Today in London’s history: Helen Duncan charged under the Witchcraft Act, 1944

Helen Duncan was one of the last people charged under the 1735 Witchcraft Act, and was sentenced to 9 months imprisonment, in 1944.
She was arrested on January 19th, in Portsmouth, and brought up to London to be tried… Apologies for stretching London as far as Portsmouth, mistakes get made, ok…?

Helen Duncan was a famous medium, charged under the Witchcraft Act, in it seems, because she constantly claimed during séances to be in touch with some of the thousands of sailors and soldiers being killed in WW2… Modern spiritualists claim Helen was targeted by the “all-powerful intelligence community” because she was inadvertently revealing things that could endanger the war effort… communicated to her by the dead… hmm.

Helen was known for forging ‘ectoplasm’, made from egg and cheesecloth, which she would swallow then vomit out when ‘channelling’ a spirit… She had been prosecuted for fraud, before, in 1933, when a sitter at a séance grabbed a ‘little girl’ who had ‘materialised’ – which turned out to be a doll made of stockinette undervest.
During World War II,  Helen Duncan achieved great popularity ‘putting people in touch with recently deceased’, usually those killed in the war… or exploiting the vulnerable and devastated, if you prefer. She used the usual tricks to convince séance attendees, but spiced it up with revealing what turned out to be classified information. In November 1941, Duncan held a séance in Portsmouth at which she claimed the spirit materialization of a sailor told her HMS Barham had been sunk. The sinking of HMS Barham was revealed, in strict confidence, only to the relatives of casualties, and not announced to the public until late January 1942; those fully accepting spiritualism cite this as evidence of her genuine ability, although it was quite likely she heard this from a relative, or someone they had told: “there were about 9,000 people who knew of the sinking; if each of them told only one other person, there were 20,000 people in the country aware of the sinking, and so on – hardly a closely guarded secret. In short, news of the sinking spread like wildfire; Duncan simply picked up the gossip and decided to turn it into profit.” However, she was clearly a loose cannon and the Navy started to investigate in her activities.
After a séance on 14 January 1944, a Navy Lieutenant reported her to the police for fraud (she had claimed a white cloth figure had appeared behind the curtains was his aunt but he had no deceased aunt; and another figure appeared claiming to be his sister  – a sister who was alive and well. On 19 January, undercover police arrested her at another séance as a white-clad figure appeared – Duncan herself, wrapped in a white cloth which she tried to hide when the lights were turned on.
Though at first arrested under section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824, she was then charged on the section 4 of the Witchcraft Act 1735. Charged alongside her for conspiracy to contravene this Act were Ernest and Elizabeth Homer, who operated the Psychic centre in Portsmouth, and Frances Brown, who was Duncan’s agent who went with her to set up séances.

Duncan wasn’t allowed to demonstrate her alleged powers in court… Obviously a miscarriage of justice (?!?) The jury found her guilty of conspiracy to contravene the Witchcraft Act, section 4, covering fraudulent “spiritual” activity. Duncan was imprisoned for nine months, Brown for four months and the Homers were bound over.
She was sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment. When convicted, she cried out “I have done nothing; is there a God?” Surely she should know…

Hilariously spiritualists still defend this bizarre fraud and have campaigned for a pardon. The authorities however decided to prosecute mainly due to the climate of paranoia about ‘careless talk costing lives’, spying etc; they were afraid that she could continue to reveal classified information, whatever her source was. But also, it was clear she she was exploiting the recently bereaved, as the Recorder noted when passing sentence.

After the verdict, prime minister Winston Churchill wrote a memo to Home Secretary Herbert Morrison, complaining about the misuse of court resources on the “obsolete tomfoolery” of the charge. The Witchcraft Act was repealed a few years later as an anachronism.  However,  exploiting the vulnerable is hardly dead and buried – spiritualism flourishes. Not to mention religion’s old lie about the immortality of the soul…


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online:


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