that they need not rely on so-called “resurrection” because of an unproved, and contradictory, story of how Jesus returned from the grave, but that they could test it for themselves.
No fewer than 300 of these were prepared to give evidence at the Old Bailey trial. Actually, 40 of them did so. They included people belonging to all the Services, and various learned professions - a medical officer, a lawyer, one of the best-known Scottish journalists, a sanitary inspector, an electrical draughtsman, and a Church of England clergyman.
For three days, these described how full materialisations of relatives and friends had taken place at Helen Duncan séances, and that they were satisfied about the genuineness of her powers.
Yet, time after time, Treasury counsel held up the cheese-cloth or butter-muslin, as some called it, and said, “Wasn’t it like this?
Then I arrived in the witness-box. You must realise that I had nothing to gain, but, although one of the most famous journalists in the country, I was risking obloquy and scorn. Yet Truth is Truth, and you have to stand for it.
“You are also, I believe, a dramatic critic,” said C. E. Loseby, counsel for the defence.
“I was, unfortunately,” I replie