Looking back through history, it’s often surprising to find that many things happen somewhat later or earlier than we might expect. The last time the guillotine was used in a French execution, for instance, was 1977—the same year that Apple was founded, Star Wars was released at the cinemas, and Stephen King published The Shining. The first time someone wrote the letters “OMG,” on the other hand, was not in a text message in the early 2000s, but in a letter to Winston Churchill in 1917.
Another equally anachronistic event took place in the UK in 1944—when the British legal system imprisoned the last person in its history to be tried as a witch.
The woman in question was Helen Duncan, a 47-year-old housewife from the town of Callendar in Perthshire, Scotland. The mother of six children, to make ends meet, Duncan held down part-time jobs in a local infirmary and a bleach-producing factory. Her main calling, however, was as a medium and paranormalist; a skill which would eventually bring her considerable fame and success. (In fact, if legend is to be believed, even the likes of Winston Churchill and the future King George VI called on Duncan’s services during her lifetime.)
Duncan’s involvement with the paranormal allegedly began in childhood, when she gained a reputation at her school for terrifying her classmates (and, for that matter, her devout Presbyterian mother) with various spiritual prognostications and rambling prophecies of doom. In her 20’s, now encouraged by her husband and young family, she turned to mediumship as a means of expounding her interest in the supernatural. She began holding seances in her home in Scotland. As her notoriety grew, Duncan began to be invited to hold seances all across the United Kingdom and became known not only for being able to summon and communicate with the spirits of the dead but also supposedly to produce a pale, slimy ectoplasm from her mouth as she did so.
Duncan’s skills, such as they were, soon became well known enough that in 1928 a photographer was called on to document her talents. But to many people’s obvious disappointment, the photographs he produced, which reportedly showed Duncan summoning a spirit, as well as calling upon her ghostly spirit guide “Peggy”, were quite clearly staged. Peggy and her fellow spirits were comprised of nothing more than faces cut out of magazines and poorly made papier-mache masks atop thick white cotton sheets.
Soon afterward, a series of experiments were arranged, but these too proved that Duncan was perhaps not quite as spiritually connected as she claimed to be. The ectoplasm she was said to produce from her mouth was found to be nothing more than a mixture of egg white and various other kitchen staples. Duncan’s angry refusal to be X-rayed—during an attempt to prove that there was no medical explanation for her abilities; led one investigator to rightly deduce that Duncan kept this slime in cheesecloth pouches in her mouth and gullet. While claiming to be speaking to the dead, Duncan would regurgitate the pouches and burst them open to produce a stream of gunge from her mouth.
Finally, her apparent fakery proved too much, and when Duncan claimed to have summoned the spirit of a young girl, seen emerging out of the darkness behind her at a seance in Edinburgh, one of the attendees quickly became suspicious. They turned on the lights and grabbed the spirit, only to find that it was a not particularly well-made knitted doll! As a result of that particular stunt, Duncan was convicted of fraudulent mediumship at the Edinburgh Sheriff Court in 1933, and fined £10.
Despite her credentials seemingly not holding up to much scrutiny, Duncan was still able to continue her career as a medium. By the end of the decade, she was still very much in demand. But at a seance in the city of Portsmouth in 1941, she finally overstepped the mark once and for all.
By that time, World War II had been rumbling on for two years. The parents of a young man who had enlisted with the Royal Navy, but had never been heard from again, contacted Duncan to ask if she could shed some light on their son’s fate, as well as that of his ship, the HMS Barham. Professing to have spoken to her spirit guides, Duncan confirmed that the young man’s ship had indeed been sunk and that he, along with all of his fellow crewmates, had perished.
This time, at least, Duncan’s story was entirely true: The Barham had indeed been sunk just a few weeks earlier, by a German U-boat off the Mediterranean coast of Egypt, with the loss of all those on board. At that time, however, the sinking had been concealed by the Royal Navy’s Board of Admiralty in an attempt to bolster British morale and avoid Germany claiming the sinking as a propagandizing victory. Duncan’s apparent knowledge of the sinking, at a time when its occurrence was still highly censored, brought her to the attention of the authorities, and as the war continued, Duncan remained under scrutiny.
Eventually, the events of the war began to come to their bloody conclusion and Britain began to make arrangements for the D-Day landings, again, with intense secrecy. As a result, any potential leaking of military maneuvers was taken very seriously, and with Duncan still viewed with suspicion by the military authorities, two Royal Navy lieutenants were dispatched to attend one of her seances in January 1944. The two men were horrified by what they found: Duncan claimed to be in contact with the spirit of one attendee’s dead sister (despite his sister being alive and well and living in London), while a spirit that emerged from behind a curtain during the seance was eventually revealed to be Duncan herself dressed in a fairly unconvincing white sheet. The police were called, and Duncan soon found herself in court charged with “public mischief,” obtaining money by false pretenses, and in a crime that would land her a place in the history books, in contravention of Section 4 of the 1735 Witchcraft Act, which outlawed “fraudulent spiritual activity.” For her crimes, Duncan was sentenced to nine months in prison.
On her release from jail in 1945, Duncan swore to stop conducting seances, but was later arrested holding another one a decade later in 1956. She died later that same year, at the age of 59.