Duncan, Helen (1898–1956)

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Duncan, Helen (1898–1956) British Spiritualist whose conviction on flimsy charges of witchcraft led to the repeal of Britain’s Witchcraft Act of 1736, thus clearing the way for the public practice of Witchcraft.

Helen Duncan, a Scotswoman, was renowned for her natural mediumistic abilities by the 1920s. During the 1930s and 1940s, she travelled around Britain giving seances. Audience members said she could produce materializations in which luminous ectoplasm would appear to emanate from her mouth and take on the form of the dead.

Like other mediums of her day, Duncan was investigated by authorities. In 1933, she was convicted of fraud over the materialization of a dead child. She was accused of manipulating a woman’s vest in order to produce the appearance of ectoplasm.

Duncan continued to practice mediumship. After the start of World War II, she had a steady business of the bereaved seeking to contact their dead loved ones.

Duncan caught the attention of authorities again in 1941 when she allegedly conjured up a dead sailor at a seance in Portsmouth. She said that his hatband bore the name HMS Barham. The battleship Barham had been sunk off Malta—but not even family members knew about the disaster because the Admiralty had decided to keep it secret in the interests of morale.

Upset by the revelation from Duncan, people demanded an explanation from the Admiralty, which complicated matters by stalling for three months before making an official announcement.

As a result, authorities monitored Duncan for the next two years. With the approach of the D-Day invasion by Allied troops, it was feared that she might clairvoyantly “see” the planned landing sites in Normandy and make them public in advance.

Under the Witchcraft Act of 1735, Duncan was charged with witchcraft for pretending to conjure the dead. At her seven-day trial at the Old Bailey in 1944, more than 40 witnesses testified as to their belief in her powers. The Crown argued that she was a fraud and “an unmitigated
humbug who could only be regarded as a pest to a certain of section of society.”

Duncan was convicted and sentenced to nine months in Holloway prison. She declared as she was led to the cells, “Why should I suffer like this? I have never heard so many lies in my life.” Her words echoed those of countless accused witches in Britain, Europe and America who
in earlier times had gone to jail or to their executions under false accusations.

Her case became a cause célèbre, attracting the attention of Winston Churchill, who was interested in Spiritualism. Churchill was so angered by the trial that he wrote to the Home Secretary, “Let me have a report on why the 1735 Witchcraft Act was used in a modern court of justice. What was the cost to the state of a trial in which the Recorder was kept so busy with all this obsolete tomfoolery?” In 1951 Parliament repealed the 1735 Witchcraft Act, making Duncan the last person in Britain to be convicted and jailed for the crime of witchcraft.

After the war Duncan resumed her mediumship. In November 1956, police raided a seance she was conducting at a private house in West Bridgford, Nottinghamshire. Duncan reportedly was shocked out of a trance, which her supporters claimed led to her death five weeks
later. But she was also overweight and diabetic and had a history of heart trouble.

In 1998, the 100th anniversary of Duncan’s birth, a campaign was launched to clear her name and have her pardoned. However, the Criminal Cases Review Commission examined the case but decided against referring it back to the Appeal Court. Spiritualists planned formal petitions.

The repeal of the 1736 Witchcraft Act is one of the most significant events in the emergence of Wicca. It enabled Gerald B. Gardner to publish his groundbreaking books about his own practice of Witchcraft, and enabled interest in the subject to come out into the open. By the 1960s, Wicca was growing and expanding and was being exported to other countries.