Helen Macfarlane was born into a poor family in Perthshire, Scotland, in 1897. She fled the village and settled in Dundee after becoming pregnant out-of-wedlock in 1918. Soon she married a soldier, Henry Duncan, and had five more children.In a Europe still reeling from the ravages of World War I, séances came into fashion as thousands reached out to lost loved ones and sought solace in alternative belief systems. Helen MacFarlane Duncan, by all counts a gifted woman, became a well-known spiritualist. By the 1930s Helen took her traveling séance on the road, calling up spirits for incredulous (or perhaps too credulous) audiences.
In 1931, psychic researcher Harry Price invited Helen and her husband Henry Duncan to come to London in order to have her skills “scientifically” tested.According to David Edwards in an article on “Britain’s Last Witch Trial” in the UK edition of the Mirror, 6/12/2006, Harry Price wrote: "She was placed in the curtained recess. In a few seconds, the medium was in a trance. The curtains parted and we beheld her covered from head to foot with cheese-cloth!
"Some of it was trailing on the floor, one end was poked up her nostril, a piece was issuing from her mouth. I must say that I was deeply impressed - with the brazen effrontery that prompted the Duncans to come to my lab, with the amazing credulity of the spiritualists who had sat with the Duncans and with the fact that they had advertised her 'phenomena' as genuine."In a bid to reveal the contents of Helen's stomach, Price asked if she would undergo an X-ray. "She refused. Her husband advised her to submit. But that seemed to infuriate her and she became hysterical. She jumped up and dealt him a blow on the face.
"Suddenly, she jumped up, unfastened the door and dashed into the street - where she had another attack of alleged hysterics and commenced tearing her séance garment to pieces.
"Her husband dashed after her and she was found clutching the railings, screaming."
Despite Harry Price’s alarming account of the séance, Helen Duncan continued with her successful practice into the forties.
On November 25, 1941, HMS Barham, a 29,000-ton battleship in the Mediterranean was hit by three German torpedoes. The ship went down and 861 lives were lost. Already reeling from the Blitz, the British government decided to keep the news under wraps – believe it or not, they went so far as to forge Christmas cards from the dead to their families.
But just days after the attack, Helen Duncan held a séance during which she saw a sailor with the words HMS Barham on his hatband. According to Helen the apparition said: "My ship is sunk."
Two years later, in January 1944, amid fears that Helen would somehow reveal plans for the upcoming D-Day landings, Britain’s Admiralty arrested the psychic and charged her with witchcraft, alleging that she intended "to exercise or use human conjuration that through the agency of Helen Duncan spirits of deceased dead persons should appear to be present".
The trial lasted seven days. Mediums and believers of all sorts rallied to her defense and set up a defense fund which allowed her barrister to call 44 witnesses to testify she wasn't a fraud.
Ironically, it was precisely their fear that she was NOT a fraud that led to her conviction and sentencing.
Years later, in 1956, Helen Duncan gave a seance in Nottingham. Though the Witchcraft Act had been repealed five years earlier and spiritualism had been recognized as a bonafide religion, Helen was once again arrested and subjected to a strip search.
She never got over the shock and remained hospitalized for the next five weeks, until passing over to the next dimension on December 6.
Was Helen Duncan a gifted seer able to communicate with other realms, or a skilled charlatan who exploited grieving families? Whatever she was, she scared the British government enough to become the “unfortunate victim of Britain's last witch-hunt”.
You can find more information here and support the call for Helen's pardon.