“I didn’t do anything”
Born in Scotland on 25 November 1897, Helen Duncan was a tomboy who was nicknamed “Hellish Nell” when she was a young girl. Even her mother said that one day she would be burned as a witch. In 1916 Helen married Henry Duncan, an invalided soldier she had “first met in her dreams”.
They had six children and Henry spent much of his time helping his wife’s spiritualism business rather than concentrating on his career as a cabinet maker. Helen claimed that she was helped by her spirit guide Albert Stewart, a sarcastic Scotsman who had emigrated to Australia. Helen became a very popular medium, especially when she manifested ectoplasm from her mouth and nose. Even when this was shown to be a trick (she had swallowed cheesecloth), her popularity did not wane. In 1933 she was fined £10 for fraudulently procuring money from the public yet still she was still as popular as ever. By 1944 she was an obese, hard-drinking, chain-smoking star who swore like a fishwife.
On 25 November 1941, a German U-boat sank HMS Barham in the Mediterranean, killing 868 men. By this time Helen and her husband had moved to Portsmouth and at one of her seances there a dead sailor, wearing an HMS Barham cap, materialized for his mother. This was a shock for the mother because the Admiralty had kept secret the fate of the ship to confound the Germans and uphold morale. The next day the mother telephoned the Admiralty for confirmation. Two officers interviewed her and wanted to know the source of her information.
On 19 January 1944 Helen Duncan was arrested along with three members of her audience during a séance. She was originally charged under Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act (1824) but when the case came to court on 23 March she was prosecuted under Section 4 of the 1735 Witchcraft Act which was not repealed until 1951. The case caused a sensation and Helen even offered to perform a séance in court to prove her powers. On 3 April 1944 she was found guilty and jailed for nine months. When the sentence was passed, she said, “I didn’t do anything” and promptly collapsed.
Court 4, old Bailey, London, England
10.30am Monday 3 April 1944
When she was released from Holloway Prison on 22 September 1944, Duncan returned to mediumship. She died on 6 December 1956, a few days after police raided another of her seances.