The story of Helen Duncan is a remarkable one. She was a spiritualist and a medium and was also labelled a traitor in the Second World War. She was born in Scotland, in the small town of Callander in the November of 1897. Her life was not a privileged one. She married her husband, Henry at the age of twenty; he was a cabinet maker just like her father and although she went through a staggering twelve pregnancies only six of her children survived. In order to keep the family going both Helen and her husband, who was disabled after an injury in World War I, worked in a bleach factory during the day. She carried out her domestic chores during the evening and also managed to fit in time for her spiritual work, earning a little extra money from the readings that she gave. Helen was a physical medium. She would enter into a trance state during which time physical phenomena would be witnessed. It was this very skill that would in the end, cost her her life.
During the 30’s and 40’s Helen travelled around the country visiting spiritualist churches and holding séances. The phenomena that congregations witnessed were described as nothing less than astonishing. The deceased would appear to stand before their loved ones offering comfort to those who were grieving after losing their sons and husbands in the war. Some of the people who were presented with the manifestation of their loved ones during these séances came to her defence when she was placed on trial at the Old Bailey, but their statements and their pleas fell on deaf ears.
During the Second World War her skills were again called upon by many grieving widows and mothers; she was especially popular in Portsmouth, the Naval Fleet’s home port. This was a dangerous place to be, especially in the January of 1944. The Luftwaffe regularly carried out bombing raids over the city in their attempt to destroy the fleet, but there was also another danger, from the authorities. A plain clothed policeman attended one of the séances with the intent of disrupting the proceedings. He even attempted to catch hold of what the authorities believed to be ‘fake’ ectoplasm, but the office found that it dematerialised in his hands.
Placed on Trial
Helen and three of her innocent séance attendees were placed before the magistrates. Having no viable charges to lay at her feet she was instead charged with vagrancy. She should have been given a small fine to pay, as was the law at the time, however she was instead sent to Holloway Woman’s Prison for four days. During this time the authorities worked on putting together a more substantial case against her. The charge was altered to conspiracy, which during wartime carried the ultimate penalty, death. By the time case made it before the bench at the Old Bailey the charge had been changed to that of witchcraft, and why? It seems that the authorities at the time were afraid that she would reveal the secrets of the planned D-Day landing.