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
Dukes, Sir Paul Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
the reach of the medium were observed. As a means of control
the medium was placed nude into a sleeved sack with stiff buckram
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
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 Research.
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. Photographs
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,