TUESDAY, 27 JULY 2021
Picture a witch. You know – broomstick, pointed hat, a cat… perhaps even green skin? Whatever you pictured, forget it. I have a real witch for you.
This is Helen Duncan, otherwise known as ‘Hellish Nell’. Nell was a witch in criminal conviction only; there are no broomsticks in this story. What I can offer you is ectoplasm, psychical research, and an odd image from the archives of Cambridge University Library. This is the story of how Helen Duncan, a medium hailing from Callander, ended up in a photograph belonging to a Cambridge scientific society — the Society for Psychical Research. It also happens to be the story of how a medium became a witch.
But before that, we have several questions to answer. Ghosts and ghouls are not part of the science we know today, so how do we go from science to spirits? The answer is psychical research. Psychical research was, and remains, the study of ‘debateable phenomena designated by such terms as mesmeric, psychical, and Spiritualistic’. In the Victorian period, entertainment had a supernatural flavour; from mesmerising party guests to attending the Victorian séance, the inexplicable was high fashion. Invariably, the inexplicable attracts people who want to explain it. In 1883, the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was founded, with philosopher Henry Sidgwick as its first president and, amongst others, the physicist Lord Rayleigh in its membership. Assemble a group of academic paranormal enthusiasts and the result is a systematic effort to apply scientific methods to the supernatural: the scientific study of everything from UFOs to mediums.
Studying the paranormal is hard. We’re not talking in physical quantities we can measure, nor about compliant cultures we can grow in controlled conditions. How do you scientifically investigate mediumship? Can you analyse ectoplasm? Psychical researchers certainly tried. Their techniques ranged from weighing mediums before and after séances to testing their blood and taking their photographs. When cameras were invented, they were considered ideal objective observers — and what better to see the supernatural than this picture-perfect device?
Almost four decades after the founding of the SPR, a host of other psychical research societies had sprung up. One of the earliest was the London Spiritualist Alliance (LSA), which moved into its headquarters at 16 Queensberry Place, South Kensington in 1925 — and if you happened to be there in October 1930, you might have encountered Helen Duncan. The LSA brought Helen to London from Scotland because they wanted her to sit for them, offering research séances alongside public sittings. A physical medium, Duncan’s séances were more than speaking with those beyond the veil: she made things materialise. By candlelight, ectoplasm flowed and spirit guides moved. This was the inexplicable the LSA wanted to capture. To do this, they photographed her séances, producing seventeen images in total. Attendees could hold the hand of Duncan’s spirit guide, Albert, whilst psychical researchers would watch everything unfold through the camera lens.
That was, at least, the idea.
Yet capturing Duncan’s séances in photographs bred doubt in the LSA. As investigators gathered more and more evidence, they had more and more questions: did that photograph show a doll or a spirit guide? Why did enlarged images of Helen’s ectoplasm seem to show the warp and weft of cheesecloth? And why did her maid report suspicious pre-séance disappearances? Despite these niggling suspicions, the fact was that Helen was immensely profitable for the LSA. Her success had brought her to their attention in the first place, and her fame lent her credibility. What the LSA didn’t know was that Helen’s data had been leaked to the National Laboratory of Psychical Research (NLPR).
Leaking information to the NLPR was not difficult. From 1926, Harry Price — ghost hunter and NLPR founder — leased the top floor of 16 Queensberry Place. Within the LSA headquarters, Price systematically investigated mediums and spiritualists, and it was there that he encountered Helen. The first time they met, as Helen watched Price ascend to his laboratory, she felt uneasy. There was something about Price she did not trust. Despite her misgivings, and because of growing LSA scepticism, Helen consented to NLPR investigation. But Helen was not the only one with doubts. The leaked evidence meant Price had analysed her ectoplasm sample; he was suspicious of her photographs, and that was why he wanted to investigate.
And now we find ourselves in the NLPR séance room on May 4th, 1931: Helen’s first sitting for Price. This sitting was the beginning of the end for psychical research into Duncan. Unnerved by observers from the SPR, Helen began her sitting. Again, the séance was photographed, this time by Price himself, and the results were… unfavourable. Unlike the magic lantern slide we first saw, Helen’s ectoplasm didn’t look like billowing, ethereal clouds. It looked like knotted cloth. Worse still, the photographs seemed to show a clip holding Duncan’s ectoplasm in place. Following this first séance, Duncan’s run of misfortune continued. Her fourth sitting for Price was her last — and it marked a dramatic end.
This time, Price’s penchant for picturing mediums went a step further: he brought in x-ray equipment to see inside Helen. If, as he suspected, Helen was a fraud, x-ray photography would expose her by showing that she had swallowed cheesecloth to regurgitate as ‘ectoplasm.’ If not, she was in the clear. Mid-séance, however, Duncan stopped proceedings. Agitated, she ran screaming to the bathroom, resisting efforts to calm her. With the attendees in hot pursuit, she rushed outside, where she eventually calmed down — but not before surreptitiously passing something to her husband, Henry. Back inside, she submitted to the x-ray, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, revealed nothing. Helen was finished with Harry, but his efforts to expose her were not over. He went on to publish his photographs in a defamatory book – for Price, photography exposed the medium.
Winding Up a Witch
Having cost the London psychical societies around £500 (approximately £34,200 today) in investigations, the Duncans headed for home. Being an expensive medium doesn’t make you a witch, though, so let’s now come full circle, from medium to witch. Despite the scepticism of London’s psychical researchers, Helen continued working as a medium. Whether or not she was a fraud, there was some truth in Helen’s séances — fatal truth during a 1941 séance in Portsmouth. Duncan revealed the sinking of the HMS Barham, but only the families of those lost had been informed, which made it something of a national secret.
Arrested mid-séance, Helen was initially (and bizarrely) charged under the Vagrancy Act, but her crime was perceived as more serious than that. What if she revealed more? Duncan posed a threat, a threat dealt with using the 1735 Witchcraft Act for the last time. The Act outlawed fraudulent spiritualism, and with this she was charged. Imprisoned under witchcraft law, Helen Duncan became known as Scotland’s last witch — a witch by criminal conviction. But how can authorities become so convinced of a woman’s deception as to invoke obscure witchcraft law? The photographs and conclusions contained in Harry Price’s book — Regurgitation and the Duncan Mediumship — certainly helped.
Written by Grace Exley and is a Part III History and Philosophy of Science student at Murray Edwards College.
Image: Ectoplasm, Cambridge Digital Library: MS SPR Mediums/Duncan/Ectoplasm. Licensed under CC BY-NC. Background image from pixabay.com.