Who was Helen Duncan seems like a good question to ask at the start of this article? But in fact, it is the wrong question, I think it is better to ask what was Helen Duncan?
There are to my mind three possible answers to the second question. The courts said she was a Witch. Popular belief says she was a Medium and skeptics shay she was a fake and for that matter the law did as well.
But let’s start with the who question first. Full name Victoria Helen McCrae Duncan but known as Helen Duncan and referred to historically as The Scottish Medium. Born on the 25th of November 1897 literally at the end of the Victorian era and passed over into the other realm on the 6th of December 1956 after living through World War II and the controversy she created at that point. And directly responsible through what happened to her for changes in UK law which legalised Mediumship and Spiritualism.
Victoria Helen MacFarlane was the daughter of a tradesman a slater born in Callander in Perthshire. Modern Callander is now a small town situated by the River Teith. It is a very popular stop of for tourists going to and from the Highlands. Usually unaware of this being the birthplace of one of the most famous modern Scottish historical characters. At school young Helen started to make prophecies. This caused issues for her mother who was an active member of the Presbyterian church. This is essentially a basic belief in the literal word of the bible, which they believe condemns Mediumship. Another article for another time perhaps. Helen was working in the Dundee Royal Infirmary when she married Henry Duncan in 1916. He supported Helen’s paranormal talents and they had six children.
So, moving onto her career lets now answer my question of what she was.
Whilst working part time in a Bleach factory she traded as a Physical Medium. And this is where the controversy really starts with Helen Duncan. She would sit in trance and produce ectoplasm from her mouth. As a Spiritual Medium I am myself extremely skeptical of physical mediumship. I am not ruling it out and have experienced incidents of it myself but being able to call it up on demand for performance leaves me embarrassed by people claiming to do this. If Helen Duncan had not done these acts, she would not have been so easy to jail in later life.
She started off as a clairvoyant medium just like me (not getting into the full range of ways of receiving messages just using this as a generic term for the moment for mental mediumship) and did not start physical mediumship until 1926.
Now remember the world at this time. Mediumship was illegal but at least in Scotland an open secret. The authorities knew about it and semi turned a blind eye. The Dunfermline Spiritualist Church where I am a Church Medium dates back to the 1920’s or earlier and has minutes for this time. Many Spiritualist Churches had open meetings at the local Freemasons lodges. Many Scottish churches still actually meet in lodges to this day. Anyway, the issue with let’s call it mind mediumship is that it is harder to convince people it is for real as the evidence is on a one to pone basis. I deal with this every time I work on a church Platform or a Stage.
With Physical Mediumship in this case ectoplasm there is something everyone can touch, see, feel, or smell. So, look at me, pay me becomes a lot easier. Even if it is for real it also allows ego to take over but another subject for yet another article on yet another day.
She began offering seances in which she claimed to be able to permit the spirits of recently deceased persons to materialise, and emitting ectoplasm from her mouth.
And then two investigations essentially proved all this physical activity to be fraudulent.
First, she allowed a series of photographs to be taken in 1928 by the photographer Harvey Metcalfe. One photo showed that a spirit guide was being represented with a doll made from painted papier-mâché mask draped in an old sheet. Why did Helen Duncan allow this to happen?
Well, remember that this was just before the invention and use of flash bulbs. Flash guns that used magnesium and potassium chlorate powder were still in common use at this time. A stick with a platform that you could use to hold the chemicals. They were connected directly to the camera, usually with the photographer holding the flash aloft so when the camera’s shutter clicked, it triggered the flash. Dangerous to use and so not something you saw being used for selfies on every street corner as you would see today. So Helen did not probably realise just how much would be revealed by this method of photography.
Helen Duncan was becoming well known by reputation. The College of Psychic Studies previously known as the London Spiritualist Alliance set out to investigate Helen Duncan. The investigation obtained an example of the material from her mouth which when examined by a chemist proved to be cheesecloth. A report was published, and she was exposed. She was also charged in an Edinburgh court and fined ten pounds and that was a serious amount of money in those days.
Now jump forward to World War Two. A lot of people needed comfort at loosing loved ones, and this brings forward the need for Mediums. Without going into a lot of detail, two ships were sunk, and Helen Duncan gave evidence in the way that Mediums should work, evidence of loved ones on a one-to-one basis.
However, she was revealing that men had passed before the official notification had been released. However even here Helen belittled herself by using the tricks of physical manifestation of the spirits. A navy lieutenant reported her and there was an undercover police investigation resulting in accusations that she herself was dressing in a white cloth and pretending to be the spirits. When she gave evidence of the first ship HMS Barham this was real evidence. However, by clouding herself with the fake physical manifestations she brought even that into doubt. Eight Hundred and sixty-one people were notified of the deaths of loved ones but were told to keep this secret as the government did not want evidence of the sinking of the ships to reach the enemy the Germans. It was however calculated that around twenty thousand people in total ended up knowing this fact and Helen was accused of hearing the news as gossip. Speculation but combined with her physical activities it does not present a defendable case. Evidence should be specific and personal not general knowledge evidence.
Further fraud was with a sailor’s head band. It had the name of HMS Barham on it, from a time that the navy did not put the name of the ship on this item of clothing, and she was presenting it as a physical manifestation.
She was charged and taken to court and found guilty under the Witchcraft Act 1735 and then spent nine months in jail, being the last person found guilty as a Witch. Or rather carrying out fraudulent activity to portray herself as such. She was released from prison in 1945 and charged again in 1956 and died shortly afterwards in Edinburgh. Claims this were due to the police harassing her are nonsense. The woman was clinically obese and had a history of heart trouble.
So, was she a witch? Of course not. Was she a fraud? I am afraid I must agree, she was. The evidence that is documented is overwhelming in this regard. Her behaviour as a medium also did not do her any favours.
Was she a gifted Medium? I am going to give her the benefit of the doubt on that one. I am a Medium myself and I have produced many videos over the last few years giving clear evidence of me giving personal evidence to more people that I can remember. She did not have the technology to do this. However, as I have indicated by using the physical tricks that she used she loses any credibility in my mind, except…
What happened to her brought out the contradiction in UK law. Spiritualism was an open secret and practiced widely. Remember the charges against Helen Duncan were that she acted fraudulently not that she was not actually a Medium – a minor technicality that people forget about.
She has evolved into this tragic figure of the last Medium to go to jail. She got a lot of attention, and a campaign was started which led to the repeal of Witchcraft Act. It is said that Winston Churchill sent a memo at the time of the trial saying this was a misuse of court resources and the “obsolete tomfoolery” of what she was charged with. Winston Churchill lost the election after the War and the Witchcraft Act was not actually repealed until he returned to power, but this was done through a private members bill.
Since those days she has become a legend and a symbol for Spiritualists around the world. I once sat through a talk by one of her living relations now living in the USA and none of the basic facts covered in this article were mentioned. That symbol is extremely useful to the movement. So maybe it was spiritual synchronicity that manoeuvred her to do these things?
Who knows? She may very well have if born fifty years later been a credible medium as we pretty much have zero tolerance for these kinds of tricks now. Saying that I watch fake medium after fake using word tricks and speed to try to prove they are giving real messages on Facebook. I do have a zero tolerance for anyone not following basic mediumship rules to give personal evidence like getting feedback. But that is not the purpose of this article.
Sadly, as a Medium I have to admit that on balance Helen Duncan makes a good tourist attraction and Spiritual icon, but the historical evidence dos not actually justify the title of The Scottish Medium for her. The final proof is in the pudding. The Scottish Parliament itself has refused even a Pardon in the twenty first century.
I personally am grateful to her. The term Scottish Medium has the value of worldwide recognition, and I am guilty of taking advantage of that. I am not the only Medium that does this of course. So finally in answer to what she was I do believe that she was a mental medium, who allowed herself to use fraudulent tricks. Those tricks were unnecessary and should not have been used. But if they were not, would we have the recognition that Scottish Mediums do now internationally?
Well, I have to answer that question as positive. As a Medium who gives messages to people in the USA and who trains people from the USA when you see they type of Mediumship outside of Scotland it can raise an eyebrow.