A WITCH who threatened Britain's security in its darkest war-time hour? A spiritualist martyr? Or just a broken, working-class mother-of-six who saw an easier way of supporting her disabled husband and family than by working in a bleach factory?
Whatever the truth about "Hellish Nell" – aka Helen Duncan, the last woman jailed for witchcraft in Britain – one thing is certain; she was mired in scandal almost the whole of her life – and also after her death in 1956.
She was born Helen MacFarlane in 1897 and grew up in Callander, where she is said to have had childhood visions of ghosts. At the age of 16, she became pregnant out of wedlock and was forced to leave the family home.
She fled to Dundee with her daughter, where she met Henry Duncan, a disabled First World War veteran and committed spiritualist. She had five more surviving children, although she endured 12 pregnancies. She was then encouraged by her husband to hold sances in their house – and to charge sitters.
After the First World War, there were many people willing to pay to speak to a lost loved one again and Duncan was a huge success, charging the equivalent of 25 for a seat and soon able to afford a nice house in Craigmillar.
As with other mediums in the 1930s, Duncan apparently communicated with the dead after being bound in a chair, bathed in a red light and with a flow of ectoplasm, an ethereal white substance, emanating from her.
However, sitters who grasped this ectoplasm found it felt curiously like muslin cloth. Duncan, however, continued to be popular despite the number of times her fraud was revealed.
In 1933, a row at one of her sances led to an appearance at Edinburgh Sheriff Court. At the sance, her spirit guide Peggy appeared but the sitters realised it was Duncan, moving a piece of cloth on her knees. A tug of war ensued, Duncan lost and began swearing and threatening her hosts. The spirit proved to be a vest and she was fined 10 for affray.
Her antics had come to the attention of psychic researcher Harry Price, who would later write a book about his findings. Price had a statement from a Miss Mary McGinlay who said she had acted as Duncan's maid in London. "After a sance, Mrs Duncan would get me to wash out a length of muslin. It had a rotten smell. She would give it to me just as she had used it and then it would be much stained and smelly," she said. An analysis of one substance she produced proved to be egg white. And, in 1953, another investigator said the ectoplasm was clearly "cheesecloth and a wire coat hanger".
In January 1944, she was charged under section four of the 1735 Witchcraft Act, with "attempting to bring about the appearances of the spirits of deceased persons". Duncan was made an example of, it is believed, because of an incident some years earlier. It is thought Ministry of War officials were worried she would divulge details of the approaching D-Day landings, after she revealed the sinking of a warship the Government was trying to conceal. HMS Barham was torpedoed in the Mediterranean on November 25, 1941, and sank with the loss of more than 1000 lives. Such was the feared propaganda blow, the Government decided to keep the news quiet, even forging Christmas cards from dead sailors to their families. But a few months later, at a sance in Portsmouth, Duncan told a mother that her son had come to her, wearing a hatband with the words HMS Barham on it and saying: "My ship is sunk."
But it was a Royal Navy lieutenant's intervention which brought her to court. He complained after being disgusted at what he believed was fakery at a sance.
After a trial lasting seven days, Duncan was found guilty and she was sentenced to nine months in Holloway Prison, where staff queued up for sances.
Her trial helped to lead to the repeal of the 1735 Witchcraft Act and made her a celebrity. Since her death, she has become a figurehead for many spiritualists, who have campaigned to have her 1944 conviction quashed.