Victoria Helen McCrae MacFarlane was born on the 25th November 1897at Back Row in Callander, Perthshire, Scotland to Isabella and Archibald MacFarlane. Her father’s occupation was a master slater. She was the fourth eldest daughter and one of eight children.
On 27th May 1916, she wed Henry Horne Anderson Duncan. After her marriage, she was known as Nell (or Nellie) Duncan.
As a child, Helen was described as a ‘bonny lass’ but soon began to exhibit some of the psychic abilities that were to cause trouble for her throughout her life.
Once, at school, the teacher wrote some questions on a blackboard and the pupils had to write the answers on their slates. Helen wrote the numbers of the questions down but didn’t know the answers. She prayed for help and to her astonishment the answers appeared on her slate. The teacher saw the answers weren’t in her ‘childish scrawl’ as he put it and accused her of cheating. Helen denied she had copied other children’s answers but couldn’t explain how the answers had appeared.
In another instance, Helen kept thinking of the number ‘1066’. Later, during a history lesson, as the teacher was talking about the Battle of Hastings and wrote 1066 on the blackboard, he suffered a heart-attack.
As both Helen’s parents had female relations who had had the ‘gift’ they were unconcerned by their young daughter’s psychic ability at first as they thought she would grow out of it. However, as Helen grew-up her ability seemed to develop and grow stronger.
Helen’s mother eventually became so concerned that she took her teenage daughter to the local doctor for him to check if there was anything physically wrong with the girl’s eyesight and hearing. The doctor couldn’t find anything wrong. To Helen’s mother’s embarrassment, Helen warned the doctor not to go out that night but he did and his car skidded off the road in a snowstorm.
Helen’s prediction of the village doctor’s demise was condemned by the local Presbyterian minister who accused her of “consorting with the devil”.
This embarrassment for the family coupled to the fact there was no work locally meant Helen left the family home at just 16 years of age.
She went to Dundee where, at the outbreak of World War One, she worked in an ammunitions factory then in a jute factory and later as a nurse.
Whilst working as a nurse, her best friend, Jean Duncan, introduced Helen to her family including her brother Henry Duncan. Apparently, Henry’s first words to Helen were, “So we meet at last.” Both had apparently had visions of each other before they met.
Henry had an interest in the supernatural and instead of suppressing Helen’s talent, encouraged it.
In 1916, the couple married. Henry had been invalided out of the army as rheumatic fever had badly damaged a valve in his heart and he became a cabinet maker. Early married life was a real struggle for the young couple who had little income and an ever-increasing amount of mouths to feed. In total, Helen had six children; Bella, Nan, Lillian, Henry, Peter and Gena as well as two that died in infancy.
During these years, Helen tried to supplement the household income by repairing and washing bed sheets and shirts for one penny an item and also took a job in a bleach mill.
At this time, Helen had a premonition that Henry was in trouble. She rushed to his workshop to find he had suffered a heart-attack. Although she managed to get him the help he needed to save his life, it was obvious he could not work again full-time.
Henry encouraged Helen to develop her psychic talent which at this time included clairvoyance, clairaudience, psychometry and precognition. Helen was able to hold an object and give information about the owner with uncanny accuracy.
Helen would often go into a deep sleep or trance and it was during one of these that the voice of a Dr. Williams told Henry that his wife had the potential to materialize spirits.
This excited Henry but Helen was very wary of developing her talent as little good had come of using it in the past but Helen was always keen to help others and in that era there were plenty of people who had lost loved ones in World War One and sought comfort.
Initial experimental séances with neighbours and friends as sitters were unpredictable and even frightening at times but, by saying a prayer at the start and keeping a Bible to hand, Henry learned from Dr. Williams how to develop his wife’s talent and keep her safe.
This involved using his carpentry skills to make a ‘cabinet’ – basically a wooden-framed cupboard with black curtains on the front. Helen was to sit inside and the cabinet would harness her energy and act as a type of portal for spirits to materialize and appear to sitters.
Whilst in a trance in the cabinet, Helen began to produce ectoplasm (etheric energy matter) from her mouth and nostrils. Ectoplasm is a white, smoky, mucous substance that can best be described as similar to how one’s breath looks on a cold, frosty morning.
This ectoplasm amazed the sitters who saw it. They described it as like “magical mist” or “living cobweb”. It glowed bright white and seemed to have a life of its own.
The spirit voice of Dr. Williams warned Henry that no light must ever be +shone on the ectoplasm or it would be extremely dangerous to Helen. But a dim red light was always on during séances so sitters could see what was happening.
One unfortunate side effect of Helen producing ectoplasm was that she felt tired and sick after séances. Being drained in such a way gave her a voracious appetite which led to her becoming very over-weight.
The spirit voice of Dr. Williams announced that Helen’s ‘spirit guide’ could now form from the ectoplasm and would look after Helen from then on.
To the sitter’s amazement, the ectoplasm swirled into the shape of an elderly but distinguished man over six foot tall who had an upright stature and an educated voice with a trace of an Australian accent. Always polite and with a sense of humour, he announced his arrival with a request for those present not to be alarmed at the sight of him and introducing himself as Albert Stewart who had been born in Scotland but had emigrated to Australia where he had drowned in 1913.
‘Uncle Albert’ as he became known, became the Master of Ceremonies at séances. He announced to sitters what spirit was about to come out of the cabinet. Sometimes Helen had another spirit guide – a young girl called Peggy who would skip around the room singing songs.
The word that Helen had developed from a clairvoyant to a materialization medium quickly spread and by the mid 1920’s, Helen’s talent was much in demand.
Every morning, the postman would bring requests from all over the UK for sittings and invitations for Helen and Henry to visit and hold séances.
The small fees sitters gladly paid Helen was often spent on the sick children of neighbours as medical care was expensive and there was no free National Health Service. She was a kindly soul to those that were civil to her but was not one to take abuse without giving the abuser a piece of her mind.
The Scottish Spiritualist Society in Edinburgh invited Helen to give regular séances to their members who were impressed and astonished at what they witnessed. So much so, that they presented her with a certificate endorsing her talent. However, when Helen and Henry learned how much the sitters paid to attend these séances compared to how little they were paid they refused to be exploited.
This was the first rift with Spiritualist organisations that continued on and off throughout Helen’s life.
By now, Henry had virtually become Helen’s manager. In 1931, he was so confident in Helen’s talent that he agreed to let Mr. Harry Price witness and test her psychic abilities. Price was a prolific author and media personality of the day who had written several best-selling books on the supernatural and was director of National Laboratory of Psychical Research the President of which was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. However, Price was a complete cynic and was determined to prove that Helen was a fraud – as many mediums of the day undoubtedly were.
Helen had a kindly and compassionate nature. She believed she was using her talent to help people so a smarmy cynic like Price who, on first meeting Helen, announced that he thought all mediums were “guilty of fraud until proven genuine” was never going to end amicably and so it proved.
Price witnessed a number of controlled test séances. At one, he took a sample of ectoplasm which dissipated in the bottle.
Price’s conclusion was that the spirits that Helen produced were no more than trickery with a sheet of cheesecloth. As Helen always wore a black gown and was examined naked by women before every sitting who confirmed that no piece of cloth was concealed about or inside her body, Price’s theory seemed unlikely. Price claimed she regurgitated the cheesecloth and then used it like a puppeteer to create the spirits. He also claimed Helen’s refusal to be X-rayed led him to believe she might have a second stomach.
It is surely improbable that so many sitters would have been duped by such an obvious trick but in 1934 Price’s theory gained some vindication.
In 1934, during a séance in Edinburgh, a sitter, Miss Maule who was a friend of Price, grabbed at Peggy – one of Helen’s spirit guides. The resulting commotion led to the police being called. When they arrived, Miss Maule alleged the ‘spirit’ was an undervest. Helen claimed the garment had been taken from her travelling bag and was simply an attempt to discredit her. She was offered the chance to bring charges against Miss Maule but refused.
At Edinburgh Sheriff Court, Helen was accused of both affray and fraud. She pleaded ‘not guilty’. Although eight people were present at the séance only three appeared for the prosecution. Even Miss Maule admitted that at the same time as the spirit guide Albert was talking, Helen could also be heard breathing deeply whilst in her trance. Nobody disputed several spirits appeared and spoke and when Miss Maule created the disturbance Helen was seen to be sat behind the cabinet before she was woken out of her trance.
Dr. Marguerite Linck-Hutchinson, M.B., Ch.B., D.H.P. had examined the naked Helen before the séance and supervised her as she dressed in her black séance garments. Dr. Linck-Hutchinson was shown the seized vest and asked if Helen could have used it to replicate the young spirit guide Peggy. Her reply was, “It would have been impossible to produce anything like what was seen using a garment like that.”
Price’s regurgitation theory was also put to and dismissed by the doctor who said Helen could not have regurgitated the amount of material that would have been required to produce the spirits that had materialized. She also said she had been present from the time Helen had a meal until the time of the séance so it wouldn’t have been possible to regurgitate material without also vomiting up the meal of which there was no trace.
Mr. Ernest W. Oaten also appeared for the defence. He was President of the International Spiritualist Federation and the editor of the leading Spiritualist journal ‘Two Worlds’. In his evidence, he said he had attended eighteen séances given by Helen, “I arranged most of the sittings and laid down conditions which made fraud utterly impossible without detection. The spirits were intelligences separate and distant from Mrs. Duncan and were decidedly different in form.”
However, the outcome was that Helen was sentenced to pay a ten shilling fine. Helen’s supporters later claimed that the verdict on the fraud charge was the Scottish verdict of ‘not proven’ and that the conviction was for the affray offence alone.
Despite this, Helen’s popularity and reputation grew. In the 1930’s and 1940’s she was travelling the length and breadth of the UK holding hundreds of séances in Spiritualist churches and in homes. Her materializations astonished thousands as well as bringing them comfort that their loved ones had moved on to some form of after-life. ‘Dead’ loved ones appearing in a physical form, speaking to and touching their earthly relatives was considered by many as proof of survival of one’s soul.
The onset of World War 2 increased the demand for séances even more from those who had lost family or friends on active service or from the Blitz. And in 1941 Helen held two séances that were to have serious repercussions for her later in the war.
The first took place in Edinburgh on 24th May. Amongst the sitters was a Brigadier Firebrace who had been with Ian Fleming in Moscow in 1939 and had connections with the Intelligence Services. During the course of the séance, spirit guide Albert claimed a British battleship had just been sunk.
Later, at the same séance, Albert also claimed that the Russians would enter the war on the side of the allies (which seemed highly unlikely as they’d signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany in 1939) and that the war would end with two big bangs.
After leaving the séance, the Brigadier listened to the news to hear if a battleship had been sunk but there was no mention of one. He then rang the Admiralty and the official denied it. However, in the morning the same official rang Brigadier Firebrace back and confirmed that HMS Hood had been sunk by the Bismarck and asked to know how Firebrace had known before even some sections of the Admiralty did.
In November of 1941, Helen held a séance in Portsmouth – the home port of the Royal Navy. The spirit of a sailor in uniform materialized complete with the name ‘HMS Barham’ on his cap band. Sitters heard him declare to his mother (who was one of the sitters) that his ship had been sunk with a great loss of life. When the shocked lady said that couldn’t be correct as she hadn’t been notified, the spirit sailor claimed she would be in three weeks time before fading away.
The sailor’s mother was so concerned that she contacted the Admiralty who sent two officials round to question her.
The Admiralty knew through German Enigma machine radio communications intercepted by Bletchley Park that the Germans thought only minor damage had been caused to HMS Barham yet the truth was the ship had blown up a few minutes after being hit by a U-boat torpedo.
As the Royal Navy wanted the German Navy to think HMS Barham was still a threat in the Mediterranean rather than laying on the bottom of it, they had gone to great lengths to keep the sinking from the public. In fact, it was not officially announced until late January 1942.
But, because of Helen’s séance, rumours spread around Portsmouth that HMS Barham had been sunk.
One of the points raised about this story is that no sailor wore the name of his ship in his cap band during wartime so how could the sailor’s spirit be genuine? However, those that attended Helen’s séances and saw spirits of loved ones say that they appeared in the form and dressed in the way that the sitter would most readily recognize them and how they most fondly remembered them. Not how they were at the time of their death.
Most importantly for Helen, it alerted the authorities that she was a potential security risk. Despite this, no action was taken against Helen and she gave séances until January 1944.
At this time, D-Day was being planned at Southwick House near Portsmouth. It was vital for the allies that the invasion was successful as the allied command was aware that Germany was developing flying pilotless aircraft (which became known as ‘doodlebugs’) and even rockets. If the invasion failed, then Germany might have sufficient time to complete these weapons and snatch victory from defeat.
Training for D-Day had begun and gone badly. Many troops had died and it was feared that if a spirit of one of these soldiers had appeared at one of Helen’s séances and told the sitters how and where he had died then an astute sitter might make an educated guess as to when and where the invasion might take place. All the preparations hinted that it would be a beach landing not an attempt to take a French port as the Germans expected.
Paranoia about security reached new heights and, after the disclosures at Helen’s séances three years previously, it was decided by Chief Constable West of Hampshire Police that ‘better safe than sorry’ was the most sensible course of action. West didn’t know whether Helen’s séances were lucky guesses or had some validity but for the sake of all the soldiers preparing to storm the French coast he was determined to lock Helen out of harm’s way.
On 19th January 1944, Helen was invited to hold a séance at a Master Temple above a chemist shop in Copnor Road in Portsmouth.
The séance was raided by the police and Helen was initially arrested under section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824, a minor offence tried by magistrates.
Helen’s fame at the time was reflected by the fact the BBC interrupted coverage of the Russian advances on the Eastern front to announce the news of her arrest.
However, the authorities regarded the case as more serious, and used section 4 of the Witchcraft Act 1735, covering fraudulent ‘spiritual’ activity, which was triable before a jury. Charged alongside her for conspiracy to contravene this Act were Ernest and Elizabeth Homer, who hosted the séance in Portsmouth, and Frances Brown who went with Helen to help with the séances when Henry was too ill to travel.
Helen’s trial for ‘pretending to conjure up evil and malicious spirits’ fraudulent witchcraft became a cause célèbre in wartime London making the headlines in all the daily newspapers.
The police had expected to find evidence of fraud such as a sheet but had failed to find anything. Their case was therefore based on the logic that Helen must have pretended to conjure up spirits of the dead as no such thing existed.
It meant Helen had to prove the existence of life after death in order to be aquitted.
Helen’s defence barrister Loseby, himself a Spiritualist, saw Helen’s trial as an opportunity to promote Spiritualism by holding a séance in court and letting the jurors and everyone else present believe their own eyes.
However, this was initially refused by Judge Dodson.
The trial lasted between 23rd March and 3rd April 1944. The prosecution produced only five witnesses – two of which were policemen involved in her arrest. The case made against Helen was undeniably weak and unconvincing.
The defence produced 49 witnesses including a District Sessions Judge, a Reverend, a doctor, a Wing Commander and a theatre critic. These witnesses claimed the spirits that they had seen appear ranged from old people to young children and even pets. Many had divulged family information that Helen could not possibly have known or talked in foreign languages that Helen didn’t speak. Many had seen Helen apparently asleep in her cabinet and the spirits at the same time.
Loseby knew that legally there was no limit on the number of defence witnesses he could call and certainly there was no shortage of volunteers. He thought he would wear the Judge down into allowing a séance in court and eventually he succeeded. (A few days after the trial, Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote to the Home Secretary describing the Witchcraft trial as “obsolete tomfoolery”)
Judge Dodson offered the jury a demonstration of a séance if they would think such a demonstration helpful. A condition of doing this was an agreement that Loseby would call no more defence witnesses.
This plan failed as the jury declined the offer of a séance. It is thought that, as they had been brought to London from Portsmouth and were away from their families, they were more eager to return home than to prolong a trial that was continually interrupted by bombing.
Unsurprisingly, Helen was found guilty but then a surprising twist emerged. Anxious to get her the maximum possible prison sentence for the crime which was one year, Chief Constable West described Helen as a “national pest and unmitigated humbug” and divulged that she had disclosed the sinking of the two ships before they were public knowledge.
How Helen could be guilty of ‘pretending’ to conjure up spirits and, at the same time, condemned for being so accurate that she was a threat to national security West never explained.
Certainly there was little mercy shown to Helen. She was sentenced to nine months and sent to Holloway prison. A subsequent appeal was rejected.
By this time, Helen was a sick woman. She was very over-weight and suffered from diabetes. The conditions in Holloway were grim and the food poor and Helen seriously doubted she would survive the sentence. Fortunately, her health actually improved during her incarceration.
Whilst she was locked away, a doodlebug hit the prison and set light to it. Helen’s cell filled with smoke but was unlocked just in time.
Helen’s sentence was reduced to six months and on September 22nd 1944, she was released.
Ironically, as she took a cab to the railway station to get a train back to Edinburgh, she went past the Old Bailey and saw it had also been hit by a bomb which had blown the scales of justice off from the iconic statue on the roof.
Helen was one of the last women to be convicted under the Witchcraft Act 1735, which sought prosecution of anyone who falsely claimed to be able to procure spirits or tell fortunes.
On her release, Helen vowed to stop conducting séances.
However, the loss of life during World War Two saw a similar demand for séances as World War One had created.
In 1951, the Witchcraft Act was repealed partly due to pressure from Winston Churchill. In its place came the Fraudulent Mediums Act, and some four years later in 1954, Spiritualism was officially recognised as a proper religion by an Act of Parliament. Spiritualists everywhere knew why and were pleased that whilst frauds would be properly prosecuted the authorities would stop harassing true working Mediums.
They were wrong because in 1956 another of Helen’s séances held in Nottingham was raided by police.
Once again, no evidence of fraud was found but in their ignorance the police had committed the worst possible sin of physical phenomena – that a medium in trance must never, ever be touched or a light be shone on the medium. If this happens the ectoplasm returns to the medium’s body far too quickly and can cause immense – sometimes even fatal – damage.
And so it was in this case. A doctor was summoned and discovered two second degree burns the size of saucers on Helen’s stomach and breast. In severe pain and shock, she was rushed to hospital.
The burns never healed and five weeks after that police raid she was dead. Helen passed away on 6th December 1956.
Since her death, Helen has been considered a martyr amongst mediums and Spiritualists. A campaign for Helen to be awarded a posthumous pardon has been continually rejected to this day.