Duncan, Helen Victoria (1898-1956)
Duncan, Helen Victoria (1898-1956)
Controversial British materialization medium exposed on several occasions as a fraud. Born in Perthshire, Scotland, she had a working-class background. She later married and became the mother of six children. Duncan became well known as a materialization medium, manifesting spirit forms.
Controversy ensued in the journal Light in 1931 following her sittings for the London Psychic Laboratory, the research department of the London Spiritualist Alliance. Ectoplasm (a psychic substance supposedly exuded from mediums) was reportedly seen in quantities, and specimens were obtained for analysis. In addition, figures of adults and children appeared under voluminous drapery, and movements of objects beyond the reach of the medium were observed. As a means of control the medium was placed nude into a sleeved sack with stiff buck-ram fingerless gauntlets sewn to the sleeves of her suit. The sack was sewn together at the back and fastened with tape and cords to the chair. At the end of the sitting the medium was often found outside the bag, the seals, tape, and stitching remaining intact.
The first report of the London Psychic Laboratory was published in Light, May 16, 1931. It advanced no definite conclusion but disclosed a favorable impression. Meanwhile, Duncan also gave sittings at the National Laboratory of Psychical Re-search. In the July 14, 1931, Morning Post, a long article was published on her exposure there and psychical researcher Harry Price branded her in a statement "as one of the cleverest frauds in the history of Spiritualism."
A portion of her teleplasm (another term for ectoplasm) was found to be composed of woodpulp and egg white. Photo-graphs taken during the séance disclosed rubber gloves and rough portraits wrapped in cheesecloth. An X-ray examination revealed that Duncan possessed a remarkable faculty of regurgitation and merely swallowed the necessary paraphernalia before the séance.
Two days after this article the second report of the London Psychic Laboratory appeared in Light. It also branded Duncan as a clear-cut fraud and quoted a statement by her husband that was interpreted as a confession. In subsequent issues of Light many Spiritualists supported the medium. Dr. Montague Rust, who was responsible for introducing Duncan to London, deplored the hasty conclusions and despite the adverse report maintained that Duncan was the most remarkable physical medium in Europe. Many other impressive testimonies were given on her behalf. Will Goldston, the famous magician, confessed to having witnessed astounding results that no system of trickery could achieve (Psychic News, May 28, 1932).
However, another exposure followed on January 5, 1932, in Edinburgh. "Peggy," the materialized child control, was seized and found to be identical to the medium. "I see no escape from the conclusion," writes J. B. Mc Indoe, president of the Spiritualists' National Union, in Light, "that Mrs. Duncan was detected in a crude and clumsy fraud—a pitiable travesty of the phenomena she has so frequently displayed. I have no doubt that the fraud was deliberate, conscious and premeditated."
Yet in the Edinburgh Sheriff Court, where the exposers carried the case, he said that he had considerably modified his view because of the evidence of the Crown witnesses. Ernest W. Oaten and Montague Rust were the chief witnesses for the defense, the latter describing amazing experiences of the partial dematerialization of Duncan's body. The court found Duncan guilty of fraud and sentenced her to a fine of 10 pounds or a month's imprisonment. After she was convicted for "obtaining money from a sitter by false pretences," her followers declared that she was wrongly condemned. On a later occasion she was tried under the old British legislation of Section 4 of the Witchcraft Act of 1735 (see fortune-telling ). Between December 1943 and January 1944 she gave public séances in Portsmouth. At one of these sittings she was grabbed by a policeman acting in concert with an investigator who believed the proceedings fraudulent. As a result, Duncan was tried at the Central Criminal Court in London.
A detailed account of the proceedings was published in The Trial of Mrs. Duncan, edited by C. E. Bechhofer Roberts, (London, 1945). Duncan was sentenced to nine months imprisonment. After her release she resumed mediumistic activities, and in October 1956 was seized by police at a séance in Nottingham. She became ill and died five weeks later. It is possible that her death (from diabetes and heart failure) may have been accelerated by the shock of the police raid.
The records of the séances at the National Laboratory for Psychical Research, with impressions of the phenomena by several professors, were published by Harry Price in book form under the title Regurgitation and the Duncan Mediumship (1931).Although Price concluded that her phenomena were fraudulent, Duncan continued to be endorsed by some Spiritualists, including Maurice Barbanell, editor of Psychic News.
At the time of her trials, there was considerable official opposition to Spiritualism in Britain, and the treatment of mediums accused of fraud verged on persecution. Convictions were often obtained by use of an outdated vagrancy act and the Witchcraft Act of 1735. Duncan's case became a focus for the Spiritualists' campaign for the abolition of prosecution of mediums under outdated and punitive legislation.
Cassiver, Manfred. "Helen Victoria Duncan: A Reassessment." Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 53, 801 (October 1985).
Crossley, Alan E. The Story of Helen Duncan. N.p., 1975.
Roberts, C. E. Bechhofer, ed. The Trial of Mrs. Duncan. London, 1945.