Helen Duncan was a famous working physical medium in the 20th century. She gave many evidential messages from individuals living on in spirit to loved ones who attended her meetings and seances. She became even more famous when she was accused of pretending to conjure the spirits of the dead under the 1735 Witchcraft Act in 1944 – and convicted!
Helen Duncan, formerly McFarlane, nee McCrae, was born on the 25th of November 1897. She passed over to the spirit world she’d worked so hard to prove the existence of, on the 6th of December 1956. A rumbustious child, nicknamed ‘Hellish Nell’ by folks who were shocked by her so-called tomboyish behaviour, got pregnant at 16. She then married Henry Duncan, by all accounts a gentle sensitive and spiritual sort of chap. Not afraid of hard work, Helen had a reputation for straight-talking, liberally sprinkled with swear words, and drinking.
A victim of ill health from childhood, Helen also had gifts of the spirit. Like most other genuine mediums, she had seen and heard ‘dead’ people from an early age. By 1934 Helen was giving demonstrations of physical mediumship – and it seems that she might have been tempted to embellish some of those with material props from time to time. In Edinburgh a séance was raided and one of those props seized by the police. Helen was convicted of affray (she went down fighting) and fake mediumship. She was fined a tenner or one month inside. A member of the Spiritualists’ National Union she was actually an accredited medium until eventually her notoriety caused them to withdraw their certification.
She had been however constantly working as a medium and had a very large following.
When Helen was arrested during the war during a Spiritualist meeting in Portsmouth she was prosecuted under Section 4 of the Witchcraft Act together with her friend and agent Frances Brown; and two leading lights of the local church, Ernest and Elizabeth Homer, who ran the ‘Psychic Centre’ in Portsmouth.
Her offence was ‘pretending to cause the spirits of deceased persons to be present’.
During the trial many people of note spoke in her defence, and Helen even offered to demonstrate her mediumship to the court. The offer was declined. She was found guilty and sent to prison for nine months.
After this travesty the SNU backed the campaign for the abolition of the Witchcraft Act and the introduction of a Fraudulent Mediums Act to protect genuine mediums, like Helen Duncan. Two Labour MPs took this forward into the House of Commons as a Private member’s Bill and in 1951 it happened. However, still intent on discrediting Spiritualism and mediumship, the Establishment disrupted a Helen Duncan séance.
In November 1956 Helen was once again grabbed in a police raid and arrested.
On December 6th she died. Helen has made her own presence felt since she passed over many times. Her message for the assembled Spiritualists on one such occasion through medium Cathy Gibb was “Keep fighting”!
A service held in Southwick Community Centre’s ‘ Alcove’ room was filmed by a team from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. After the service, that saw some well known and well liked mediums, healers and church officers from other Christian Spiritualist churches amongst the congregation, a special sitting was held for the benefit of the ABC presenter, Jane Hutchins, with camera crew Sam filming the proceedings.
With an entranced Cathy Gibb seated at the wooden table, the church committee began to sing a favourite of the spirit operstor who had made herself known on other table rocking and moving occasions as Emma Hardinge Britten, the rousing song, ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’, the first verse being ‘John Brown’s Body’. The youngest member of the church, Joe Wyrill, was on the music centre as usual.
Only two verses and choruses later, Kate Hibberd, Denise Mascherpa and Teresa Mummery having been summoned to the table at the start by Cathy – the table took off towards the camera before circling the room. Questions were asked and the table spun in response – one way for yes and the opposite way for no – or remained still for tacit disapproval! The helpers went back to their seats, and after half an hour of questioning, the table guided Cathy back to her seat and became still.
The medium was still entranced and as she began her journey back to normal consciousness,began to cry. The minister who was in attendance asked “if this was Emma?” The medium shook her head. “Helen” she said, and continued after a pause. “You must fight on”.
Cathy then regained full consciousness with tears streaming down her face.
The heavily edited item – only about four minutes shown in all – was included on Australian television in a news programme that looked at the impact changes in the law may have had in the future to Spiritualism, its practices and its mediums.
On a lighter note, it was reported that on Valentine’s Day at a similar, séance, a member of the congregation had asked if he would be a father again, and he’d been closely examined by the table, used as a diagnostic tool on behalf of the guides there present. He was given an answer in the affirmative witnessed by the 30 odd strong gathering at the time.
After Mick Turner was given a message from his father in spirit during this church service 4 months later, with evidential proof of his survival after death to the joy of his son, Mick announced that his wife Emma was indeed now pregnant.
“How do they (the congregation) know they’re not being conned by you?” asked the ABC presenter in the interview that took place after everyone had left. We will all fight on.