Criminal: 20th Century Witch Trial

Nov 17, 2017

In this week's Criminal podcast, we hear the story of a Scottish woman named Helen Duncan, who was put in jail during World War II for practicing witchcraft. The British government believed she was a threat to national security.

Criminal host Phoebe Judge said Helen Duncan was arguably the most famous medium in the 1930s and 40s. Judge said she had been a "spooky" child who knew things others said were impossible, from the answers to school tests to the whereabouts of missing persons. She claimed to be able to predict the future and talk to the dead.

Duncan went on to hold seances around England. Audience members said she conjured spirits. They said they saw ghosts that talked to people, ate apples, and drank water.

Malcolm Gaskill is a professor of Early Modern History at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. He said Duncan's seances were very popular.

"Some people would go because they thought it was a bit of a lark and a bit of fun," he said. "Other people, bereaved people, often would be going because they wanted to see once again the spirits of those that they'd loved and lost."

Duncan's family said she had a true gift from God. Her followers said she made the ghosts of their loved ones appear, and that it gave them closure.

However, skeptics claimed she was a fraud after finding that she'd used props to create the appearance of spirits. Duncan admitted to some illusions to spice up the show, but claimed she was truly able to communicate with the dead.

Professor Malcolm Gaskill said she'd use tricks like hanging a cheese cloth to look like a floating spirit, or inflating a rubber glove to look like a hand. It sounds hokey, but, he said, audiences are suggestible.

"People are in a dark room when they've gone along there expecting to see spirits of the dead," Gaskill explained. "I mean we used to the idea of seeing is believing but really believing is seeing you can reverse that."

Initially, Duncan had gotten into some legal trouble with a few minor fraud arrests. But when one of her conjured spirits claimed to be a ghost from the sunken HMS Barham, it was a big deal. World War II was on, and no one outside the military knew the famous ship had sunk in the Mediterranean Sea. When someone called the Royal Navy to confirm, the MI5 suspected she was a spy and began tailing her.

To this day, no one knows how Duncan knew about the HMS Barham.

In 1944, Duncan was tried and convicted under the 1735 Witchcraft Act. That 300 year-old statute held that it is illegal to attempt or pretend to conjure the spirits of the dead. Duncan spent nine months in prison. She died in the 1950s, but the British government has still not released its file on her.

Even after her death, many people believed in Duncan's gift. Her family is still trying to clear her name. Graham Hewitt is a former lawyer working with the family to get a posthumous pardon for her.

"In some ways at the moment she's a martyr for the cause," said Hewitt. "But in my view, she was a martyr because the home office and the war cabinet felt that she was a threat to national security and had to be shut up."

You can hear more about the story of Helen Duncan on this week's Criminal podcast.

Criminal is recorded at WUNC.