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Helen Duncan Story by Michael Colmer
SPIRITUALISTS are no strangers to scorn, skepticism and stupidity. We face these regularly and deal with them appropriately. But few know that one of our most gifted Mediums was charged with conspiracy and actually imprisoned for her special psychic gifts of proving survival after death.
This unsung heroine was one Helen Duncan, a simple Scottish housewife, who was forced to serve time in London's notorious Victorian Holloway women's prison for the appalling "crime" of holding physical phenomena séances - many months which took a great toll on her health and contributed to her own premature earthly demise.
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 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.
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 to cost her earthly life.
By the 1930s and 1940s she was traveling the length of wartime Britain giving regular séances in hundreds of Spiritualist churches and home circles. The evidence that flowed from these physical phenomena séances 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 traumatized 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 materialized from this ectoplasmic matter and asked both Vincent and his sister in law to stand up. The materialized 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 séance 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 home port 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 skepticism and fear of the establishment. For that night her séance was disrupted by a plain clothes policeman who blew his whistle to launch a raid. Police hands made a grab for the ectoplasm but the spirit world was too quick for them and it dematerialized 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 séance 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 guilty 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 . On 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 were 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 grueling 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 defense 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 célèbre which attracted daily headlines in tabloid and broadsheets 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. Skeptics must have winced at the daily reporting of case after case where 'dead' relatives had materialized and given absolute proof of their continued existence . One Kathleen McNeill, wife of a Glaswegian forge master, told how she has attended such a séance 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 séance, 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 defense 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 séances. At one of these sittings his grandfather had materialized, 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 uncrowned 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 muslin " would be a child. Under a red light in a séance room it would look yellow or pink whilst these spirit forms all displayed a white appearance".
James Herries, himself a Justice of the Peace, a much respected psychic investigator of some 20 years standing and the chief reporter of the prestigious and influential "Scotsman" broadsheet affirmed that he had seen Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, famed author of the Sherlock Holmes books, himself to materialize at one of Helen Duncan's séances. He had especially noted the distinctive Doyle rounded features, moustache and equally unmistakable gravelly voice.
But, wisely or otherwise, the defense 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 dovecots 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 defense lawyers saw through this ploy. They pointed out that Mrs Duncan could not testify since she was in a trance state during these séances 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 cabinet maker 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 many 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 séance during which a sailor materialized reporting that he had gone down with His Majesty's Ship "Barham" whose loss was not officially announced until three months later.
But, the defense 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, had escaped 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 séance.
Despite her declaration within 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 séances 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 recognized 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 séance 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 Helen Duncan was dead.
Helen Duncan's work for spirit did not cease with her own passing. In September 1982 she came through the direct voice medium Rita Goold and spoke to her own daughter, Gina, who was delighted to confirm this contact without any doubts. She has since returned many times within Spiritualist Home Circles where she always felt happiest. Indeed on one occasion last year this writer, in his capacity as visiting medium, was privileged to link Mrs Duncan with her former neighbor.
We owe her an immeasurable debt of gratitude for her faith and skills and for sharing them so widely and at such an ultimate cost. We owe her further debts for being the scapegoat around whom we could demand - and get - vital changes in the law. But Spiritualism's premier Heroine and Martyr will never be forgotten whilst there are writers who care sufficiently to pen articles like this one.