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 traveled 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
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
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
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.
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Categories: Paganism and Witchcraft
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