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Britain’s Last Witch – The witch trial of Victoria Helen Duncan

Ian Harvey

Britain’s-Last-Witch

The first half of 20th century is practically littered with strange stories and unbelievable occurrences including two world wars, progression in ideas and science, along with a massive transformation in people and society. All through Middle Ages and even in 18th and 19th century, supernaturalisms, witches, magicians, captivated human imagination and curiosity. But with 20th century came the fall of séances and magicians throughout Europe.

One such figure got the attention of scores of people and eventually the authorities, with her peculiar claims of communicating with the dead. With two world wars raining death and chaos on Europe within a couple of decades, the idea of meeting your lost loved ones intrigued many, hence a rise in séances and mediums.

Victoria Helen Duncan had a very tough childhood, not because her parents were strict or she was bullied at school, rather because of her bizarre claims of communicating with ghosts and dead folks. Her mother tried her best to convince her to get her mind off such thoughts, but she refused to let go, and with every passing day her conviction grew stronger and stronger. However, it was not until her marriage that she thought of using her ‘powers’ to gain some extra quid. Duncan’s husband convinced Duncan to put her powers to use and ‘help’ people communicate with their dead ones. (All About History)

Duncan saw the prime of her demand in 1920’s, with a world war just a few years back along with a rise of poverty and despair among the public, there was no shortage of people seeking comfort and relief wherever they could possibly find. Scores of people turned to Duncan to help them communicate with their dead relatives, and ease the pain of loss and despair. Her demand grew exponentially and with a short span of few years she was a countrywide phenomenon, continuously on road Duncan ‘helped’ hundreds of people with her séances.

Duncan was unlike any other medium, who would just sit down and claim to communicate with dead people, she would rather bring dead people to life, of course in controlled environment that was controlled by her. She would start her communication ritual with a member of audiences inspecting her naked body to make sure she was not hiding any special instruments. She would then put a silver gown and sit down on a make shift stage in the darkness. She would then mysteriously produce some sort of material or ectoplasm from her mouth, which would then take the shape of the loved ones that the clients wanted to communicate with. Her clients always maintained that they saw the image of their dead relatives in front of their eyes and they spoke to them and that there was no doubt about that.

The down fall of the ‘Hellish Nell’ – nickname Duncan earned in her childhood due to her strange ghoulish appearance that she kept – started when she agreed to be photographed by Harvey Metcalfe in 1928. It is believed that the only reason she agreed to be photographed was that she thought in the dark Metcalfe would not be able to capture everything and she could dodge this bullet easily. But instead Metcalfe was successfully able to capture her act and his photographs revealed that Duncan’s séance was a carefully planned act to fool people. Metcalfe photographed the images of the so-called ghosts as peculiar dolls and paper cuttings. In 1931, after seeing the photographs the London Spiritualist Alliance decided to test the ectoplasm Duncan produced from her mouth during her séances. The tests determined that the ectoplasm was a mish-mash of cheesecloth, some paper and egg white, and that there was nothing ‘other worldly’ about it.

After these revelations the authorities started keeping an eye on Duncan and her séances, and was caught in the act by an undercover policewoman. During a séance the policewoman grabbed the ghostly image Duncan claimed was a ghost, and found out it was nothing but a bunch of some old underwears. Duncan was arrested and charged with fraudulent activity, and was fined £10.

Duncan’s devotees always maintained that authorities were being unfair, and that scores of people were healed of their pain and suffering thanks to Duncan’s séances.

Duncan’s downward spiral continued, and her meeting with a famous psychical researcher Harry Price, damaged her reputation even further. Harry Price was a researcher and never claimed to have any hidden agenda against mediums; he would rather certify some to have genuine psychic powers. Harry paid Duncan £50 to let him observe her séance under controlled conditions. But when Duncan saw the x-ray machines that Harry had brought, Duncan got panicked and created a drama of going into a trance, in the mayhem Duncan passed the ectoplasm to her husband. Harry asked Duncan to let him search her husband’s pockets, which she refused, eventually nulling the experiment. He revealed in her report that Duncan was as fake as it could possibly be, and that she was feeding on the pains and sufferings of others.

After Duncan’s famous séance about HMS Barham, in which her ‘ghost friends’ told about the sinking of the ship when only the government knew about the whole affair, she was put under close watch. A few years later she was arrested and charged under the Witchcraft Act of 1735. This caused a huge uproar in public and media, since the Witchcraft Act was responsible for a large number of women being burnt alive at the stake. But this time this Act was cited not suggesting that Duncan was some sort of a witch, rather as her being faking to have supernatural powers and fooling members of public. She was found guilty after the judge and jury carefully went through the evidence put forward by the researcher Harry Price and photographer Harvey Metcalfe. Duncan was found guilty and was sent to prison for nine months. It was later revealed that the news of the ‘HMS Barham’ sinking was actually leaked by a government official’s negligence and ended up with Duncan, who then used the news in her favor.

Her devotees stayed adamant, and defended Duncan’s séances and her super powers. There is still a number of devotees who are trying their best for decades to remove the conviction on Duncan and somehow undo the name she earned during the last part of her life; Britain’s Last Witch.