Helen Duncan

‘Hellish Nell’ as she was known to some of her contemporaries (because of her temper, not her psychic abilities!) was born Victoria MacFarlane in Callender in 1897, she married Henry Duncan in 1916.

From an early age she showed psychic abilities. While at school she found the location of a missing person by remote viewing and was able to go into trance and produce ectoplasm from her mouth. She was, however, not a keen scholar.

Helen’s family were poor. Her husband became ill. She, herself suffered poor health throughout her life. She therefore turned to her mediumship to support her family,  giving seances in private houses and spiritualist churches. She built up a good following but was plagued by accusations of fraud.

The fraud accusations culminated in 1944 in a trial on a charge under the Witchcraft Act of 1735, a trial that Winston Churchill described as ‘absolute tomfoolery’. It has been said the charge against her was to prevent the public hearing disheartening information at a time when the war effort was at a low point. (She had previously brought drowned sailors from the battleship ‘Hood’ and HMS Barham to the séance room, which the authorities hadn’t made public). Of course, there might have been a Nazi spy at her séance!

The trial was something of a setup. There was no physical evidence, the ectoplasm was alleged to have been a white sheet, but it could not be produced. Testimonial evidence only was given, and it has been said the prosecution witnesses were coached by the self-appointed psychic investigator Harry Price. Helen was found guilty and sentenced to nine months in Holloway Prison.

After her release from prison, Helen continued to give seances although her abilities seemed to have waned somewhat. The harassment continued, however. Despite the Witchcraft Act being replaced by the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951, which was meant to protect genuine mediums and an Act recognizing Spiritualism as a religion, in 1955 the police invaded a séance she was holding in Nottingham. All the rules for the safety of a physical medium were broken; lights were switched on; there was a lot of shouting and Helen was manhandled causing the ectoplasm to return to her body quickly which resulted in internal injuries. She died five weeks later.