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Mirror ^ | 06 Dec 2006 | David Edwards

Posted on 12/06/2006 6:27:01 AM PST by FLOutdoorsman

In 1944, medium Helen Duncan became the last woman in Britain to be convicted of witchcraft when one of her seances exposed a government attempt to cover up the deaths of 861 sailors. Now, campaigners aim to clear her name

It started much the same as her other seances. With a chilling moan and strange white substance leaking from her mouth, Helen Duncan began communicating with the dead...

But suddenly, the eerie calm was pierced by a police whistle and officers piled into the house, in Portsmouth, Hants, to arrest Britain's top medium.

The following morning Helen, known as Hellish Nell, was charged under section four of the 1735 Witchcraft Act.

It was 1944, and, astonishingly, officials had ordered her arrest because they were afraid she would reveal top-secret plans for the D-Day landings.

They had been monitoring her since she had revealed the sinking of a British battleship earlier in the war - even though the government had suppressed the news to maintain morale at home.

It took a jury just 30 minutes to find her guilty and she became the last person to be convicted of witchcraft in Britain.

As she was led away to start her nine-month sentence in London's Holloway Prison, the housewife cried out in her broad Scottish accent: "I never heard so many lies in all my life!"

Helen's "gift" had long put her on a collision course with the authorities and led to one of the most bizarre chapters in British judicial history.

Today, exactly 50 years after her death, campaigners hope to persuade Home Secretary John Reid to overturn the verdict. "Helen Duncan was one of the world's top mediums, a woman who gave hope and comfort to many," says Ray Taylor, editor of Psychic World.

"It was her gift that caused the government to hound her under an archaic law which eventually led to her death.

"It's a scandal and it is time that her name was cleared."

Helen Macfarlane was born into a poor family in Perthshire, central Scotland, in 1897. Growing up in Callander, Stirlingshire, she earned her nickname due to her tomboyish behaviour. Even as a teenager, she appeared to have a sixth sense, predicting the length of the First World War and invention of the tank.

When the unmarried Helen became pregnant in 1918, she fled the village and settled in Dundee. There, she married an invalid soldier, Henry Duncan, and had five more children.

During that period, Britain was still reeling from the devastating losses sustained in the First World War and many grieving families sought spiritual comfort.

Seances quickly sprang up, conducted by people claiming to be in touch with the dead.

Helen was among them and, by the 1930s, she was travelling the country, summoning up spirits before incredulous audiences.

But while the seances were making her a celebrity, scientists were already questioning her abilities and, in 1931, she was invited with Henry to London to have her skills tested by psychic researcher Harry Price.

He recalls: "She was placed in the curtained recess. In a few seconds, the medium was in a trance. The curtains parted and we beheld her covered from head to foot with cheese-cloth!

"Some of it was trailing on the floor, one end was poked up her nostril, a piece was issuing from her mouth. I must say that I was deeply impressed - with the brazen effrontery that prompted the Duncans to come to my lab, with the amazing credulity of the spiritualists who had sat with the Duncans and with the fact that they had advertised her 'phenomena' as genuine."

In a bid to reveal the contents of Helen's stomach, Price asked if she would undergo an X-ray.

"She refused. Her husband advised her to submit. But that seemed to infuriate her and she became hysterical. She jumped up and dealt him a blow on the face.

"Suddenly, she jumped up, unfastened the door and dashed into the street - where she had another attack of alleged hysterics and commenced tearing her sŽance garment to pieces.

"Her husband dashed after her and she was found clutching the railings, screaming." Yet the researchers did not bring about Helen's downfall. Instead, the seeds were sown in the Mediterranean, on November 25, 1941.

HMS Barham, a 29,000-tonne battleship, was attacking Italian convoys when it was hit by three German torpedoes.

The ship went down within minutes, with the loss of 861 lives. Already reeling from the Blitz, the British government decided to keep the news quiet, even forging Christmas cards from the dead to their families.

But they never reckoned on Helen's psychic powers...

Days after the attack, she held another seance and claimed that a sailor with the words HMS Barham on his hatband appeared and said: "My ship is sunk."

News of the apparition swiftly reached the Admiralty, which finally chose to act two years later, in January 1944, amid fears that Helen would somehow reveal plans for the D-Day landings five months later.

When Helen was arrested, everyone expected a swift release. But such was the paranoia of the authorities, she was refused bail and told that she would stand trial at the Old Bailey.

It was alleged she had pretended "to exercise or use human conjuration that through the agency of Helen Duncan spirits of deceased dead persons should appear to be present".

News of the case infuriated PM Winston Churchill. In a note to his Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, he wrote: "Give me a report. What was the cost of a trial in which the Recorder was kept busy with all this obsolete tomfoolery, to the detriment of the necessary work in the courts?"

The trial lasted seven days. Mediums had rallied to her cause and their defence fund allowed her barrister to call 44 witnesses to testify she wasn't a fraud.

Yet it was to no avail. Helen served her sentence and emerged from prison that September a changed woman.

AT first, she vowed never to hold another meeting but eventually relented â€" a fateful decision.

The end came in 1956, when she agreed to give a seance in Nottingham. Though the Witchcraft Act had been repealed five years earlier and spiritualism was recognised as a bonafide religion, Helen was arrested and subjected to a strip search.

She never got over the shock and, after being rushed to hospital, remained there for the next five weeks and died on December 6.

Whether a gifted psychic or a charlatan who exploited people's griefs, the strange tale of Helen Duncan - the unfortunate victim of Britain's last witchhunt - continues to attract controversy.



IN 1612, at Lancaster prison, 10 men and women were hanged for witchcraft. They were believed to have been responsible for the murder by witchcraft of 17 people in and around the Forest of Pendle.


A GROUP of men and women were tortured, condemned and burnt in Scotland in the late 16th century, for "crimes" including creating a storm to drown King James I.


A 15TH century Yorkshire witch, said to have powers of healing and spellcasting. "England's Nostradamus" predicted the invention of planes and cars, and had accurate visions of wars.


KNOWN as the Carnmoney Witch, Butters narrowly escaped trial in the 19th century for the killing of a cow and three people. At the inquest, she claimed that she had been knocked unconscious, causing her witch's spell to become toxic.


IN 1692, six men and 14 women were hanged or crushed to death in Salem, Massachusetts. The witch hysteria began when four girls in the town dabbled in fortune-telling games.

TOPICS: Crime/Corruption; Culture/Society; Foreign Affairs; United Kingdom
KEYWORDS: dday; faithandphilosophy; pendlehill; pendlewitches; trancemedium; witch; witchcraft; worldwar
CROWD: A witch! A witch! A witch! A witch! We've found a witch! A witch! A witch! A witch! A witch! We've got a witch! A witch! A witch! Burn her! Burn her! Burn her! We've found a witch! We've found a witch! A witch! A witch! A witch!

VILLAGER #1: We have found a witch. May we burn her?

BEDEVERE: Who are you who are so wise in the ways of science?
ARTHUR: I am Arthur, King of the Britons.

1 posted on 12/06/2006 6:27:04 AM PST by FLOutdoorsman
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To: FLOutdoorsman

What took you so long?

2 posted on 12/06/2006 6:37:15 AM PST by massgopguy (I owe everything to George Bailey)
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To: FLOutdoorsman

and what else do we burn besides witches??? MORE WITCHES!!!!

3 posted on 12/06/2006 6:50:44 AM PST by joe fonebone (Israel, taking out the world's trash since 1948.)
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To: massgopguy

In the 1960's my Mother's cousin was arrested for witchcraft in North Carolina the last person to be arrested and charged under a law made over a hundred years prior forbidding any person to psychically predict the death of another person. It didn't help her that she told the jury she was a witch.

4 posted on 12/06/2006 6:51:43 AM PST by J_Baird
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To: joe fonebone

She turned me into a newt!

5 posted on 12/06/2006 6:52:51 AM PST by Buck W. (If you push something hard enough, it will fall over.)
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To: J_Baird

Did it run the the family?

6 posted on 12/06/2006 7:12:39 AM PST by x_plus_one (Franklin Graham: "Allah is not the God of Moses. Allah had no son")
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To: Buck W.

well.............i got better..

7 posted on 12/06/2006 7:13:13 AM PST by joe fonebone (Israel, taking out the world's trash since 1948.)
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To: x_plus_one

I dont think Witchcraft ran in the family but I can at least give her credit for being a witch before this current love affair with wicca nonsense started.

8 posted on 12/06/2006 9:29:08 AM PST by J_Baird
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