Known as the “Last Witch” and “Hellish Nell”, Helen Duncan was a physical medium from Scotland. To many, she was a spiritualist martyr who helped shape modern day Spiritualism, but to skeptics she was simply a fraud. She was born Victoria Helen McCrae on November 25, 1897 in Callander, UK and died on December 6, 1956 in
Psychic abilities ran on both sides of her family, so as a child it wasn’t uncommon for Helen to see spirits and make predictions that would later come true. In fact, her predictions as a child were so accurate that they got her into trouble on many occasions. As a child it can be so disheartening to see and know things that others aren’t privy to. Helen often felt alone and vulnerable not having someone to turn to, who she could trust and who would help her sort these things out. Back in her day, people were very tight lipped about the spiritual world and psychics were known as crazy people.
With her childhood leaving such a bad taste in her mouth, Helen left after high school to find work in Dundee. During this time WWI broke out and so after seeing those who were injured and in bad health, she decided to take up nursing. All she ever wanted to do was to be of help to people, so nursing was a great way to do that and be accepted. While working as a nurse Helen was introduced to Henry Duncan. Henry was an injured soldier and brother to her best friend who also was a nurse. Henry and Helen instantly bonded because of their connection to spiritualism. Henry encouraged Helen’s abilities because he too had experiences. Henry was able to explain the meaning of her many experiences. She was elated to finally have found someone in such cruel times that really understood her and who actually nurtured her abilities. This was like nothing she’d ever felt before. Their friendship grew stronger and so Henry and Helen were eventually married in 1916.
Having such a strong bond and attachment with another, allowed them to become connected on an energetic and spiritual level. One day Helen sensed that something was wrong with Henry while he was at work. She followed her gut and rushed to his job to find out that he had suffered a heart-attack. Henry unfortunately was not able to return back to work full-time, so he encouraged his wife to develop her psychic abilities further, so that she could provide for their large family. She knew she needed to provide for her family, but telling people about her visions and experiences with the dead never ended well for Helen, so she was very fearful.
With Henry’s support, she was able to develop clairvoyance, clairaudience, psychometry and precognition. Further training allowed her to go into a deep meditative state and into a trance to bring forth Spirit. One such spirit by the name of Dr. Williams came through and told Henry that Helen had the ability to materialize spirits. Henry was excited but Helen was a little apprehensive because of events that happened in her youth. After a little convincing, Helen decided to give it a try because she wanted to help those who lost loved ones in the First World War.
With Helen’s religious background in mind, she would say an opening prayer while holding the bible before starting any spiritual work. Many spiritualists today still start with an opening prayer or intention. Helen practiced bringing forth spirits by holding séances with her family and close friends. Although scary and unpredictable in the beginning, Helen continued to practice with the help of her husband and Dr. Williams. Per Dr. Williams’ instruction, Henry built a cabinet for Helen to sit inside in order to harness spirit energy. When in trance, Helen would form ectoplasm that would materialize from her nose and mouth. She was able to use a red light for the sitters to see, but Helen was warned that direct light must never be directed at the ectoplasm because it would be too dangerous for the medium. Producing ectoplasm drains the medium and can cause them to become sick. After Dr. Williams’ work was complete, Helen had assistance from other guides such as Albert “Uncle Albert” Stewart and a young girl by the name of Peggy. They would take turns being host of her séances.
Once Helen was comfortable enough to hold public séances, it didn’t take long before she was a highly sought-after medium. Her new found fame allowed her to adequately support her family and pay medical expenses for underprivileged kids in her neighborhood. Helen performed regular séances at the Scottish Spiritualist Society in Edinburgh and was given a certificate of endorsement. Not only was word getting out to those grieving but local authorities were starting to take notice of Helen’s séances as well. During one of her séances in 1941, she brought through the spirit of a young man who said he was recently killed when his navy ship was torpedoed and sank. The young man’s hat band read HMS Barham but there was no mention of a ship being sunk by Germans in the local news. This bit of information was not released to the public for fear that it would cause chaos and panic. When authorities got wind of this, Helen became the topic of investigation and started to be monitored very closely.
In 1944, undercover police officers attended one of Helen’s séances in hopes of proving that Helen was a fraud. When proof wasn’t provided they decided to bring up charges to prevent Helen from potentially leaking wartime secrets for the pending D-Day. Helen had offered to hold a séance in court to prove once and for all that she was not a fraud but the court declined her request. Even with all the witness testimonies from high profile citizens, authorities still accused Helen of being a spy and a security risk. Helen had two sons in the navy, a son in the Royal Air Force and a son-in-law in the army, so the last thing she would want is for their lives to be at further risk. Nonetheless, charges of “pretending to conjure up the dead” under the 1735 Witchcraft Act were brought upon Helen and she was sentenced to nine months in a women’s prison. This would allow their D-Day plans to be undisturbed by Helen in anyway. Supporter and fellow spiritualist, Winston Churchill was outraged with the verdict. Churchill wrote a letter to Home Security declaring that the State was wasting money and resources on such foolishness when there were more pressing matters to attend to. When Churchill was elected into office years later in 1951, he appealed the 1735 Witchcraft Act and replaced it with the Fraudulent Mediums Act which protects genuine mediums against prosecution. Helen was one of the last to be imprisoned under the act thus her nickname “The Last Witch”.
After her imprisonment, Helen continued to practice mediumship. In fact, she gave readings even while in prison. Being a medium wasn’t a hobby, it was who she was she couldn’t just turn it off. When she was released from prison Helen went right back to holding séances until 1956 when authorities raided another one of her gatherings. It was said that she got extremely sick afterwards because authorities shined lights on the ectoplasm and disturbed her trance. Three months later Helen passed away.
Many people believed that she was a fraud, but to those who experienced her abilities and to her family, Helen Duncan brought great comfort and proof of life after death. She was a wife, a mother, a grandmother, and a friend with the ability to talk to spirit. She brought hope and closure to those who grieved for the loved ones they lost. She lived a life of constant struggle, still she continued to be her authentic self in a time where people condemned those who were different. Whether you believe in her innocence or not, one cannot deny that when faced with adversity, Helen continued on despite what others thought or tried to do to her. She had a purpose in life and she held strong to that purpose until the day she died.
For Spiritualist like myself she teaches us that it’s ok if those around you don’t understand you or don’t believe you. You must continue on in order to affect change and acceptance. We are all here for a purpose, and that purpose should not be stopped because of nonbelievers. If we are to break down barriers to expand the conscienceless of our world, then we need to push ahead when times get rough. Great change and expansion isn’t going to be easy and it’s going to take hard work. We should continue to have faith that God and Spirit has a plan for us, and that if we continue on our spiritual journey, we will be guided and protected along the way. I think what makes us all perfectly beautiful is our differences. We can learn so much from each other if we are open-minded and have open hearts.
Information and photos relating to Helen Duncan were used from multiple online sources.