Duncan is best known for being the last person to be imprisoned under the British Witchcraft Act, 1735. She was born November 25th, 1897 and died December 6th, 1956. At school she was known to have alarmed fellow pupils with prophecies of doom and displaying hysterical behaviour.

She married Henry Duncan in 1916 who supported her talents and in 1926 she went from clairvoyant to medium, offering séances to summon recently deceased spirits via emitting ectoplasm. She worked part time in a bleach factory and was a mother of six, a pretty busy lady.

In 1928 photography showed her tricks via dolls and old sheets as drapes. In 1931 the ectoplasm was supposedly cheesecloth, paper mixed with egg-white and toilet paper. In 1933 a trick to summon ‘Peggy’ a spirit was investigated and she was fined £10 for fraud, Harry Price concluded it was all fake and so why am I reporting on her? Well… here goes.

November 1941, WWII, she held a seance in Portsmouth and laid down the claim that a sailor spirit told her the HMS Barham had been sunk. An official announcement for the sinking came months later in February 1942. Due to this the Navy took interest in her claims. There was scepticism about her claims of the spirit telling her this because close family members of the victims had been informed about it. It was summarised that she might has known as around 861 families at the time could have been discussing it with the links they had, and she may well have over heard the news.

Duncan’s claims were taken seriously enough that they arrested her on a minor other issue, but then found the clause of witchcraft. She had a mock-up of an old HMS Barham hat band but after 1939 they hadn’t been worn. There seemed to be concerns that she would leak more confidential information, whatever her source, and that she was exploiting the recently bereaved. Seances did not come cheap, incidentally they don’t these days either…

She was found guilty on one count, and she was imprisoned for nine months. Winston Churchill seemed unimpressed by what seemed to be a waste of time and resources on “obsolete tomfoolery”. In 1945 she was released and promised to stop, which clearly wasn’t the case as she was arrested again in 1956. There was no sign of anything odd about her death after though, she had been suffering ill-health from around 1944 and was an obese woman who would move slowly due to heart trouble.

All too often when the media talks about these events it is with a very sceptical approach. Replications of their so-called trickery has been given as the reason not to trust mediums etc. Helen Duncan was unfortunate in the media enough times I’d question why folks even continued to see her, but the grief of a lost one is hard and people may well have given her more benefit over doubt due to this.

In the case of HMS Barnham, she was in Portsmouth, a naval town in a time where it was already considered a badly kept secret. Sailors of the living variety may have been talking and she overheard it. Perhaps she truly was told by a spirit but I hate to admit full poo-poo on the situation however I would say the only S involved here was media speculation and sensation.

Helen-duncan-cheesecloth

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