A Retrial For The Last Witch

NOT one convicted witch is known to have returned from the dead, seeking revenge or legal redress. This may be considered further proof of their innocence by those who still care to defend them. Even the most credulous believer in Satan must now doubt that the devil ever met or marked a single soul among the thousands accused of being his human agents in Britain between the 16th and 18th centuries – most of them women, many of them tortured and executed. Modern spiritualists tend to feel particularly aggrieved on behalf of these so-called witches, because they think it possible that at least some of them may have been their vocational ancestors, possessed of benevolent gifts and healing skills that are better understood and less punishable today than they were even 50 years ago. One such latter-day practitioner has become their martyr.

At London’s Old Bailey in 1944, a mother of six from Callander named Helen Duncan became the last person ever imprisoned under the Witchcraft Act of 1735. “She is the Joan of Arc of the spiritualist movement,” says Andrea Byrne, founder of Full Moon Investigations, a group of Scottish paranormal detectives who have recently begun campaigning for Duncan’s posthumous exoneration. Byrne, her co-founder Ewan Irvine, and their associate Roberta Gordon meet me in a suburban cafe on a gloomy Edinburgh afternoon to explain their involvement in this case. “You might ask, ‘why do it?’” says Irvine. “‘Why bring this story back again?’ But Helen Duncan was prosecuted under a law that was over 200 years old. If not for her, that law might not have been repealed [the Witchcraft Act was replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act in 1951, which may soon be folded into the Trade Descriptions Act]. And if that hadn’t happened, then people like myself and Roberta might not be able to go about our business without being branded or arrested as witches.” He and Gordon share certain “mediumistic gifts” with the late Mrs Duncan, although they say hers were more strongly “materialist”. By which they mean her purported ability to conjure metaphysical forms through an ectoplasmic substance issued from her body.

It is their belief that Duncan was jailed for ten months in early 1944 because she represented a security risk to vital British wartime operations such as the impending D-Day landings, having previously received uncannily accurate information from the spirits of drowned Royal Navy sailors. They also suspect that she was killed by psychic injuries inflicted during a police raid on a séance more than 10 years after her release. “The lady was in a deep trance when they disrupted that meeting,” says Gordon. “The energy she used to build up a materialisation of spirit rushed back into her body and damaged her. [Duncan died, or “passed to spirit” as they say in the trade, six weeks later at the age of 59]. The police were looking for masks and wigs and things, but none of that was found. There was never any evidence of Helen being a fraud.” This last statement is not a lie, but neither is it true. It is just one item on a long list of biographical disagreements between Helen Duncan’s supporters and those they consider her enemies. In mid-February, Full Moon Investigations plan to make a formal submission to the Holyrood Petitions Committee, requesting that the Scottish Government put pressure on the Home Office at Westminster, which has so far refused to reconsider Duncan’s conviction, let alone address the question of a posthumous pardon.

“She was a Scot born and bred,” says Irvine. “But the onus is still on the English parliament, because she was tried in an English court.” The team are also compiling a similar, supplementary petition demanding that our own parliament pardon all those tried north of the border, centuries earlier, under the first and more corporal Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1536. Gordon quaintly refers to this as “Mary’s Law” – after Mary Queen of Scots, who decreed soon after arriving here from France that witches should be killed like heretics on these shores, as they were in continental Europe – and talks about those who suffered under it as if she had known them personally.

She specifically identifies with Agnes Sampson, also known as “the wise wife of Keith”, who in 1590 was kept awake for days with a rope around her neck and iron prongs driven into her mouth until she confessed to a fantastical role in the infamous North Berwick witch-plot to sink King James VI’s ship by raising storms with sorcery. Sampson was then strangled to death, and her body burned at the stake, as was standard practice in Scotland at the time. “These were ordinary people trying to get on with their lives,” says Gordon. “If I had been around in 1590, the same things might have happened to me.” One possible side-effect of her work as a medium is a heightened sensitivity to wrongs done to people long dead. She and Irvine use their use their own gifts to investigate reported hauntings around the country. Andrea Byrne calls them “my two pieces of equipment”, although she may also use video cameras, voice recorders, temperature gauges and electromagnetic frequency meters. (“You’re a tool, Ewan,” she says to Irvine with a grin. “Admit it.”) Byrne calls herself a “sceptical believer”, having thought she had their gift as a child, and subsequently lost it. “I want proof that what I felt was real,” she says. “Even if I felt it again, I would still want proof. But in the majority of cases there is a logical explanation …” Irvine volunteers the example of a woman in a council house who claimed to have a poltergeist “just because she didn’t like where she was living”. Gordon recalls another false alarm, when “one lady told us that the spirit of a famous film star was making love to her”. “Ding dong,” she says. “Warning bells went off immediately. We told her to go and see her doctor … she had a medical condition.”

Byrne points out that similar sufferers were accused of witchcraft in the past. “People who were a bit different,” she says, “People with dementia or disabilities. Janet Horne [the last person executed for that crime in Britain, in 1727] was burned just because she’d given birth to a daughter with a deformed hand. There are personal stories behind these atrocities. Human beings with families.” In the case of Helen Duncan, Bryne believes, as her colleagues do, that the woman was “a fantastic medium”. But she is sceptical about “the physical stuff”. Neither was Harry Price, the great English ghost-hunter of his day, who was invited by the London Spiritual Alliance to assess Duncan’s abilities at his National Laboratory Of Psychical Research in 1931.

Despite her violent reaction against being X-rayed – she weighed more than 20 stone and is known to have punched out at least one man who invaded her space while she was working – Duncan submitted to a body cavity search by two doctors. They found nothing, but Price took photographs and a small sample of her ectoplasm, and reached the conclusion that she had simply, if impressively, regurgitated cheesecloth and cheap paper stuck together with egg whites. A “materialised hand” he identified as “a housemaid’s rubber glove”. Three years later, a guest at one of her séances supposedly grabbed at a shape emerging from the other side via Duncan’s skirts, only for his hand to close around a stockinette undervest. She was arrested for fraud and ordered to pay a £10 fine at Edinburgh Sheriff’s Court. According to the spiritualist version of Duncan’s story, the verdict in that earlier trial was a distinctly Scottish “not proven”. The contrary view, which might be called rationalist, suggests that if this were a fact, she would not have been fined at all. Michael Colmer subscribes to the former. An ex-Fleet Street journalist and current deputy editor of the monthly magazine Psychic World, Colmer is the original source of the campaign to pardon Duncan. He created a website to mark the centenary of her birth in 1997, which he says attracted enough attention to support legal action. To that end, he enlisted former solicitor and fellow spiritualist Graham Hewitt as an arbitrator.

Both men agree that Duncan’s kind of magic is rare, but real. Hewitt says his mother could do it. “She achieved a full materialisation of a male person in my presence. It stretches the imagination, but it’s documented, it’s possible.” He paraphrases Arthur Conan Doyle, who somehow reconciled his own spiritualism with the ultra-rational words he wrote for Sherlock Holmes: “Once you eliminate the impossible, the improbable becomes factual.” “Helen Duncan was not put in prison for telling lies,” says Colmer. “She was put there for telling the truth.” And the truth, as they see it, is that the British security services wanted Duncan “out of the way”. In 1941, at the Master Temple Psychic Centre in Portsmouth, she had reportedly called forth the ghost of a uniformed crewman who had died that day aboard the HMS Barham, a ship that was not officially declared sunk until three months later. Presumably fearing some further supernatural breach in the end phase of the war, the Admiralty and MI5 arranged, or conspired, for a suitable charge to be brought against her, and she was arrested six months before D-Day. (According to Colmer, Admiral Andrew B Cunningham, the First Sea Lord himself, is rumoured to have asked, “Who will rid me of this turbulent witch?”)

Through a series of telephone conversations and email exchanges, Colmer and Hewitt supply me with more information, opinion, and speculation on the subsequent trial than I ever could hope to sort or make sense of. They are helpful and personable, and apparently trust me to present this material fairly and accurately, in a way that might even help their case. Hewitt now represents four of Duncan’s grandchildren in this matter, and is preparing to re-file all the relevant documentation to the Unfair Trials committee of the Home Office (the Criminal Cases Review Commission apparently returned it unread). But their often persuasive claims as to the irregularities of the trial, and admittedly intriguing questions as to who knew what, and when, and how – in 1941 the Royal Navy had recognised spiritualism as a religion, and permitted services at sea, so why should Duncan have been punished for practicing it, if not to shut her up? – cannot be separated from their dogmatic and sometimes wilfully ignorant adherence to an alternative, invisible, unproveable historical record. Colmer kindly sends me an extract from his forthcoming book, which states as fact that Winston Churchill was secretly a druid, and argues that the absence of any mention of druidry in Churchill’s History Of The English-Speaking Peoples only confirms his commitment to that secrecy. He applies the same logic to the popular myth that Churchill visited Helen Duncan for psychic consultations in her cell at Holloway Prison.

“Generally speaking, you can’t prove a negative” says Malcolm Gaskill, author of a book on Duncan titled Hellish Nell: The Last Of Britian’s Witches, “I’d love to have found a shred of evidence that story was true. But I didn’t. So, on balance, what is more likely?” Gaskill, a Cambridge University lecturer in social and cultural history, chose a sensationalist title for his book to match the nature of that trial, but went on to recount the life of one unhappy and unhealthy working-class woman in the context of “a colossal accumulation of grief” between the first and second world wars, when the popular rise of spiritualism corresponded to unprecedented levels of national bereavement. “It’s unfortunate that she was charged under that particular law, says Gaskill, “because it looked like the modern state was holding a medieval witch-trial. And it’s inevitable that trial has grown within a subculture to become one of the myths that supports its existence.” The Witchcraft Act of 1735 was not as archaic as it appeared, having been drafted in the age of Enlightenment, after two centuries of witch-hunts and burnings, as a protective measure against the incitement or exploitation of public hysteria.

The Admiralty found this no less applicable in what Gaskill calls “the tension and paranoia of wartime”, which was strongly felt in naval towns like Portsmouth. He agrees with Duncan’s campaigners that her barrister, Charles Loseby, failed to comprehend the nuances of that legislation, which made no distinction between “conjuring the spirits of the dead” and pretending to for profit. “He called witness after witness to testify that she really was capable of communicating with the other side,” says Gaskill, “and of course that was all basically evidence for the prosecution, because she was not being tried on that basis. She was found guilty, under the terms of the law, for ‘conjuring spirits’. It made no difference whether she could actually do it or not.” Duncan was not “the last witch”, nor was she jailed for that reason. As the judge said when fining a 72-year-old woman called Jane Yorke under the same act six months later, it was a matter of “keeping the peace”.

After the war, ironically, this was no longer such an imperative, and the law was changed to allow spiritualists to make their living within certain trade standards. Gaskill does not want to “mock or undermine” them in their attempts to secure a pardon for Duncan or any other convicted witch. “You don’t win an argument with a spiritualist,” he says, from experience. But his own belief is that the dead might be better respected with a broader, less emotive perspective on human struggle. “If you look at the criminal justice system before our time, almost everyone seems to have been treated unfairly. Many more heretics were burned than witches. Children were hanged for pickpocketing. Seems a bit harsh. But if you started pardoning them all you’d have a torrent. These people were bound to their own time, and I think there is a kind of dishonour in sentimentalising them.”

It is not for Gaskill, however, nor anyone else, to tell Mary Martin how she should remember her grandmother. Helen Duncan’s oldest surviving relative still living in the UK, Martin now resides in an Edinburgh care home, not far from where she grew up. “I had a lovely relationship with her,” she says. As a child, she knew Duncan’s spirit guide as “Uncle Albert”. “I thought everyone had a spirit guide. I was eight when I found out they didn’t.” Martin was 10 when Duncan was arrested. “She came back a different person. So sad. It almost destroyed her.” Martin’s father, just home from the war, taught her how to box anyone who bullied her about it. “Children can be very cruel,” she says.

When she was 22, her grandmother died, soon after that final police raid. Martin believes almost everything that spiritualists have said since about the various ways that Duncan was wronged. She wants a royal prerogative pardon as much as they do. But in her case, and in the absence of any gifts that would allow her to ask the spirits, this is just a best guess as to what her grandmother would have wanted. “I’ve had my moments, but I’ve never been a medium. I have MS and a weak heart. I’ve never been strong mentally or physically. But I won’t let this rest. It’s gone on too long. And if they clear her name, then I can die happy.”

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