In 1944, Helen Duncan became Britain’s last witch, jailed under the archaic Witchcraft Act 1735.
Duncan was a medium who had been obsessed with the spirit world from childhood. Even as a young girl she claimed to be able to communicate with ghosts and dead people, earning her the nickname “Hellish Nell.”
She was not your average medium. Her “powers” meant she could summon dead relatives by producing ectoplasm from her mouth. This ectoplasm would then mould into physical beings of the spirits who would then be able to touch and communicate with their families and friends. Word soon spread of Helen’s amazing gift and, by the 1930s and 1940s, she was travelling the length and breadth of Britain, hosting séances and bringing comfort to grieving families who could speak to their dead loved ones in the spirit world.
Not everyone shared her devotees’ faith in her supernatural powers. In 1928, she agreed to be photographed by Harvey Metcalfe. His pictures revealed the so-called ghosts to be dolls and paper cuttings. It was then that the London Spiritualist Alliance decided to test the “ectoplasm” that Duncan produced from her mouth—it was found to be nothing more than a mixture of cheesecloth, egg white and paper.
In 1941, she claimed during a séance that the spirit of a sailor told her that HMS Barham had been sunk. She said she knew it was HMS Barham because of the band on the sailor’s hat. But the sinking of the ship had only been revealed in strictest confidence to the families of those lost, and was not announced to the public until January 1942. It was these revelations that prompted the authorities to take a closer interest in her activities.
Undercover policemen arrested Duncan at a séance when a white-shrouded figure appeared and was found to be Duncan herself in a white cloth.
It was later proven that there had been a leak concerning HMS Barham, so Duncan could have easily found out about the tragedy. She was initially arrested under the Vagrancy Act 1824, but the authorities regarded the case as more serious and eventually discovered section 4 of the Witchcraft Act that covered fraudulent spiritual activity. She was convicted on one of seven charges and was sent to Holloway Prison for nine months.
After the verdict, Winston Churchill wrote to the Home Secretary questioning the use of the Witchcraft Act in prosecuting Duncan. On her release in 1945, Duncan vowed not to conduct any more séances, but she was arrested during another one in 1956. She died at home in Edinburgh a short time later.
As a result of Helen Duncan’s case, the Witchcraft Act was repealed in 1951 and spiritualism was recognized as a religion three years later.