Helen Duncan (1897-1956)
THE LAST OF THE OLD TIME MEDIUMS
Helen Duncan was a materializing trance medium in the tradition of Florence Cook and Franek Kluski. As a Spiritualist she believed in providing comfort to the living by bringing proof of survival to them from departed loved ones.
In her case this took the form of materializations, producing ectoplasmic phantoms of these dead relatives and friends that, like Katie King, would appear in the séance room, converse with the sitters and then disappear, usually “melting” into the floor or back under the curtain of her cabinet.
Born Victoria Helen MacFarlane in the small town of Callander in Scotland on November 25, 1897, she showed psychic abilities from a young age. Her husband, Henry Duncan, whom she married when she was 20, was injured and disable during WWI. She had six children, half her number of pregnancies, and gave Spiritualist sittings at night to supplement their income.
ECTOPLASM DOESN’T PHOTOGRAPH WELL
If you see photographs of Duncan producing streams of ectoplasm, some with emergent cartoon- or mask-like faces, your immediate impression is “How could people fall for this fakery? It’s known that ectoplasmic forms are not photogenic, but come on!”
And yet, when you read the reports by those who have attended her séances it’s difficult not to accept that the woman had a genuine gift.
OBSERVATIONS OF DUNCAN BY RELIABLE WITNESSES
Many detailed reports will be found in chapter 21 of The Spirit of Dr. Bindelof, but I will relate only one here. I knew one of the principals involved, Denise Iredell, a long-time member of the British SPR. Mrs. Iredell was the daughter of Muriel Hankey another very well known and respected member of the psychical research community.
They both attended a Duncan séance in Edinburgh in October 1949. Mrs. Iredell attended unexpectedly because someone else could not be there. Even her mother didn’t know that she would attend.
Iredell reported that Duncan was brought into the small sparsely furnished room in her black séance outfit after having been physically examined in an adjoining room. (Iredell doesn’t say so but the usual routine was that the medium would completely undress, be examined carefully and then put into a special garment, generally tied or sewed closed around head, arm and leg openings.) She was visible to all those present as she went into trance before the curtains were drawn and then partially opened.
LIGHTING CONDITIONS AT THE SEANCE
She reported that the red light was sufficiently bright to allow her to see the winking and smiles of a person seated opposite to her, and for him to see her expressions. The only times they could not see each other—she noted significantly—was “when materialized figures intervened; their luminosity made the surrounding area seem dark.”
THE PHANTOM “ALBERT”
Albert, Duncan’s “spirit control,” a six-foot tall phantom who spoke with a cultured British accent—Duncan had a thick low-Scott’s brogue—asked for “Mrs.Hankey and her daughter” to step to the center, even though, as far as they knew, only two or three people knew that she was present. As they stood there ectoplasm “snaked” to the center near them at floor level and rose to about a foot and a half from their faces. Mrs. Iredell noted that the “characteristic small of ectoplasm” was “markedly present.” (When questioned later as to what it smelled like, she replied, “semen.”)
As they stood there ectoplasm “snaked” to the center near them at floor level and rose to about a foot and a half from their faces. Mrs. Iredell noted that the “characteristic small of ectoplasm” was “markedly present.” (When questioned later as to what it smelled like, she replied, “semen.”)
SITTERS RECOGNIZE TALKING PHANTOM
Both Mrs. Hankey and Denise instantly recognized the face that built up from Duncan’s ectoplasm as that of an old family friend who had been dead for about five years. When an uncharacteristic mustache appeared on his upper lip instead of the small white trace of one that she remembered, she exclaimed, “Oooh, Mustache.”
The comment provoked a remark from the apparition that she felt was characteristic of him and she claims she would have recognized him from his tone even if she had not seen his face.
Afterwards, when she commented that the only two features that seemed wrong were the mustache and his blue eyes, her mother reminded her that the gentleman’s eyes had been “remarkably” blue and that his moustache had been of the style the spirit form sported when he was younger. Denise saw a color portrait of him at a later date that proved her mother’s memory to be accurate.
A PHANTOM SENDS A MESSAGE AND DEMATERIALIZES
Albert requested that her mother sit down but asked Denise to stay in the center of the group because the next “person” was for her only: a young girl who died from a condition in the lower part of her body.
“Instantly the whirling mass of ectoplasm” around her legs “sprang like an Indian-rope trick rope to my face level,” and resolved in the space of a few seconds into the “strong, clearly-defined features” of a schoolmate of hers who had died of cancer of the uterus a year previously. The young woman was unknown to Denise’s mother.
After the phantom and she exchanged a few remarks and Denise promised to carry messages to two people for her, the phantom “collapsed to the floor and the amorphous ectoplasm was withdrawn.”
She also reported that at a much later sitting in London both she and her mother found that Duncan’s powers had diminished; the ectoplasm was so scanty that it merely produced “malformed features over her own face.” (I wonder if that period was when some of those photos were taken!?) Although they felt it to be poor, they never considered it to be deception.
LAST PERSON CONVICTED UNDER THE WITCHCRAFT ACT
Although it has little to do with the topic of séance science, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention what Helen Duncan is most widely known for in England.
There are differing tales of the particulars of this meeting, but the essence of the story is that at a 1943 séance the phantom of a young sailor appeared and told the spectators that he had gone down with his ship, the HMS Barham. Now the Barham had been sunk shortly before, but the Admiralty had hushed it up so that morale would not suffer. Word evidently got out that this medium was divulging military secrets.
NEED FOR SECRECY
D-Day was in the planning and the military was taking no chances that damaging information might come through to jeopardize the operation, so they stepped in.
ENTRAPMENT OF HELEN DUNCAN
A Royal Navy Lieutenant attended two of Duncan’s séances in January 1944 bringing a constable with him to the second one. When a materialized form appeared, the constable lunged, overturning the chair of the man sitting in front of him, and clawed at the curtains of the cabinet. Confusion ensued and of course there are varying accounts of what happened.
The lieutenant claimed that Duncan was standing between the curtains trying to push a piece of white material, which was in front of her, down to the floor. The constable claimed he bent down and grasped the white material, which he said felt flimsy, but said it was pulled out of his hand from the front row of the audience.
He supposedly cried to the lieutenant, “Did you get the cloth?” to which the officer replied, “No, it’s gone into the audience.” The “cloth” had disappeared. The sitters asked the officers to search them but the officers refused.
WHAT PROBABLY HAPPENED
What seems likely is, as one attendee noted, that the constable jumped on the phantom, which promptly vanished through the floor. With nothing to grasp he clutched the curtains but fell through into the cabinet knocking into the medium.
Evidently he had grasped a portion of the dematerializing ectoplasm and, believing it to be “white cloth,” thought that it was being dragged away by someone in the audience. A couple of people had noted that he looked “scared.” His look probably betrayed his shock.
No white material was found in the room. Perhaps the officers didn’t search because they finally realized that something went on here that did not fit in with their worldview.
HELEN DUNCAN’S TRIAL
Whatever happened, Duncan was tried in a travesty of justice. The officials were hard pressed to find a charge against Duncan strong enough to put her out of circulation. In these cases the offender was usually charged with vagrancy and released with a small fine. Instead, Duncan was sent to Holloway, London’s notorious women’s prison and the charge changed to Conspiracy, which during a war can result in execution.
They finally resurrected the Witchcraft Act, an obsolete law put on the books in 1735, and the Larceny Act. She was tried at the Old Bailey, drawing great attention from all quarters, including Winston Churchill. She was convicted and sentenced to nine months in prison.
Churchill supposedly promised to make amends to Duncan for her mistreatment and many feel that he was largely responsible for the repeal of the Witchcraft Act in 1951.
Whether you believe that Duncan actually was communicating with the spirits of these deceased people or that she telepathically and clairvoyantly acquired the information and subconsciously “translated” it into the spirit forms she believed in, doesn’t matter as much to me as how this is accomplished; by what yet unknown laws of nature, these phenomena are made possible.
Read about other “inside the séance” people:
D.D. Home • Eusapia Palladino • Fox Sisters • Franek Kluski • Helen Duncan
Indridi Indridason • Katie King