Helen Duncan was charged under the 1735 Witchcraft Act, but her case was no eighteenth-century sensation: she was arrested, charged, and ultimately imprisoned in 1944. Of course, in 1944, Britain was at war, fighting fascism by day on the continent and hiding in air raid shelters by night at home. The spectacle of a Spiritualist medium on trial for witchcraft seemed out of place. What possessed the Home Secretary to allow this trial to make headlines all across the UK in 1944? That’s what we’re here to find out.

Transcript for Cheesecloth, Spiritualism, and State Secrets: Helen Duncan’s Famous Witchcraft Trial

Written by Averill Earls, PhD

Recorded by Averill Earls and Marissa Rhodes, PhD

Averill: After being arrested during a seance at a friend’s home, Helen Duncan stood trial for witchcraft at the Old Bailey in London. A parade of witnesses took the stand during her trial, some affirming her abilities as a medium, some insisting that she was a fraud who preyed on the bereaved. Duncan was charged under the 1735 Witchcraft Act, but her case was no eighteenth-century sensation: she was arrested, charged, and ultimately imprisoned in 1944. If you’re surprised to learn that the British government was utilizing 18th century witchcraft laws in the mid-twentieth century to imprison old women, let me tell you – you aren’t the only one! According to scholar Nina Shandler, even Winston Churchill was shocked to read about the case of Helen Duncan when he opened his morning paper in June 1944. Britain was at war, fighting fascism by day on the continent and hiding in air raid shelters by night at home. The spectacle of renowned Spiritualist medium Helen Duncan on trial for witchcraft seemed out of place. He sent a missive to the Home Secretary without greeting or niceties: “Let me have a report on why the witchcraft Act of 1735 was used in a modern court of justice. What was the cost of the trial to the state, observing that witnesses were brought from Portsmouth and maintained here in this crowded London for a fortnight, and the Recorder [His Lordship Sir Gerald Dobson] kept busy with all this obsolete tomfoolery to the detriment of necessary work in the Courts.”[1] What possessed the Home Secretary to allow this trial to make headlines all across the UK in 1944? Let’s find out.

I’m Averill Earls

And I’m Marissa Rhodes

And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.

Marissa: Happy summer, listeners! We want to thank all of our Patreon supporters, and especially our fabulous Auger and Excavator level patrons: Lauren, Edward, Iris, Denise, Susan, Agnes, Peggy, Colin, Maddie, Maria, Jessy and Hannah! We can’t thank you enough. Listener, if you’re not yet a patron of this show, it’s easy: just go to patreon.com/digpodcast to learn more

Averill: Before we begin, we want to acknowledge that each of our episodes relies on the research and writing of historians and other scholars. Today I want to thank Nina Shandler, Malcolm Gaskill, Lisa Morton, and Simon Featherstone in particular for their insightful work on Helen Duncan. You can find a full bibliography, plus footnotes and links, for every episode in our show notes on our website, digpodcast.org.  And don’t forget, if you’re interested in something you heard today, please check out these excellent books and articles!

Averill: Spiritualism emerged at a pivotal moment in the nineteenth century, between the second great awakening and the professionalization of scientific investigation and discovery. As science seemed to usurp faith, there were a lot of questions that needed new answers. Where does the afterlife fit into the human experience? Can it be tested or measured? Can the people claiming to have a special connection to the other side be proven wrong? Spiritualism ended up in the middle of a lot of debates and scandals. As a movement, Spiritualism offered people who’d lost their faith in the invisible the opportunity to ‘test’ the existence of an afterlife. As Janet Oppenheim notes in her study of Spiritualism, The Other World, “They were absolutely convinced that theirs was the faith that united all faiths, that reconciled religion and science, and gave man the facts to prove his immortality.”[2]

Marissa: According to the founding mythology of the Spiritualist church, the first spirit mediums were nine and twelve-year-old Kate and Margaret Fox. The sisters were able to communicate with the spirit that haunted their house in Hydesville, New York, just outside of Rochester, by establishing an alphabet to interpret the spirit’s knocks and raps in the house. Within a few years the two girls, and later their older sister, were performing seances for audiences from all over the US and Europe.

Averill: The phenomena that manifested in seances were categorized as “physical mediumship,” which took a range of forms – the raps and knocks of the Fox sister’s communication technique, but also any kind of demonstration that included a physical manifestation of the other side. Physical mediums might demonstrate through automatic writing, or materialize body parts or even full apparitions of spirits using a substance called “ectoplasm,” which was believed to emanate from the medium’s body because of her connection to the spirit world. Many of these physical mediums also used instruments to help facilitate this kind of contact, like spirit trumpets, levitation tables, and spirit cabinets.

Marissa: The physical manifestations of mediumship produced at seances were often what brought believers into the fold. As Peter Lamont notes, “Seance phenomena were, after all, the primary reason given by spiritualists for their initial conversion to spiritualism and for their continuing beliefs.”[3] But from the first knocks and raps at the Fox house right up to Helen Duncan’s witchcraft trial, the physical manifestations of Spiritualism were also the most persistently challenged, tested, and debunked. And this is important for understanding the 1944 trial of Helen Duncan: she wasn’t on trial because she had magical powers — she was on trial for fraudulently claiming that she could speak to the dead.

Averill: The 1735 Witchcraft Act that Helen “Nell” Duncan was charged under was actually a major revision to the earlier laws. As you will recall from several of our episodes on witchcraft in England, the 16th and 17th century laws made magic and communicating with Spirits or the Devil illegal. The 1735 Act, however, reflected a shift in the belief system of England’s elite. By the 18th century, when England was in the throes of the so-called Enlightenment and scientific method, the king changed the law: “That if any Person shall… pretend to exercise or use any kind of Witchcraft, Sorcery, Inchantment, or Conjuration, or undertake to tell Fortunes, or pretend, from his or her Skill or Knowledge in any occult or crafty Science.” In other words, the 1735 act made it illegal for people to claim that they could practice magic or conjure spirits.

Marissa: According to Ronald Hutton, the 1735 Act was used frequently in the early 19th century, because “members of the social elite came to perceive that a faith in magic seemed to be as prevalent among the populace as it had been a hundred years before, even while a growing political turbulence among commoners gave their rulers a new interest in the idea of education and civility as stabilizing forces. Ignorance, superstition, criminality and insurrection seemed increasingly to make up a single package.”[4] But by the end of the 19th century, and the introduction of compulsory universal education, the 1735 Act was rarely used as the cunning folk and practices of the earlier era seemed to fade away. Of course, many of the elements of those earlier spiritual practices – communing with spirits or fairies or what have you through ritual – were elements of Spiritualism. Though the Fox sisters are identified in Spiritualist mythology as the first Spirit Mediums, they were not the first people in the world to claim that they could speak to the dead. The Spiritualists set their work apart from earlier iterations through an institutionalized and scientific cadence. Significantly, Spiritualism’s critics also adopted an institutionalized and scientific cadence to challenge the claims made by mediums and their believers.

Averill: Helen Duncan was charged with claiming, fraudulently, that she could and did contact spirits on the Other Side. Her trial in 1944, then, became this sensationalized touchpoint for British Spiritualism – because, for all intents and purposes, their very faith was on trial.

Helen Duncan

Marissa: Victoria Helen MacFarlane Duncan was born in Callander, Scotland. According to Nina Shandler, Helen – called Nell by her family and followers, or “Hellish Nell” by the people of her town – was a strange child, given to seeing ghosts and following her older brother into trouble.[5] But she was estranged from her family and hometown when she got pregnant out of wedlock in 1914. Undoubtedly she felt fortunate when Henry Duncan married her and gave her daughter, Bella, a stepfather. In the early days of her medium work, she told people that she and Henry met in a dream, when he was in a field hospital recovering from an injury.[6] They were married in 1916, and Henry went to work turning Helen’s gift for speaking to Spirits into a business to support their family.

Averill: The Duncans made a splash in the medium circuit in the interwar period. She started offering seances in 1926, and quickly gained a following because of the stunning materializations she produced in her trances. Helen Duncan’s seances were a vivid mix of the Spiritualist tools and practices of the era. After her naked body was inspected by three women, usually audience members and her assistant, they dressed her in a one-piece black satin sack, which was tied tightly closed at the neck, wrists, and ankles. Then she sat down in a Spirit Cabinet, drew a curtain across the front so she was closed inside. Her husband turned the lights off and lit a lamp that cast a red light around the room, and she promptly fell into a trance – which participants were meant to know because of the loud snoring that came from the spirit cabinet. Shortly after she fell into a trance, ecotplasm would slither forth from her mouth or nose, and form itself into a shape resembling a floating being, usually with some kind of face. Spirit photographers attended her sittings in the 1930s and took photographs; these spirits look very much like the Punch puppets, or like faces cut out of magazine. But the sitters in the seance heard the messages of the spirits that spoke through Duncan, and her popularity grew. In 1931 the London Spiritualist Alliance invited her to their laboratory to test her materialization abilities. They published their findings – that the “ectoplasm” she produced was regurgitated paper and cheese cloth – and in 1933 she was charged and found guilty of fraud, and required to pay a £10 fee.[7] This kind of charge and fine was common for mediums in the 1920s and 30s, and she was likely charged under one of the more modern anti-fraud and profiteering laws of the period. Though skeptics attempted to disrupt her Spiritualist authority, they were never quite successful, and her fame continued to rise into the 1940s.

Marissa: By 1944, Duncan had a loyal cadre of followers. She was so popular and powerful that some Spiritualists called her their “goddess.” Her seances were wildly sought-after, so much that by 1941, she was doing two a day, and gaining new believers in each one. It was her lawyer’s job to prove that, in fact, her abilities were real. It was the prosecution’s job to prove that she was a fraud. Of course, those who believed in her weren’t going to stop believing in her just because the jury of non-believers voted against her; they believed their own eyes and experiences over the testimonies delivered in court. But the case gained such national, and then international, attention, that the stakes were high for Spiritualism. It was yet another battle against the skeptics who’d been challenging the veracity of Spiritualist phenomena from the beginning.

Averill: Those invested in debunking Spiritualism came out of the woodwork from the very first publicity runs of the Fox sister’s abilities. The sisters were tested in Buffalo by C. Chauncey Burr and a team of Buffalo medical professors, in Boston by Harvard professors, by the Seybert Commission from Pittsburgh, and by William Crookes, a British chemist and physicist who attended the Royal College of Chemistry in London. Burr’s team of professors found that the girls made no sounds when their feet and knees were placed on cushions. The Seybert Commission found that the raps were erratic and, while they couldn’t detect Maggie’s foot moving, they did detect some kind of pulsation emanating from her body.[8]  William Crookes was one of the few investigators who suggested that the Fox sister’s abilities were otherworldly:

With mediums, generally it is necessary to sit for a formal séance before anything is heard; but in the case of Miss Fox it seems only necessary for her to place her hand on any substance for loud thuds to be heard in it, like a triple pulsation, sometimes loud enough to be heard several rooms off. In this manner I have heard them in a living tree – on a sheet of glass – on a stretched iron wire – on a stretched membrane – a tambourine – on the roof of a cab – and on the floor of a theatre. Moreover, actual contact is not always necessary; I have had these sounds proceeding from the floor, walls, etc., when the medium’s hands and feet were held – when she was standing on a chair – when she was suspended in a swing from the ceiling – when she was enclosed in a wire cage – and when she had fallen fainting on a sofa. I have heard them on a glass harmonicon – I have felt them on my own shoulder and under my own hands. I have heard them on a sheet of paper, held between the fingers by a piece of thread passed through one corner … by a pre-arranged code of signals, questions are answered, and messages given with more or less accuracy.[9]

Marissa: Ira and William Davenport were brothers and stage magicians from Buffalo, NY. After they learned of the Fox sister’s success, they started hosting seances for Spiritualists, around 1854. Their demonstrations were endorsed by J.B. Ferguson, a Spiritualist, who believed that they were genuine. They were best known for a spirit cabinet / spirit trumpet presentation, in which the two men were tied up and locked in a box filled with musical instruments. When the box closed, the instruments played – but upon opening the box, the Davenports were still tied up tight, so the explanation was that the spirits had played the music. According to Millbourne Christopher, “”The Davenports were exposed many times, not only by magicians but by scientists and college students. The latter ignited matches in the dark. The flickering flames disclosed the brothers, with their arms free, waving the instruments which until then had seemed to be floating. The exposures had little effect on that segment of the public which chose to believe the manifestations were genuine. They closed their minds to the truth and sat in awe, sure that spirits had been conjured up in their presence.”[10]

An illustration of a Davenport Brothers show from 1869. It shows the brothers sitting quietly while instruments and children fly in the air around them. A group of well dressed people look on.
The Davenport Brothers doing their thing | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: Another stage magician, Harry Houdini, wanted to believe in the gifts of Spiritualist mediums.

“I was willing to believe, even wanted to believe. It was weird to me and with a beating heart I waited, hoping that I might feel once more the presence of my beloved Mother. If there ever was a son who idolized and worshipped his Mother, whose every thought was for her happiness and comfort, that son was myself. My Mother meant my life, her happiness was synonymous with my peace of mind. For that reason, if no other, I wanted to give my very deepest attention to what was going on. It meant to me an easing of all pain that I had in my heart. I especially wanted to speak to my Mother, because that day, June 17, 1922, was her birthday.”[11]

Marissa: Houdini claimed that he was open to the possibility that Spiritualism was correct, and that the dead could be contacted. He attended many seances, worked with mediums directly, and even struck up a close friendship with Arthur Conan Doyle, a confirmed and sometimes belligerent Spiritualist. But Houdini, well-versed in the tricks of stage magic and escape artistry, found the physical mediumship experiences he attended to be hoaxes and his mother never appeared. In his book, A Magician Among the Spirits, Houdini published a letter that was allegedly written by Ira Davenport, confessing that the Davenports “never in public affirmed our belief in spiritualism.” Houdini’s accusations soured his friendship with Doyle, and the two because public enemies. Though investigator Joe Nickell argues that Ira Davenport did embrace Spiritualism in private, he also agreed with Houdini that the Davenports used stage magic to produce their “spirit” phenomena.[12]

Averill: Significantly, skeptics also made a living accusing Spiritualist physical mediums of fraud and trickery. Some so-called skeptics were more willing to authenticate mediums than others. William Crookes also tested Daniel Douglas Homes, and wrote about the veracity of Home’s skills:

Among the remarkable phenomena which occur under Mr. Home’s influence, the most striking, as well as the most easily tested with scientific accuracy, are – (1) the alteration in the weight of bodies, and (2) the playing of tunes upon musical instruments (generally an accordion, for convenience of portability) without direct human intervention, under conditions rendering contact or connection with the keys impossible. Not until I had witnessed these facts some half- dozen times, and scrutinized them with all the critical acumen I possess, did I become convinced of their objective reality.[13]

Crookes used scientific measurements to validate Home’s abilities – observing and testing Home’s spirit-channeling abilities. Historian Lisa Morton suggests that Crookes may have had some kind of relationship with Homes, which would bring the reliability of his testimony under question, and that skeptics like Crookes may have even helped spiritualist mediums cheat tests.[14]

Marissa: The Seybert Commission, a group of faculty from the University of Pennsylvania, investigated a number of respected spiritualist mediums between 1884–1887, including the Fox Sisters. Unsurprisingly they claimed that there was fraud or suspected fraud (even when they couldn’t prove the fraud) in every case that they examined. Most skeptics made it their business to expose the “truth” of how mediums pulled off their physical medium tricks – literally, because they were able to turn tidy profits on the reports that they wrote to debunk the mediums.

Averill: Harry Price was one such skeptic. He founded the National Laboratory of Psychical Research in 1926 to investigate psychic phenomena, an institution that was, for a time, a rival to the bigger and more successful Society for Psychical Research. (SPR was founded in 1882 and is still around today, investigating alleged instances of psychic phenomena). In 1933, Price managed to convince Henry Duncan – who made himself Helen’s manager and spoke for her whenever she was not in a trance – to bring Helen in for testing. Price paid the Duncans £50 for their time.

Marissa: Price put Duncan through a range of humiliating tests, sometimes using cutting-edge medical technology, but also using speculums and gloved fingers to probe her vagina and anus for hidden “ectoplasm.” “Every orifice of her body was medically explored,” Price wrote in “The Cheesecloth Worshipers,” “and we found nothing.” Price claimed that Duncan was swallowing and then regurgitating something to then manipulate into the apparitions that were said to appear at her seances. He wrote, “by a process of deletion we discovered where the cheese-cloth must be concealed. If one knows that something is hidden in one of ten boxes, and that only nine of the boxes can be examined, it is obvious that that something is in the tenth box.  In the case of Mrs. Duncan the “tenth box” was her stomach – the one place we could not easily explore.  We formed the opinion that Mrs. Duncan was a regurgitator, i.e. a person who could swallow things and bring them up again at will – a curious faculty which is not so rare as is generally supposed.”

Averill: Notably, at one point, Price also posited that Duncan had a second stomach, like a cow, where she kept the cheesecloth hidden before silently regurgitating it up during the seances. This is, of course, ridiculous, but also aligns with the crude and misogynist manner that he – and many of the men in her life – treated her. Throughout Price’s account of his testing of Helen Duncan he makes comments about her body, and obviously felt no compunction about subjecting her to various invasive procedures.

Marissa: To determine if she was keeping cheesecloth in her stomach, Price tried to put her through an x-ray.

We knew that the rays would not reveal the cheese-cloth, as the stuff casts no shadow, but we hoped for a safety-pin or something similar.  We also knew that the psychological effect of the apparatus on the medium would be valuable, and in this we were not mistaken. At the conclusion of the fourth séance on May 28th, 1931, we led the medium to a settee in the séance-room and gave the signal for the X-ray apparatus to be wheeled in from an adjoining room.  At the sight of the apparatus the medium seemed scared, and promptly went off’ into another alleged trance, from which she soon recovered.  She refused to be X-rayed.  Her husband advised her to submit, telling her that it was quite painless and merely a matter of seconds. The approach of Mr. Duncan seemed to infuriate her, and she became hysterical.  She jumped up and dealt him a smashing blow on the face which sent him reeling.  She then made a lunge at Dr. William Brown, who fortunately avoided the blow. The medium then said she wanted to retire to the lavatory, so Mrs. Goldney, a Council member, and Dr. William Brown accompanied her to the hall, in which was the door leading to the street.  Then the medium found that she did not want to use the lavatory and sat down on a chair.  Suddenly, without the slightest warning, she jumped up, pushed Mrs. Goldney aside, unfastened the door, and dashed into the street, where she had another attack of alleged hysterics and commenced tearing her séance garment to pieces.  Her husband dashed after her, followed by the other sitters.  She was found clutching the railings, screaming, and Mr. Duncan was trying to pacify her.

Averill: After this rigamarole, Helen Duncan said she wanted to do the x-ray after all, but Price rejected the offer, since she’d been alone with her husband in the street for some time, and he found the experiment control to be compromised. His reporting on the incident turned again to a belittling description of her body. “It was a most extraordinary scene.  If the reader can visualise a woman weighing more than seventeen stone, clad in a one-piece black satin garment, locked to the railings and screaming at the top of her voice, he will have a fair idea of what we witnessed that evening.  Pieces of séance garment were found in the road the next morning.”

Marissa: During the tests, Price’s team of doctors at the National Laboratory of Psychical Research were trying to capture a bit of the alleged ectoplasm. Price later wrote of this incident:

The sight of half-a-dozen men, each with a pair of scissors waiting for the word, was amusing. It came and we all jumped. One of the doctors got hold of the stuff and secured a piece. The medium screamed and the rest of the “teleplasm” went down her throat. This time it wasn’t cheese-cloth. It proved to be paper, soaked in white of egg, and folded into a flattened tube… Could anything be more infantile than a group of grown-up men wasting time, money, and energy on the antics of a fat female crook.[15]

Averill: Harry Price had all kinds of theories for how Helen Duncan defrauded her audiences (or “sitters,” as those who attended seances were known). Butter muslin, cheese cloth, paper soaked in egg white, from her vagina, from her stomach, passed to her by colluding assistants – but he never actually provided hard evidence to support his theories. Joe Nickell, a researcher for the Center for Inquiry (which is, coincidentally, just a few miles from us – in Amherst, NY), suggests that Helen Duncan probably employed her skills as a seamstress to cleverly hide her “ectoplasm” in the lining of her seance outfit – which was an area of inquiry that Price evidently never pursued diligently. In the end, Price’s dissatisfactory expose of Helen Duncan was satisfactorily profitable for both the NLPR and the Duncans. His book sold enough copies to keep the lights on, and, according to Price, “The reader might well imagine that my damning report on the Duncans finished the “mediumship.”  Not a bit of it!  It acted as an excellent advertisement for the woman and her curious powers, and spiritualists on both sides of the Tweed began falling over themselves in order to obtain sittings with her.  The cheese-cloth mania had a fresh lease of life.”

Marissa: Price’s 1933 report on the Duncans was discussed at length during her 1944 trial. Curiously, the defense utilized Price’s “evidence” more effectively than the prosecution did, and the prosecution seemed to make a conscious choice not to invite Price to stand as a witness.

Averill: At first Helen Duncan was primarily a trance medium, and was said to be able to channel the voices of lost loved ones with remarkable clarity and accuracy. But by the mid-1930s she produced materializations of spirits, typically described as forming out of the ectoplasm her body excreted while she was in a trance. She generally had “Spirit Guides,” either Peggy or Albert, a spirit that sort of ran the show while she was in a trance in the spirit cabinet, and who ushered in the spirits wishing to speak to the audience one at a time.

Marissa: According to a journalist who’d attended Duncan’s seances, “In the case of Albert, he has a distinct personality. His character, his bearing, his voice, his general approach to anything is utterly different from that of Mrs. Duncan.”  That Albert appeared and sounded so different from the typically quiet Nell Duncan seemed evidence to Frederick Charles Hannen Swaffer. “She is a rather good-natured [woman],” he testified in court, whereas Albert was evidently not. Other witnesses recalled Albert’s terse or combative interactions with Mrs. Duncan’s husband during seances, and Albert’s oscillation between jovial host and fierce protector of Helen Duncan. Albert and Henry Duncan did not get along.

Averill: Not all of Helen Duncan’s spirit apparitions were helpful or nice to her. According to Nina Shandler, Donald, who appeared in some of Nell’s early seances, would swagger about, saying things like “See her? There’s the fat lady, Nellie Duncan, just sitting there in her trance. She can’t see me. She can’t hear me. She’s out there in the Blessed Beyond. Gone. I am the man in control, and I love being in control.”[16]

Marissa: From the very beginning of Spiritualism, women were at the center of the movement. With a few famous exceptions – like the Davenport brothers and Douglas Homes – mediums were typically women. As Elana Gomel points out, mediumship was gendered as feminine. Men like Homes were problematic but also accepted as mediums when they presented as more effeminate; Lisa Morton notes that Homes most likely had sex with other men, and was described by his contemporaries as being delicately-featured and slender. These physical attributes would have marked him as a man better suited to the work of a medium – that is, being a passive and open vessel, ready to receive Spirit. Arthur Conan Doyle and sociologist C.W. Soal both described mediumship as feminine. According to Gomel, “For Doyle, the female body is a passive filter for the masculine voice from the Great Beyond. For Soal, femininity involves wild, chaotic, unruly productivity, unconstrained by will or intellect.”[17] This reduction of femininity among Spiritualists is revealing when we consider the way that Helen Duncan’s contemporaries – and those who’ve documented her story in the aftermath – talked about her body. You probably flinched a bit when we were reading Harry Price’s descriptions of Mrs. Duncan – a “fat female crook,” hysterical, unruly, unkempt.

Averill: Even Shandler, who endeavored to give Nell Duncan a voice in her own story, is not particularly kind when describing the medium. In one scene, Shandler writes: “The two youngest [children] snuggled into her soft body and poked at the loose flesh of her arms. The fat jiggled like jelly, and the little ones giggled.”[18] In another, apparently channeling Henry Price’s opinion of Nell, she wrote that Price saw “Mrs. Duncan, the toast of the Spiritualist elite, walk into the foyer. She’d camouflage her girth and her lowly pedigree with well-chosen accessories..Price wanted to sweep Mrs. Duncan off her feet and drag her roly-poly body up to his laboratory.”[19] When Shandler attempts to give us a glimpse into Nell’s mind while she is being stared at by three women come to check her for hidden cheesecloth, she has Nell think “Hadn’t they ever seen a fat woman before?”[20] Throughout the text Shandler imagines that Nell looked at her husband adoringly, without resentment or mistrust. In writing from a position that accepts that Nell was merely a vessel for the spirits whom she could see and speak to, Shandler presents her much in the same way her critics like Harry Price: as a stupid, naive cow of a woman playing at fraud in a decidedly man’s world.

Marissa: Would Helen Duncan have been so problematic to men like Price or even the constable of Portsmouth if she wasn’t so loud, fat, unruly – speaking with a man’s voice, commanding a room of onlookers, smoking and taking up space? Women mediums were often problematic for all of these reasons, even as they were necessary to the movement – and even as Spiritualist mediumship was gendered as feminine by the community and its observers. Whether “feminine” meant passive and receptive, or chaotic, wild, and without intellect, the role of women was central to the success of Spiritualism and connecting with Spirit.

Averill: Scholars like Simon Featherstone and Joe Nickell, who write from the assumption that Helen Duncan was a performer, actually do more to evidence her agency in her own story. Nickell, as we mentioned, suggests that Duncan used her skills as a seamstress to hide the cheesecloth and other props that she needed to create the apparitions in her seance sack. Featherstone argues that Duncan’s “performances, however, with their extravagant display and management of her body and deployment of a range of references to popular materials, including puppetry, melodrama, children’s games, and sentimental narratives,” are an important insight on the popular performances of the UK in the 1930s and 40s. From that perspective – that these were performances, rather than “authentic” displays of physical psychic or supernatural phenomena – Duncan is a talented actor and performer. She was able to convincingly play Albert and the other spirits, with different tones, accents, and personalities – a feat which convinced many that she couldn’t possibly be faking it. And she was able to gather the kind of information from her sitters that was both vague and specific enough to validate her performances. In fact, the details she revealed in those seances were the real reason she landed in prison in 1944.

Marissa: There were dozens of active mediums and thousands of members of the Spiritualist church practicing in the UK in the 1930s and 40s. There was another surge of conversions and popularization of seances after the devastation of WW1, and Helen Duncan fit neatly into that niche. But in 1941, her gifts landed her in trouble.

Averill: A soldier, Brigadier Roy Firebrace, was in attendance at the sitting in Edinburgh. He was a true believer, and had attended her seances before. But on this occasion, her spirit guide announced some kind of trouble in the north. To a soldier, it sounded too much like news from a battle front. Helen Duncan’s seances were producing the very kind of rumors that the wartime censorship laws were trying to suppress. In December 1941, three British battleships were destroyed in the Mediterranean. Somehow Nell’s intuition or spirit guides or informants in the British military pushed her information that seemed close enough to that truth that it spooked the military intelligence. Over the next three years, the military sent in undercover agents to suss out whether or not Nell Duncan was revealing state secrets to the public. It was this concern that ultimately pushed the Chief Constable to arrest Duncan and her co-conspirators in 1944 on charges of fraud. And ultimately, she was found guilty of fraud – as she had been years before, and as many other mediums had in the interim. Typically the judge sitting her case would have slapped her on the wrist with a fine and sent her on her way; he was known as being unwilling to imprison people for their religious beliefs, no matter how ridiculous. But the judge was made aware that Mrs. Duncan’s seances had posed a danger to the war effort, and so he elected to give her nine months in prison – conveniently about the length of time the British would need to finally get out of the second world war.

Marissa: So in the end, Helen Duncan was made an example of. And it’s possible that the dire consequences thereafter attached to physical mediumship may have had an impact on the broader Spiritualist community. By 1947, the kind of physical mediumship that Helen Duncan performed was too controversial to sustain the religion. An article in the Light, a Spiritualist newspaper, laid out the way mediumship had evolved since the Fox sisters first heard raps.

Nearly one hundred years ago the general trend of objective manifestation was in the direction of the heavier physical phenomena: materializations, movement of objects, apports, direct writing. As time went on, these became rarified; and more recently there has been development of Direct Voice mediumship, mostly with the trumpet. Now there are signs of an effort to discard the trumpet altogether, and it seems possible that, in some quarters, even this form of independent Direct Voice may merge into a more etherealized method still, one in which we shall be able to dispense entirely with darkness, cabinets, trumpets (and the doubts clinging thereto), one which will provide a clearer channel for the true creative mentality and Spiritual Whole of the communicators.[21]

Averill: For Spiritualists, then, perhaps Helen Duncan’s trial and imprisonment was a signal to put an end to physical mediumship. And despite a stint in prison, the end of the war, her release from prison, and a break from the 2-a-day shows of physical mediumship seemed to do Nell some good. According to Shandler, “Helen Duncan turned into a jolly old lady, overflowing with confident wisdom and generosity of a triumphant survivor.”[22] She didn’t turn away the bereaved when they came to her door seeking connection with the dead, and when she returned to physical mediumship, she “allow[ed] Albert a little time in the limelight. Now more respectful of his mistress, Albert served Nell’s needs.” She was able to buy a bigger house for her family, took in stray teens, gave to the indigent, and continued to provide medium services to Edinburgh. In 1951, the UK finally repealed the Witchcraft Act, replacing it with the Fraudulent Mediums Act – far less sensationalizable if and when it aws employed. But for several years she practiced without much harassment, until one of her sittings was interrupted by a police raid in 1956. The shock that sent her to her death bed. She died in December of that year. As she and the other physical mediums died off, the Spiritualist community had to battle fewer and fewer investigators and tests. The nature of Spiritualism and mediumship became less the intersection of science and faith, and settled into the Spiritualism that you’d encounter today on a visit to Lily Dale, NY or Cassadaga, FL. It wasn’t skeptics, or critics, or even the state that ended her mediumship though; it was only when it was her turn to pass on to the other side that Helen Duncan finally hung up her seance suit.

Bibliography

1735: 9 George 2 c.5: The Witchcraft Act

Karen Abbott, “The Fox Sisters and the Rap on Spiritualism | History,” Smithsonian Magazine (October 30, 2012)

Alison Campsie, Hellish Nell: the Scottish ‘Blitz Witch’ tried at the Old Bailey, The Scotsman (29th October 2017)

William Crookes, Notes of an inquiry into the phenomena called spiritual, during the years 1870-73. Quarterly Journal of Science 4, (1874) 77-97.

Simon Featherstone, “Spiritualism as Popular Performance in the 1930s: The Dark Theatre of Helen Duncan,” NTQ ˆ27:2 (May 2011) 141-152.

Malcolm Gaskill, Hellish Nell: Last of Britain’s Witches, (HarperCollins Publishers, 2002)

Elana Gomel, “Spirits in the Material World”: Spiritualism and Identity in the “Fin De Siecle,” Victorian Literature and Culture 35:1 (2007) 189-213.

Harry Price, Leaves from a Psychist’s Case-Book  (Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1933)

Ronald Hutton,  The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, (Oxford University Press, 1997)

Peter Lamont, “Spiritualism and a Mid-Victorian Crisis of Evidence,” The Historical Journal, 47:4 (2004)

John Monroe, Laboratories of Faith: Mesmerism, Spiritism, and Occultism in Modern France (Cornell University Press, 2018).

Lisa Morton, Calling the Spirits: A History of Seances (University of Chicago Press, 2021).

Joe Nickell, “The Seances of ‘Hellish Nell’: Solving the Unexplained,” Skeptical Inquirer (July/August 2011)

Joe Nickell, Real-Life X-Files: Investigating the Paranormal (University Press of Kentucky, 2001)

C. E. Bechhofer Roberts, The Trial of Mrs. Duncan, (Jarrolds Publishing, 1945)

Nina Shandler, The Strange Case of Hellish Nell, (Da Capo Press, 2006)

Paul Tabori, Harry Price: The Biography of a Ghosthunter (Living Books, 1966)

KM Wehrstein and Robert McLuhan, “Fox Sisters,” Psi Encyclopedia

Steven Woodbridge, “Winston and the Witch: The strange case of alleged wartime witchcraft,” History at Kingston (April 2, 2021)


[1] Qtd in Nina Shandler, The Strange Case of Hellish Nell, (Da Capo Press, 2006) 3; see also Steven Woodbridge, “Winston and the Witch: The strange case of alleged wartime witchcraft,” History at Kingston (April 2, 2021)

[2] Qtd. in Lisa Morton, Calling the Spirits, 90.

[3] Peter Lamont, “Spiritualism and a Mid-Victorian Crisis of Evidence,” The Historical Journal, 47:4 (2004) 898.

[4] Ronald Hutton,  The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, (Oxford University Press, 1997) 107.

[5] Shandler, The Strange Case of Hellish Nell, 12-15.

[6] Shandler, The Strange Case of Hellish Nell,

[7] “The Day’s News Brief,” Aberdeen Press and Journal, 12 May 1933

[8] KM Wehrstein and Robert McLuhan, “Fox Sisters,” Psi Encyclopedia

[9] Crookes, W. (1874). Notes of an inquiry into the phenomena called spiritual, during the years 1870-73. Quarterly Journal of Science 4, 77-97; 84.

[10] Milbourne Christopher, Magic: A Picture History, (Dover Publications, 1990) 99.

[11] Qtd. in Morton, Calling the Spirits, 225.

[12] Joe Nickell, Real-Life X-Files: Investigating the Paranormal (University Press of Kentucky, 2001) 18-27.

[13] Qtd, in Morton, Calling the Spirits, 143.

[14] Lisa Morton, Calling the Spirits, 151.

[15] Qtd. in Paul Tabori, Harry Price: The Biography of a Ghosthunter (Living Books, 1966) 136.

[16] Shandler, 154.

[17] Elana Gomel, “Spirits in the Material World”: Spiritualism and Identity in the “Fin De Siecle,” Victorian Literature and Culture 35:1 (2007) 192.

[18] Shandler, 158.

[19] Shandler, 23.

[20] Shandler, 17.

[21] Qtd. in Morton, Calling the Spirits, 158.

[22] Shandler, 215.


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