Helen Duncan was the last woman in England to be tried under the Witchcraft Act of 1735. Infamous for producing “ectoplasm” from her nose claiming this vapour was the spirits of the deceased. In fact, the mysterious white substance was hastily digested cheesecloth. Yet her fraudulent activity would result in Duncan being the last witch to be convicted in 1944. Luckily for her, she was not burned at the stake or drowned in a ducking stool!
Below, I’ll detail the bizarre details of the Helen Duncan case that led a 20th century woman to fall foul of 18th century legislation on witches. And also look back at the bloody and gruesome history of witch trials in Britain stretching back five hundred years.
How Helen Duncan came to be England’s last witch
Since childhood, Duncan had enjoyed scaring people with tales of ghosts. From the 1920s, she monetised her talent for showmanship by organising paid-for seances. After the Second World War broke out in 1939, business boomed. The gullible bereaved were all too willing to part with their cash.
Above a pharmacy, she opened the Master Temple Psychic Centre in the city of Portsmouth, a naval base, and soon had a stream of distraught sailors coming through the doors begging to talk to friends and comrades killed in the war against Hitler.
But little did they know that the “hefty medium”, as the stout Duncan was referred to in one newspaper report, had already been the subject of unfavourable investigations and legal action over a ten-year period. For instance, flash photographs taken during one seance revealed the unconvincing paper and sheet dummies by her side that were supposed to be ghosts of the dead.
Condemned by the London Spiritualist Alliance in 1931; exposed by the “psychical researcher” Harry Price; and convicted of fraudulent mediumship at the Edinburgh Sheriff Court in 1933. But none of this impacted her reputation. As happened in the years after the First World War, relatives and buddies of those killed in battle wanted to hear the voice of their loved ones one more time.
But Duncan’s activities began to alarm the Royal Navy top brass and government officials. Not because they believed in her powers, but her proximity to so many serving navy personnel, and the indiscretion they might display in such an emotive setting, posed a security risk.
Especially when she appeared to predict the sinking of a battleship, HMS Barham, which had indeed been destroyed – but the news had not been made public. Only relatives of the deceased had been informed. News like this was frequently held back as it posed a threat to national morale.
Duncan claimed she spoke to the spirit of a sailor killed in the fatal explosion. The authorities decided to call time on her conversations with ghosts and so began the last trial under the Witchcraft Act.
Duncan and three others (including the pharmacy owner) were arrested and taken to London. At the Central Criminal Court, better known as the Old Bailey, she and her activities were put under rigorous scrutiny.
Many were prepared to vouch for Duncan. The court heard testimonies from forty witnesses claiming to have seen a grand total of 1,500 spirit forms materialise around Duncan in over a hundred seances.
The spirits were certainly a varied bunch:
- Chang – a Chinese spirit with a moustache over twenty inches long and green eyes that glittered
- Peggy – a child who wouldn’t come out from behind the curtain “because I haven’t any frock on” though she liked perfume but wasn’t keen on lipstick
- Dolly – the sad-faced songstress who warbled “You are my sunshine” every time she appeared
- A headless woman who claimed to have been beheaded three hundred years before but insisted she was not Mary, Queen of Scots
And so it went on. With her ethereal companions, the court heard that Duncan had been making hundreds of pounds a week – a princely sum in wartime Britain during the 1940s. Yet her supporters spurned the findings of sceptic investigators and threw their arms around Duncan as she endured another day in the dock.
Her defence barrister tried to convince the judge to allow Duncan to give a demonstration of her psychic powers in court. The judge forbade this and made an interesting argument. He likened what was being proposed by the defence counsel to the old medieval trial by ordeal. Duncan’s guilt or innocence would be determined by a display of her alleged powers or failure to display them. This would have been a reversion to the Dark Ages, he added. The trial would proceed along modern, rational lines of inquiry.
Yet there were character witnesses leaping to her defence like Wing Commander George Mackey who testified that in 1927, Duncan had enabled him to speak to his dead mother whose face was about three feet away from him.
Another witness was a Scottish journalist, James William Herries who had been investigating psychic phenomena for twenty years and had been a friend of the Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930). At one seance, he was sure that the dead Conan Doyle made a guest appearance:
“The figure was a little ghostly, but I easily recognised the rounded features of Sir Arthur, particularly the moustache. The figure spoke, and I traced a distinct similarity to Sir Arthur’s voice.”
Despite all this, the jury found Duncan guilty and she was sentenced to nine months imprisonment under the Witchcraft Act. She didn’t take the verdict very well. “Oh I have done nothing!” And as she wobbled on her feet: “Oh God, is there a God?” At which point, she was bundled away to a jail cell. Reportedly, Prime Minister Winston Churchill regarded the treatment of Duncan as excessive.
The police, though, kept her under surveillance for many years and in 1956 raided a residential property in Nottingham where she was reportedly in a trance-like state. Suffering from diabetes, Duncan suddenly fell ill and a doctor, diagnosing “shock”, had her admitted to the Western General Hospital. She died a month later.
One more conviction under the Witchcraft Act of 1735
It’s not strictly true that Helen Duncan was the last person to be tried under the Witchcraft Act. Jane Rebecca Yorke (1872-1953), a 72-year-old from the Forest Gate district of east London, was the very last person to be arrested and tried in 1944. Her spirit guide was a Zulu and sometimes even Queen Victoria showed up.
Like Duncan, she exploited the trauma people were experiencing at the height of World War Two. Unlike Duncan she was spared prison and fined £5.
In 1951, the Witchcraft Act was replaced by the Fraudulent Mediums Act, which better described what the authorities were trying to counter. That in turn was subsumed into the Consumer Protection Regulations of 2008, complying with European Union directives. Not that Brussels’ main concern was witches by that stage.
Witch hunting mania from the 15th to 17th centuries
Witch trials are often assumed to have been a medieval phenomenon. But in fact, they took off during that turbulent time of change that began with the Renaissance in art and the Reformation in religion – leading to a crescendo of accusations in the 17th century.
Throughout the 17th century, the court records which I’ve scoured reveal too many witch trials to list here. But here’s a taster:
- July/August 1612, a group of twelve women dubbed the Pendle Witches were put on trial for witchcraft, child murder, and cannibalism. Ten were hanged.
- June 15, 1634, the Bishop of Chester examined Margaret Johnson, Mary Spencer, and Frances Dickenson. The latter, aged 60, declared she had indeed been a witch for about six years after meeting a man on the highway dressed entirely in black calling himself Mamilion. He promised her the power to harm others if she surrendered her soul to him. Johnson was taken to London and examined at Surgeons Hall where she was discovered to have strange “teats”.
- October 20, 1650, the Privy Council was asked to consider the case of a male witch, Thomas Harvey of Oakham in Rutland, who had been acquitted by a jury but was still being held in prison as the authorities still had lingering suspicions about him.
- July 12, 1683, at the Old Bailey in London, Jane Dodson is tried for practising “divers Hellish Arts and Inchantations to destroy divers Persons especially that she lamed and distorted by her Cunning in Witchcraft and Sorcery, one Mary Palmer, and killed another“. The court was not convinced and acquitted her.
Last witch trials in England and Scotland
By the start of the 18th century, the era of the Enlightenment and spread of science and reason was pushing back the frontiers of superstition. Though not among the entire population. Accusations of witchcraft persisted for a while but became less frequent and were rejected by the courts.
So, in 1701 at Guildford, the accuser – a man called John Hathaway – was condemned to a year’s imprisonment and to stand three times in the public pillory for making a false accusation. The woman concerned was set free.
Yet at Huntingdon in 1716, Mary Hicks and her daughter nine-year-old daughter Elizabeth were accused of taking off their stockings “in order to raise a rainstorm”. They were found guilty of being in league with the devil and hanged together. But this would be the last example in England of capital punishment for witchcraft.
Scotland persisted with witchcraft trials a little longer. In 1727, Janet Horne and her disabled daughter were brought before Captain David Ross, Deputy Sheriff of Sutherland. Some accounts claim Janet was senile. The accusers claimed that Janet wrote her daughter like a pony to meet the devil and he shod the girl as if she was a horse – hence her deformed feet and hands.
Captain Ross was utterly convinced and at Dornoch, Janet was placed in a tar barrel to be burned alive. The daughter apparently escaped. It was a bitterly cold day so Janet – in her mentally confused state – “sat composedly warming herself by the fire prepared to consume her, while the other instruments of death were getting ready”.
Parliament in London was appalled. And the Witchcraft Act of 1735 was introduced to end the burning of witches. In future, witchcraft would be regarded as an offence against reason. So, witches could still be prosecuted but for fraudulence as opposed to being a consort of Satan. There was opposition to the Act from Scottish legislators and also the founder of the Methodist church, John Wesley who said “the giving up witchcraft is in effect giving up the bible”.
The new legislation didn’t get through to everybody. In 1751 at Tring, an elderly couple – John and Ruth Osborne – were accused of giving a local farmer epileptic fits and making his calves fall sick. The ducking stool was produced and Ruth died, choking on mud at the riverbank. John survived but was too weak to give evidence at the subsequent trial of those involved. The authorities decided to make an example and hanged the ringleader, Thomas Colley.