It started much the same as her other seances. With a chilling moan and strange white substance leaking from her mouth, Helen Duncan began communicating with the dead…
But suddenly, the eerie calm was pierced by a police whistle and officers piled into the house, in Portsmouth, Hants, to arrest Britain’s top medium.
The following morning Helen, known as Hellish Nell, was charged under section four of the 1735 Witchcraft Act.
As noted above Duncan is often referred to as the last person to be convicted of being a witch, but this view is incorrect in two important aspects. Firstly, the Witchcraft Act 1735 under which she was convicted dealt not with witchcraft but with people who falsely claimed to be able to procure spirits.
Secondly, there was a subsequent conviction under the act, of Jane Rebecca Yorke of Forest Gate in East Ham later in 1944; Yorke was bound over to keep the peace.
On her release in 1945, Duncan promised to stop conducting séances; however, she was arrested during another one in 1956. She died at her home in Edinburgh a short time later.
Duncan’s trial almost certainly contributed to the repeal of the Witchcraft Act, which was contained in the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951 promoted by Walter Monslow, Labour Member of Parliament for Barrow-in-Furness. The campaign to repeal the Act had largely been led by Thomas Brooks, another Labour MP, who was a spiritualist.
Duncan’s original conviction still stood, and a campaign to have her posthumously pardoned continues
It was 1944, and, astonishingly, officials had ordered her arrest because they were afraid she would reveal top-secret plans for the D-Day landings.
They had been monitoring her since she had revealed the sinking of a British battleship earlier in the war – even though the government had suppressed the news to maintain morale at home.
It took a jury just 30 minutes to find her guilty and she became the last person to be convicted of witchcraft in Britain.
As she was led away to start her nine-month sentence in London’s Holloway Prison, the housewife cried out in her broad Scottish accent: “I never heard so many lies in all my life!”
Helen’s “gift” had long put her on a collision course with the authorities and led to one of the most bizarre chapters in British judicial history.
Helen Macfarlane was born into a poor family in Perthshire, central Scotland, in 1897. Growing up in Callander, Stirlingshire, she earned her nickname due to her tomboyish behaviour. Even as a teenager, she appeared to have a sixth sense, predicting the length of the First World War and invention of the tank.
When the unmarried Helen became pregnant in 1918, she fled the village and settled in Dundee. There, she married an invalid soldier, Henry Duncan, and had five more children.
During that period, Britain was still reeling from the devastating losses sustained in the First World War and many grieving families sought spiritual comfort.
Seances quickly sprang up, conducted by people claiming to be in touch with the dead.
Helen was among them and, by the 1930s, she was travelling the country, summoning up spirits before incredulous audiences.
But while the seances were making her a celebrity, scientists were already questioning her abilities and, in 1931, she was invited with Henry to London to have her skills tested by psychic researcher Harry Price.
He recalls: “She was placed in the curtained recess. In a few seconds, the medium was in a trance. The curtains parted and we beheld her covered from head to foot with cheese-cloth!
“Some of it was trailing on the floor, one end was poked up her nostril, a piece was issuing from her mouth. I must say that I was deeply impressed – with the brazen effrontery that prompted the Duncans to come to my lab, with the amazing credulity of the spiritualists who had sat with the Duncans and with the fact that they had advertised her ‘phenomena’ as genuine.”
In a bid to reveal the contents of Helen’s stomach, Price asked if she would undergo an X-ray.
“She refused. Her husband advised her to submit. But that seemed to infuriate her and she became hysterical. She jumped up and dealt him a blow on the face.
“Suddenly, she jumped up, unfastened the door and dashed into the street – where she had another attack of alleged hysterics and commenced tearing her sance garment to pieces.
“Her husband dashed after her and she was found clutching the railings, screaming.” Yet the researchers did not bring about Helen’s downfall. Instead, the seeds were sown in the Mediterranean, on November 25, 1941.
HMS Barham, a 29,000-tonne battleship, was attacking Italian convoys when it was hit by three German torpedoes.
The ship went down within minutes, with the loss of 861 lives. Already reeling from the Blitz, the British government decided to keep the news quiet, even forging Christmas cards from the dead to their families.
But they never reckoned on Helen’s psychic powers…
Amended and updated from original news story by David Edwards as published in The Mirror on 6th December 2006.
The recording features Bobby Ray on bass and “Fast” Eddie Hoh on drums. The run-time for the song is 4:56, unusual for an era when the typical pop song ran perhaps 2:30.
Most recently, it was used in a 2010 ad for Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7.