One of the most interesting cases in British history took place in 1944. The case centered on Helen Duncan, a woman who claimed to have communicated with the afterlife during paranormal séances in Scotland and England. How did Duncan make her mark on the Second World War? Here is the interesting life story of England’s ‘last witch’…
Women, who were believed to have supernatural powers in the Middle Ages and aroused great fear with their psychic abilities, became people to be avoided in later periods. These women, who were the subject of many mythological stories and thought to draw their power from nature, were revered in some societies with great respect mixed with fear.
According to historical documents, between 40 thousand and 60 thousand women were executed on charges of witchcraft.
Just when we thought witchcraft had come to an end, a woman named Helen Duncan appeared in England in the early 1900s. Seen as the last witch of the country, Duncan also left her mark on the Second World War.
EVEN HER MOTHER WAS DISTURBED BY HIS BEHAVIOR
On March 23rd, 1944, England was rocked by a bizarre trial. Londoners, living through the worst days of the Second World War, flocked to the Old Bailey Criminal Court. It was a case that had not been seen for hundreds of years: A woman named Helen Duncan was on trial for witchcraft.
Duncan, who claimed to give dead beings a kind of body, invited soldiers in the throes of war to her séances, where they would tell her everything that had happened to them in order to get rid of the bad memories affecting their psychology. In short, Duncan’s only crime was not only establishing a relationship between dimensions, but also collecting state secrets.
Born in 1897 in the small Scottish town of Callander to a middle-class family, Helen Duncan (née MacFarlane) was known as a “strange” child even in her primary school years.
Unlike her peers, Duncan constantly made unusual prophecies at school and frightened her friends and teachers with her strange behavior. The whole town was disturbed by this behavior.
Even his own mother was disturbed by Duncan’s behavior. Nicknamed “Hellish Nell” by those around, Duncan worked at Dundee Royal Hospital for a while after school. According to her claims, her “paranormal abilities” gradually developed during this period.
Helen, who married Henry Duncan in 1916, was a mother of six children by 1926.
THEY TRIED TO EXPOSE THEIR DECEPTION
The 1920s was a time when spiritualism was on the rise around the world. In countries such as France, England, Germany and Spain, séances were rapidly becoming popular. Duncan, who made a name for himself during this period, became a well-known medium throughout the country.
Relatives of those who lost their lives in the First World War and the influenza epidemic that began in 1918 rushed to Duncan and gave him everything they had in order to contact their relatives. Over the course of a decade that claimed millions of lives, Duncan’s star rose even higher.
Holding his sessions on a large table in the center of a dark room covered with a soft red carpet, Duncan was very good at his job. During his séances, he would enter a kind of trance state and speak to the spirits he summoned in a language of his own creation. Duncan, who said he followed “spirit guides” named Peggy and Albert, could even give the spirits a body through theatrical shows.
His carefully prepared “séance shows”, combined with Duncan’s superior theatrical talent, resulted in very interesting, shocking and shocking performances. Duncan’s smoke from his mouth and nose would take the shape of a body, astonishing the audience.
As his fame grew, Duncan attracted the attention of spiritualism enthusiasts and opponents alike, and in 1931 he allowed Harry Price, a researcher into the paranormal, to examine him.
Price believed that Duncan was a fraud. He had a theory, although he could not conclusively prove how the woman produced ectoplasm, also known as “transparent matter”, which came out of her mouth, nose and ears when she entered a trance state.
Price thought that Duncan had swallowed what looked like cheesecloth smeared with a translucent white egg white and then vomited it out. Moreover, the spirits Duncan embodied looked more like dolls than real people.
ESPIONAGE SESSIONS DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR
On September 3, 1939, Britain officially entered the Second World War. The return of British soldiers liberated from Dunkerque boosted morale and preparations for war began. Naturally, strict prohibitions were imposed to prevent military secrets from falling into the wrong hands.
But there was a vulnerability that no one paid much attention to. Psychics had access to information that no one else could access during their séances with soldiers. So much so that the question raised after Duncan was whether spies of enemy countries were obtaining intelligence by organizing séances.
Yet Helen Duncan brought shocking news during a séance in Edinburgh on May 24, 1941: A British warship had been sunk.
The British ship, HMS Hood, had been sunk by German troops, but this information was kept from the public. Only the ranks and relatives of the crew were informed. But how did Duncan find out?
Roy Firebrace, Scotland’s Chief of Military Intelligence, who participated in the séances, had access to all the information due to his rank, but even he had not yet received the news that HMS Hood had been sunk.
After the session, Firebrace checked the veracity of Duncan’s claims and learned that HMS Hood had recently been lost in the Battle of Denmark Strait. When authorities began to investigate how this was possible, Duncan said that during the séance he had communicated with the spirit of one of the soldiers on board and learned that the ship had been sunk.
WITCH HUNT BEGINS
Then, in 1941, Duncan held a séance in Portsmouth and announced that he had contacted the spirit of another British sailor and that the HMS Barham had been torpedoed by a German submarine, killing 862 people. This was also true.
The British government had decided to keep the sinking secret from the public until January 1942. This made the intelligence services furious with Duncan and they kept a closer eye on her. The authorities quietly pursued her, and the witch hunt was on.
Near the end of the war, Duncan returned to Portsmouth and resumed his séances. This time the participants included Lieutenant Stanley Worth, an officer in the Royal Navy. Worth was assigned to investigate how this woman, previously detained on suspicion of fraud, had obtained military information.
Worth, who attended the sessions with a disguised police officer, spent a long time following her every move and eventually uncovered the evidence that would expose her tricks. In the middle of the session, the policeman jumped out of his seat and took Duncan into custody. Duncan was charged with “fraud”.
LAW FROM THE DUSTY SHELVES OF THE ARCHIVE
Helen Duncan was initially charged under the Vagrancy Act, a 19th-century law aimed at preventing fortune tellers and mediums from defrauding the public.
However, it was later decided that Duncan’s case was very different. He had obtained private information during the darkest days of the war and had not hesitated to disclose it. State officials had not forgotten what had happened in 1941.
The prosecution feared that Duncan would be released on a minor fraud charge, so the archives were opened and Duncan was tried under the Witchcraft Act, which had not been used for centuries… The indictment underlined that the 1735 law had been violated and therefore Duncan was sentenced to life imprisonment.
This case, which suddenly attracted all the attention in the war-weary country, became increasingly interesting and it was decided to be tried at the Old Bailey Criminal Court in London due to its “unusually bizarre” nature.
When Duncan was brought to London on March 23, 1944, the entire press was at the gates of the court. Huge crowds of people were clamoring to see the “last witch” of the 20th century.
The fact that the trial was covered in the newspapers attracted the attention of even Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Churchill was forced to describe the bizarre trial as “a farce of the past”.
On April 3, the last day of the trial, the jury found Duncan guilty.
WAS SHE ARRESTED TO CONCEAL MILITARY OPERATIONS?
On June 6, 1944, just a few months after Duncan’s trial, the Allies launched the war of resistance in Nazi-occupied France and, after her imprisonment, began the D-Day landings.
Some commentators have suggested that the main reason for Duncan’s arrest was the British government’s fear that she would reveal state secrets before the invasion. This hypothesis put forward in the Scottish media has also mobilized historians.
According to National Geographic, historian Francis Young said, “We have no data to confirm this assumption,” but added that the unusual panic during the trial was not normal.
It was unusual, for example, that the appeal filed by Duncan’s lawyer after the verdict was announced was not accepted. This was because there was no serious offense. Historians therefore agree that what happened in the last witchcraft trial in British history was unusual.
After his release in late 1944, Duncan continued to work as a medium. This made him the target of more police raids. Her supporters continued to rally around Duncan. After her death in 1956, a petition was presented to the British government for her pardon.
The mystery of Duncan’s séances continued after her death, as no one knew for certain how she knew the fate of Hood and Barham. Like the spirits she created, Duncan’s secrets disappeared with her.
Excerpted from the National Geographic article “She was Britain’s last witch-and she lived in the 20th century”.