Fraudulent medium or powerful psychic: the trial of a Scottish witch

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ON THE surface, it seemed the classic witchcraft trial conducted a la Salem. An alleged witch could admit to practising magic and face prison or admit she was not conspiring with the dark arts and be jailed for fraud. To sink or float, as it were.

But this was not the Middle Ages - it was wartime Britain - and Helen Duncan's fate was sealed after she held the dubious honour of being the last Briton convicted on charges relating to witchcraft. While the Callander-born psychic died in 1956, the fight to clear her name continues today.

"A massive miscarriage of justice has occurred," claims the publisher of the magazine that today spearheads Duncan's appeal.

It has been more than 50 years since one of the country's more bizarre criminal trials occurred. The case not only involved alleged paranormal activity, but national security, Winston Churchill and a Scotsman reporter's admission under oath of witnessing an apparition of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

A practising medium who specialised in producing "materialisations" at seances held across Scotland, Duncan's crime was to claim that she contacted a dead sailor whose ship had been sunk by the German U-boats. The wartime government, then plotting to invade occupied France, would only report the sinking of the HMS Barham two weeks after Duncan's witnessed revelation.

Amid concerns in the coalition government that her psychic intelligence could endanger national security, Duncan was tried in London's Old Bailey under antiquated witchcraft laws. The government also claimed that by the nature of her work - contacting the dead - Duncan was fraudulently preying on a nation's suffering psyche, as the death toll mounted in the Second World War.

The 46-year-old from Edinburgh pleaded not guilty in February 1944 to a charge of contravening Section 4 of the Witchcraft Act, 1735, as well as causing "money to be paid by false pretences" and "creating a public mischief", following a police raid at a seance conducted by Duncan, in the Master Temple Psychic Centre, atop a drug store in Portsmouth, England.

As in the Massachusetts town of Salem, and in the cases of thousands of witches over history, Duncan's legal hands were tied. In the short trial, the prosecution convinced the jury that all goings-on at seances were so "palpably ridiculous", that Duncan was by default a fraud who had extracted money by craft. The judge agreed and sent the Scot to prison for nine months, though Duncan's not-guilty plea to witchcraft was upheld.

The trial continues to fascinate, and to be scrutinised. Duncan's defence produced 44 witnesses to her alleged supernatural acts and called to testify The Scotsman's chief news correspondent, who would say under oath to have witnessed Duncan conjure an apparition of the late Sir Arthur at a sance the reporter had attended.

James Herries, an investigator of psychic phenomena for 20 years and a personal friend of the Edinburgh-born author of Sherlock Holmes, claims: "The figure was a little ghostly, but I easily recognised the rounded features of Sir Arthur, particularly the moustache. The figure spoke, and I traced a distinct similarity to Sir Arthur's voice." A navy brigadier also backed his claims.

The Scotsman reported a trial tinged with bizarreness, such as the court's collective, impromptu singing of Loch Lomond when Duncan's Scottish accent was commented upon by the prosecuting attorney.

It was also notable for the involvement of Churchill, then-Prime Minister, who wrote to his Home Secretary demanding to know why Duncan was being tried, and under a bill dredged up from 1935. Unable to secure Duncan's release, Churchill, who had a documented interest in the paranomal, would later visit Duncan in jail.

Ray Taylor, owner of Psychic World, the magazine which originally broke the story of Duncan's demise under the headline "Mediums demand pardon for the murder of Helen Duncan", also speaks of "several contradictions" in the case that he believes could work in favour of the appeal. The matter is currently in the hands of the criminal case review body.

"We found one or two interesting aspects, that the barrister who defended Helen Duncan was not a criminal one; he specialised in conveyancing and the like - he was not the right one to defend her," Taylor notes. "Also we dug out some records that belong to the Home Office, which they say they don't have, so we seem to be at an advantage over this one."

Several trial witnesses described seances at which long-dead relatives materialised, alongside ectoplasm - a white, morphous substance secreted from Duncan's stomach. The sitting judge denied the defence's request that Duncan should be allowed to give a demonstration of her powers in court. Notably, Duncan's legal team also argued that nobody had proved photos of the apparent ghosts were false.

Several publications have also highlighted an apparent assault on Duncan in 1956 by the arresting officers, who had seized the medium as she was conducting another sance. This was said to have resulted in her serious injury – second-degree burns to her stomach area - that led to her death.

Medium or fraud, Duncan had been silenced as in Salem, and as with all other "convicted" witches before her.

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