It is largely believed that the witch trials and persecution of witches ended in the 17th and 18th centuries not long after the infamous Salem witch trials. Many may be shocked to learn that women continued to face allegations of witchcraft well into the 20th century. One of the most famous is widely known as the “Last Convicted Witch” and was known for being a psychic medium who spewed ectoplasm from her mouth and nose. Meet Helen Duncan, tried and convicted of witchcraft in 1944.
Helen Duncan. Widely known as the “Last Convicted Witch” of the old Vagrancy Act used in British law to persecute accused witches from 1735 on, Helen Duncan was a Scottish woman who had been frequenting the docks of Portsmouth in England. As a psychic medium, she was holding séances and using her gift to connect others with deceased loved ones.
Materialization Medium. In 1944, Helen had gained a following for her abilities to speak to the dead, as those with loved ones lost to the wars were anxious to reconnect. Her most well-known trait however, wasn’t her talent as a medium, but for her alleged manifestation abilities.
Spewing Ectoplasm. According to online reports, Helen was known as being a “materialization medium,” meaning she was able to summon physical manifestations of spirits during her séances. The spirits would enter by way of an ectoplasm discharge that would spew from her mouth and nose.
Dim Lights. During the séances, Helen would always insist on using a dim red light to allow for minimal viewing, but those in attendance would swear to her ability to draw in spirits to physically manifest in the low lighting. There are several images of her various séances that allegedly capture this ectoplasm forming a spirit.
Séances. Helen frequently held these séances around the port towns of England. Broadly reports she charged 12 shillings for her work, which would be the equivalent of around $24 today. She would hold her sessions in a small room, packed with paying guests above an old drug store in town.
Spy Work. Helen’s downfall wasn’t actually her work as a medium or for holding the séance sessions, though it did reportedly start there. It was believed by British military officials that Helen was actually operating as an undercover informant, though they were never able to discern how or for who.
Three Years Prior. Three years prior to her arrest, Helen performed a séance that reportedly gave her some inside information on the whereabouts of a British military ship. In Helen’s story, her information came from the spirit of a deceased sailor who had been on board the ship when it sank.
Sunken Ship. The problem is, the ship, the Royal Battlecruiser HMS Hood, had indeed been sunk by a German U-boat, but the public had not been made aware of this fact in an effort to keep morale high. When Helen told Brigadier Roy C. Firebrace of her knowledge of the ship and how she came about the information, nerves were at an all-time high.
Second Ship. At a second séance just shortly after, Helen again reported that another deceased sailor’s spirit had come to her to notify her of his ship’s sinking. When she reported these findings, it was learned that the Queen Elizabeth Class Battleship had been sunk by another German U-boat (again, not public information).
High Suspicions. Not believing Helen’s abilities as a medium to be true, military officials were on high alert and had begun suspecting Helen of spying on government intelligence for the purpose of informing other governments. Since they didn’t have proof but needed her to stop announcing their moves, they came up with a new motive to keep her quiet: witchcraft.
The Vagrancy Act. It was largely unknown at the time that the Vagrancy Act was still in effect, but British officials used it to place Helen under arrest. The act was in essence, an ancient Witchcraft Act which allowed officials to arrest a woman who they believed was taking advantage of others by using fictitious “powers.”
Arresting Helen. According to Broadly, “In the paranoia-addled days of World War II, they couldn’t afford a security risk, even if it came in the form of regurgitated ectoplasm. Duncan had to be arrested.” The problem was, they weren’t sure how to arrest her with anything strong enough to warrant prison time out of the public eye.
Harsher Sentence. Seeking a harsher sentence to put her away for a while, authorities decided to try her for witchcraft. The Witchcraft Act of 1735 allowed prosecutors to present a more solid case against Helen than a speculative case about eavesdropping on military intelligence, for which they had no proof.
Making a Statement. Despite the fact that British officials were largely ridiculed for even presenting the antiquated charges, they moved forward with the case in order to set an example for any future instances. They were able to manifest a guilty ruling, landing Helen in prison for one year.
Supporters. Throughout her trial and prison sentence, several of Helen’s supporters came forward in her defense. Even world leaders spoke out against the misuse of British time and money to prosecute under a witchcraft law. “Surely this is a travesty of justice incompatible with that freedom for which we are supposedly fighting,” her supporters wrote. Nevertheless, her case went down in history as the last convicted witchcraft case in Britain.