Duncan, Helen Victoria

Duncan, Helen Victoria (1897–1956)

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Helen Victoria Duncan was a materialization medium who lived in Scotland and earned a very mixed reputation. She was very much a tomboy as a child and consequently earned the nickname “Hellish Nell.” As a young woman, her family banished her when she became pregnant but was unwed. She subsequently married Henry Duncan, who lived in Dundee. They eventually had six children.

In 1931, Duncan allowed herself to be examined by the London Psychic Laboratory, the research division of the London Spiritual Alliance. The results were published in the May 16, 1931, issue of the journal Light. Although no conclusions were reached, the journal conveyed a very favorable impression of her. Duncan produced ectoplasm, figures appeared at the séances, and objects many feet away from the medium were moved. The medium herself had been stripped and placed inside a special sack with arms ending in attached, stiff, buckram mittens. The sack suit was sewn in at the back and fastened with cords and tape to the chair in which she sat. Reportedly, at the end of the sittings she was often found sitting outside of the suit, though its fastenings were still intact.

The National Laboratory of Psychical Research also examined Duncan. The Morning Post of July 14, 1931, carried an article claiming that Duncan had been exposed as a fraud. Researcher Harry Price called her “one of the cleverest frauds in the history of Spiritualism.” It transpired that the “ectoplasm” was in fact a composition of wood pulp and egg white, which she was able to swallow and then regurgitate. On July 17 the Light carried a follow-up article also branding her as a fraud and carrying a confession from her husband. However, subsequent issues of the journal carried numerous testimonies from those who had found Duncan to be genuine. Will Goldston, a well known magician, said that he had witnessed phenomena that were inexplicable by any trickery he knew.

In January, 1932, Duncan was again caught in fraud when Peggy, her supposedly materialized child control, was grabbed by a Miss Maule and it was found to be none other than Duncan herself. The exposers took her to the Edinburgh Sheriff Court and there the President of the Spiritualists’ National Union said that he “had no doubt that the fraud was deliberate, conscious and premeditated.” But after a large number of defense witnesses had testified, he modified his views. Duncan was found guilty of fraud and fined ten pounds.

During World War II, Duncan again made news, but in a way that was to establish her as a Spiritualist martyr.

On January 21, 1944, Helen Duncan had been holding a séance in a room above Ernest and Elizabeth Homer’s pharmacy shop, in Portsmouth, England, when the sitting was raided by the police. It was a materialization séance and a spirit figure was gliding across the room when the police forced their way in. One of the policemen grabbed the figure. He later claimed that it was made of cheesecloth and was suspended on a string—but no such figure, or any cheesecloth, was ever found in the room despite a careful search. A BBC radio recreation of the event reported that the room “was combed inside and out in every conceivable corner. No one was allowed to leave the building that night.” Duncan’s spirit guide Albert, who regularly materialized, had been there when the police broke in but he also completely disappeared.

The reason the police raided the séance was because of reports they had received of Duncan giving out classified war secrets. She had revealed to a worried couple the fact that their son had drowned on the sinking of the war ship the HMS Barham. But at that time there was no public report of the Barham having been sunk. No official statement had been made about the fate of the ship. It later transpired that the Barham had indeed sunk and the young man drowned. The authorities were horrified that military secrets were being given away by a Spiritualist medium. National security was at stake, they claimed, and this was not an isolated incident. Psychic investigator Alan Crossley said, “During World War II servicemen killed in action were regularly manifesting at her séances. Relatives of these men were startled when their sons told them that they were killed at such and such a place … or sailors named the ship on which they had died … The Admiralty didn’t release such information for as long as three months. They were alarmed that through Mrs. Duncan’s mediumship, the men were manifesting and telling the world about it within hours of the tragedy. They had to stop her.”

The medium was initially charged under the 1824 Vagrancy Act, but by the time the case reached the Old Bailey, Duncan was accused of “conspiring to pretend to exercise a kind of conjuration, to wit that spirits of deceased persons appear to be present, and the said spirits communicating with living persons then and there present contrary to the Witchcraft Act of 1735.”

Helen Duncan was being tried under the eighteenth century Witchcraft Act! When Prime Minister Winston Churchill heard of it he was furious. He sent a note to the Home Secretary saying, “Let me have a report on why the Witchcraft Act should be used in a modern court of justice. What was the cost to the state? I observe that witnesses were brought from Portsmouth and maintained here in this crowded London for a fortnight and the recorder [judge] kept busy with all this obsolete tomfoolery to the detriment of necessary work in the courts.”

During the trial, her counsel offered to have Duncan demonstrate materialization in the courtroom, but the judge refused. More than 60 witnesses spoke up in Duncan’s favor, with another 300 willing to testify. Many gave amazing descriptions of evidential appearances of deceased relatives at Duncan’s séances. The trial lasted seven days and Duncan was found guilty. She was given a nine-month prison sentence.

As a result of Helen Duncan’s trial, the old Witchcraft Act was finally repealed and replaced in 1951 with the Fraudulent Mediums Act.


Fodor, Nandor: Encyclopedia of Psychic Science. London: Arthurs Press, 1933
International Survivalist Society: http://www.survivalafterdeath.org
Psychic News #3754, June 19, 2004. Stansted, Essex
Leonard, Sue (ed): Quest For the Unknown—Life Beyond Death. Pleasantville: Reader’s Digest, 1992
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