Helen Duncan lived from 25 November 1897 to 6 December 1956. She was a medium and spiritualist best remembered as the last person to be jailed under the Witchcraft Act of 1735, a prosecution that contributed to the Act's repeal. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Helen was born in Callander, the daughter of a cabinet maker. Her husband was wounded during World War I, and by the early 1920s she was struggling to provide for a family of 6 children. As well as working part time in a bleach factory, she developed a career as a medium, giving seances in which she appeared to summon the spirits of recently deceased people in the form of ectoplasm from her mouth.
In 1931, Helen Duncan was denounced as a fraud by the London Spiritual Alliance, who voiced the suspicion that her "ectoplasm" was no more than regurgitated cheesecloth, and noted that she had made strenuous efforts to avoid examination by X-ray. Despite this, many continued to believe in her and she remained popular. At a seance in 1934, one of those present grabbed at the "ectoplasm" and claimed it was no more than a piece of underwear. Duncan was subsequently found guilty of fake mediumship at Edinburgh Sheriffs Court and sentenced to a £10 fine or one month's imprisonment.
At a seance in Portsmouth at the end of November 1941, Helen Duncan said she had been contacted by a dead sailor who told her that his ship, HMS Barham, had been sunk. It had been, several days earlier, but the British Admiralty had hoped to keep the fact secret (and it never became clear how Duncan had found out). As a result, the Government started to look for ways to discredit Duncan, and in the run up to D-Day in 1944 she was charged under Section 4 of the Witchcraft Act 1735: not with being a witch, but rather with fraudulent spiritual activity. She was convicted and jailed for nine months.
Afterwards, the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, wrote to the Home Secretary Herbert Morrison, complaining about the misuse of overstretched wartime court resources on the "obsolete tomfoolery" of the prosecution. The Witchcraft Act 1735 was repealed as part of the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951.
Helen Duncan was the last person jailed under its terms, but she was not quite the last person tried under it. That dubious honour fell to Jane Rebecca Yorke of Forest Gate in East Ham later in 1944: though she escaped imprisonment. Helen continued to act as a medium after the war, and was again arrested after a seance in 1956. She died not long afterwards.
This biography draws on research first published in "The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women".