The Second World War threw up some strange episodes on the domestic front in Britain, including – astonishingly – a lengthy and controversial trial held at the Old Bailey under the 1735 Witchcraft Act. It was a trial which an exasperated Prime Minister Winston Churchill privately called ‘tomfoolery’.
Churchill’s reaction was spurred by the trial under the Witchcraft Act of spiritualist Helen Duncan (1897-1956), who was hauled before a Judge at the Old Bailey in 1944 and tried for creating a possible danger to domestic civilian morale and internal security.
Mrs. Duncan was the Scots-born wife of a disabled World War One veteran, Henry Duncan, a man who was an unemployed cabinet-maker but also a committed spiritualist. Helen Duncan was also a mother of six children, and money was naturally tight for the family. She had already shown an interest in reading tea-leaves and earning a few pennies from making predictions. Her husband encouraged her to hold seances and to charge attendees, and she eventually became a kind of travelling medium.
In fact, this proved to be a tremendous success, for both Helen and Henry. In the aftermath of the horrors of the Great War, there were clearly plenty of people in Britain who were only too willing to pay to be put into ‘contact’ with their lost loved ones who had ‘passed over’ into the afterlife. Spiritualism was a growth industry in the 1920s and 1930s. Quite often families had only been given a brief War Office telegram about a fallen soldier, could not travel to France or Belgium to mourn, and had been denied a proper family funeral for their lost one. Numerous widows and grieving mothers thus attended seances and sought out spiritual healers or clairvoyants, who were able to offer what the historian David Cannadine has aptly described as ‘the private denial of death’.
The Wages of War
By the 1940s, Duncan had presented herself as a successful psychic and medium and had given numerous seances all over the country, both in peacetime during the 1930s and also after the outbreak of war in 1939. Indeed, in many ways, and rather distastefully, the outbreak of the second war in twenty years had served a similar function to Duncan as the earlier Great War: it had been good for her business, as more and more bereaved and distraught families flocked to her seances to try to contact their deceased loved ones.
Naturally, Duncan was only too happy to oblige. Moreover, Duncan often claimed to be able to produce ectoplasm, which (with the lights conveniently dimmed) would appear to emanate from her mouth and was, she said, a ‘materialisation’ which took on the form of the spirits of the dead.
Seen by some as a woman with a genuine ability to open a link to the afterlife, and by others as a fraudulent and rather pathetic con-artist (she had previously been charged with fraud in 1933), Duncan suddenly found herself under urgent investigation by the authorities in 1941, after she had claimed at a seance held in Portsmouth that a dead sailor had told her his ship had sunk. The curious (and to the authorities, alarming) aspect of this claim was that, among Duncan’s props at the time was a sailor’s hatband with the words HMS Barham on it. This was noted by local police and the information was passed up to the Home Office in London, flagged up as a possible security breach.
This caught the attention of the Admiralty and set alarm bells ringing in Naval Intelligence in Whitehall because, at the time Duncan had made this revelation about the comment from the supposed dead spirit of the sailor, the Admiralty was still suppressing news of HMS Barham‘s sinking off the Island of Malta.
This was because Admiralty officials felt that to release the dramatic news of the sinking would shake wartime public morale (only the very close relatives of those on board the ship had been told of the disaster, and it was not announced publicly until late January, 1942).
The ship had exploded after being torpedoed three times by a German submarine, U-331, and 859 (some accounts say 861) British lives had been lost (see photo).
Duncan was placed under fairly close surveillance for the next two years until, in 1944 – as D-Day and the Allied invasion of France were being planned and prepared for – the authorities decided to finally act, as they apparently feared she might ‘see’ the proposed Normandy landing sites and somehow give the game away prematurely, which would have been a disastrous breach of security and a possible major gift to the Nazi enemy.
The sequence of events leading up to this started at the beginning of 1944, on 14th January. On that day, Duncan had held another of her regular seances in Portsmouth. Two Lieutenants were present at this, including a Lieutenant Worth, who was told that a figure who appeared during the session was his deceased aunt. However, Worth had no deceased aunt and, angry over the incident, he decided to report the seance to the local police.
The local authorities, already familiar with Duncan’s activities, must have decided enough was enough. On 19th January, at another seance, two plainsclothes policemen were present. Duncan was arrested, transported to London and was forced to endure a seven-day trial in the British capital. She was charged under section 4 of the 1735 Witchcraft Act with ‘attempting to bring about the appearances of the spirits of deceased persons’. At first, the prosecution had tried to charhe her with ‘vagrancy’ and then conspiracy, but then fell back on using Witchcraft legislation that was two centuries old. To critics, it seemed this was heavy-handed and rather desperate behaviour on the part of the State.
Interestingly, more than 40 witnesses gave evidence in support of Duncan, claiming she had genuine ‘powers’. Nevertheless, the Crown Prosecutor argued that Duncan was a fraud – she was ‘an unmitigated humbug’, who could only be regarded as ‘a pest to a certain section of society’. She was found guilty under the Witchcraft Act for ‘conjuration’ – pretending to raise the spirits of the dead – and sentenced to nine months in Holloway Prison in London.
The bizarre case did not go unnoticed, even in a nation still at war and subject to press censorship. Duncan was nicknamed ‘Hellish Nell’, and various rather sensational claims appeared in some parts of the media about her life and activities. Ironically, as a result of all this, she arguably became the most famous spiritualist in the country, and her most loyal supporters referred to her as their ‘goddess’. The case even caught the attention of the Prime Minister. After the verdict, Churchill penned a memorandum to his Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, during which he complained about the misuse of court resources on the ‘obsolete tomfoolery’ of the charge.
Thus, on 3rd April, 1944, Churchill wrote: ‘Let me have a report on why the Witchcraft Act, 1735, was used in a modern Court of Justice’. He asked Morrison what the cost had been to the State, noting that witnesses had been brought up from Portsmouth and put up for two weeks in a ‘crowded London’, and that the Recorder had been kept busy ‘with all this obsolete tomfoolery, to the detriment of necessary work in the Courts’.
Churchill was a complex figure. Although deeply interested in science, he also held a curiosity about strange phenomena (spiritualism, UFOs, secret societies, etc) and could himself be prone to irrational or prejudiced thought, such as a belief in White racial supremacy, imperialism, and a sympathy for eugenics. But even Churchill could see how morally misguided and financially wasteful it was to devote time and valuable resources to prosecuting individuals under such archaic legislation.
Did his Home Secretary or Home Office civil servants more generally take this on board? Only partly, it seems. It is worth noting that, although Duncan became the last person in Britain to be jailed under the Witchcraft Act, she was not the last person to be charged: Jane Rebecca Yorke, from East London, was charged a few months later under the same legislation. But, in Yorke’s case, she was simply bound over for the sum of £5 to be of good behaviour for three years.
It is important to remember that Duncan was not charged with being a ‘Witch’, as some people appear to believe. She was, in truth, found guilty of ‘fraud’, and was taken out of wartime circulation in a case that was shaped by the intense paranoia of the time about security and possible subversion of the State.
The wisdom of employing such aging legislation led legal experts to increasingly challenge its continued existence. Churchill was certainly open to those arguments. The Witchcraft Act was repealed in 1951, shortly after Churchill returned to Downing Street, and it was replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act.
Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, London
(Images: Wikimeda Commons)