Helen Duncan, Scotland’s Last Witch
by Ben Johnson
Spiritualist, medium (well large actually, she weighed in at over 22 stone (or over 300 lbs for any readers from the USA)) and the last person in Britain to be tried and sentenced under the 1735 Witchcraft Act.
Born in Callander in 1897, the daughter of a cabinet-maker, Helen Duncan was a show woman who travelled throughout Britain, holding regular séances during which she would produce the form of dead people by emitting a cloud-like substance – ectoplasm – from her mouth. These spirits were said to appear, talking and actually touching their relatives.
It was during the years of the Second World War that Duncan’s activities attracted the attention of the Establishment.
In 1941, she spoke with a deceased sailor from HMS Barham and revealed that the ship had been sunk in the Mediterranean, although the War Office did not officially release this fact until several months later. The wartime government had been trying to hush up the loss of 861 British seamen when the German U-boat U331 torpedoed the ship.
On the night of 19 January 1944, one of Helen’s séances was raided by police, in her then hometown of Portsmouth. Officers attempted to stop the ectoplasm issuing from Helen’s mouth, but failed. After some order had been restored, Helen was formally arrested.
It has been alleged that the real reason for the raid was due to the official paranoia surrounding the forthcoming D-Day Normandy landings and the fear that she may reveal the date and other details.
In one of the most sensational episodes in wartime Britain, Duncan was eventually brought to trial at the Old Bailey in London and became the last person to be prosecuted under the Witchcraft Act of 1735, which had not been used for more than a century. After a seven-day trial, she was sentenced to nine months in London’s Holloway Prison. She was even denied the right to appeal to the House of Lords.
As a result of the case, the Witchcraft Acts were finally repealed in 1951. A formal Act of Parliament three years later officially recognised spiritualism as a religion.
Helen Duncan was released from prison on the 22 September 1944. However, the harassment she faced appears to have continued right up to her death. In November 1956 the police raided a private séance in Nottingham in an attempt to prove fraud. Once again the investigators failed in their objectives. Five weeks later, the woman who will always be remembered as the last witch, died.
A bronze bust of Helen Duncan, presented to the town of Callander, gives rise to controversy even today, as those with strong religious views object to its public display. As a consequence the sculpture is currently on display at the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum.