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Britain's Last Witch

On the 60th anniversary of the sinking of HMS Hood, Malcolm Gaskill looks at the prosecution of medium Helen Duncan for witchcraft in 1944.

Sixty years ago this month, the battleship HMS Hood was sunk off Greenland killing all but three of its 1,418 crew. Before the news had spread, even within official circles, at a seance in Scotland a medium’s spirit-guide described the disaster, an announcement which soon reached the ears of the security services. In wartime, any leakage of information, however trivial or improbable, was liable to be investigated, and so from this time the work of the medium, Helen Duncan, was monitored until January 1944 when she was arrested during a raid on a seance. Towards the end of March, Mrs Duncan was prosecuted at London’s Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey, not for a breach of security, or even for fraud, but for conspiracy to contravene the Witchcraft Act of 1735.

Helen Duncan was a materialisation medium, said to be able not only to contact the spirits of deceased people, but to manifest them as she sat entranced in a curtained-off area of psychic concentration known as a ‘cabinet’. Clothed in ectoplasm – luminous matter generated inside the medium’s body – these spirits would be briefly reunited with friends and family before returning to the other side.

In 1931 Helen Duncan was rigorously tested by psychical research societies in London who concluded that she was a con-artist who manipulated cheesecloth concealed about and inside her person. This bombshell might have put an end to her career had so many Spiritualists not thrived on feelings of persecution by orthodox science, organised religion, and, above all, the police, who sought to protect the public against imposture. Accordingly, Helen Duncan was lionised and her fame grew to the extent that even a conviction for fraud at Edinburgh in 1933 saw her hailed as a martyr.

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