Witches be crazy: How one WWII ship led to the UK’s last witch trial

by Tommy Grant

How do you know if she’s a witch? Does she float in water like very small rocks? Like a duck?

In 1944, the line between “Monty Python” and reality blurred when Helen Duncan, a Scottish medium who earned her living conducting séances, was imprisoned and tried under the Witchcraft Act of 1735.

Duncan began her career in the mid-1920s, summoning spirits in dimly lit rooms across Britain — preying on desperate families of the recently deceased. Spiritualism, she found, thrived on disaster and desperation, and as the Second World War raged on, Duncan’s business was booming.

Despite having her fair share of believers and naysayers throughout her decades-long career, it was one particular incident in November 1941 that attracted the attention of the British War Office.

While performing a séance in her hometown of Portsmouth, Duncan went “beyond her usual vagaries” — assuming the persona of a spirit and orally producing ectoplasm, which was really a swallowed mixture of cheesecloth, paper, egg white and toilet paper — and claimed to have summoned the spirit of a sailor who’d allegedly gone down with the battleship HMS Barham, according to one History Hit report.

The Portsmouth-based battleship was sunk on Nov. 25, 1941 after being struck by three German torpedoes while patrolling between Crete and Cyrenaica. Fifty-five officers and 806 men were killed.

The rub? The sinking of the HMS Barham was kept in strict confidence, with only the relatives of the casualties learning of the ship’s fate. In fact, it was not until Jan. 27, 1942, that the public would learn of the its sinking.

In his book “Loose Cannons,” Historian Graeme Donald wrote that Duncan discovered that loose lips did indeed sink ships, or at the very least, her career.

“The loss of HMS Barham, torpedoed off the coast of Egypt on 25 November 1941, was indeed kept quiet for a while, but letters of condolence were sent out to families of the 861 dead, asking them to keep the secret until the official announcement,” Donald wrote. “So, allowing for perhaps 10 people in each family, there were about 9,000 people who knew of the sinking; if each of them told only one other person, there were 20,000 people in the country aware of the sinking, and so on. … Duncan simply picked up the gossip and decided to turn it into profit.”

In subsequent years, the leak was found to have originated from Sir Michael Postan of the Ministry of Economic Warfare, after a secretary of the First Sea Lord, Sir Dudley Pound, discussed the loss of the Barham with the professor. Neither were arrested.

The revelation of a state secret caught the attention of MI5 and was seen, at best, to damage the morale of British civilians. At worst, she was believed to pose a security risk.

Still, Duncan continued to peddle her con unmolested for nearly three more years until her arrest in January 1944, when two lieutenants became so disgusted with her fraudulent ruse that they reported her. Five days later, she was arrested by undercover police mid-performance.

Duncan initially faced fairly minor charges relating to fortune-telling, astrology and spiritualism under the section 4 of the Vagrancy Act of 1824, according to History Hit, but it was her 1941 performance that came back to — rather literally — haunt her.

Duncan was subsequently brought to trial at the Old Bailey in London and became the last person to be prosecuted under the Witchcraft Act of 1735 — which deemed “magic, witchcraft and fortune-telling …[as] fraudulent, and the practitioners marked as con artists and vagrants.” The act itself had not been used for more than a century.

“It has been alleged that the real reason for the raid was due to the official paranoia surrounding the forthcoming D-Day Normandy landings and the fear that she may reveal the date, location and other details,” according to Historic UK.

After a weeklong spectacle of a trial, Duncan was sentenced to nine months in London’s Holloway Prison.

The verdict itself was contentious, with Prime Minister Winston Churchill even inquiring in a memo to his Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, as to “why the Witchcraft Act, 1735, was used in a modern Court of Justice. What was the cost of this trial to the State, observing that witnesses were brought from Portsmouth and maintained here in this crowded London, for a fortnight, and the Recorder kept busy with all this obsolete tomfoolery, to the detriment of necessary work in the Courts?”

“The person tried and convicted,” Churchill continued, “was a stout and ailing Scotswoman called Helen Duncan, whom few people loved and many exploited. She was not a witch in any popular sense of the word; she did not fly, wear a pointed hat or have congress with the devil, and neither she nor her followers imagined that she did.”

After serving her time, Duncan was released and returned to her spiritualist ways — despite her promise to cease such activities. She died at the age of 59 in 1956, five years after the Witchcraft Act was repealed.

No word as to whether she weighed the same as a duck, however.

Claire Barrett is a digital media editor at HistoryNet and a World War II researcher with an unparalleled affinity for Sir Winston Churchill and Michigan football.

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