Wartime Witchcraft? – The Strange Tale of Helen Duncan and the Sinking of HMS Barham

HMS Barham was torpedoed, capsized and exploded in the Mediterranean on Nov. 25, 1941. More than 800 sailors were killed in the disaster. How did a Scottish medium know of the sinking before it was disclosed by the military?

HMS Barham capsized and exploded after being torpedoed in the Mediterranean on Nov. 25, 1941. More than 800 sailors were killed in the disaster. The entire incident was classified. So how did a Scottish medium know of the sinking before it was revealed by the military? Some believed she learned of it through the spirits of those who perished on board.

“How was Duncan picking up on military secrets, the government wondered? Was she in contact with the enemy? Was she somehow receiving leaked information from inside the War Office? Or was she a witch?”

HELEN DUNCAN, 44, was hosting a séance in Portsmouth, England in November, 1941 when she stunned her audience with a disturbing announcement, one that she claimed had come to her via the spirit world. According to the Scotish-born clairvoyant and mother of six, the British battleship HMS Barham had just been sunk.

Helen Duncan was one of the last people to be convicted under Britain’s 1735 Witchcraft Act.

Helen Duncan was one of the last people to be convicted under Britain’s 1735 Witchcraft Act.

Her listeners were astounded by the news. After all, there had been no official reports of such a disaster and certainly nothing had been in the papers about an attack on the vessel. Yet amazingly the warship had in fact been destroyed on Nov. 25 in the Mediterranean following an encounter with the German submarine U-331. Moments after being torpedoed, the Barham’s powder magazine exploded, sending the stricken ship to the bottom along with more than 800 of its 1,100-man crew. The Royal Navy had kept the loss a closely guarded secret. The Admiralty feared that the news would damage civilian morale.

Duncan told her spellbound guests that the news was revealed to her by the spirit of one of the sailors who had gone down with the doomed ship.

Her revelation quickly spread, causing a stir throughout Portsmouth. It also grabbed the attention of British authorities. How was Duncan picking up on military secrets, the government wondered? Was she in contact with the enemy? Was she somehow receiving leaked information from inside the War Office? Or was she a witch?

Police arrested Duncan and charged her first with vagrancy (a catch-all misdemeanour in the U.K. at the time). Following a more in-depth investigation, the crown prosecuted Duncan using an obscure 200-year-old law known as the Witchcraft Act. In fact, Duncan was one of the last people in the British Isles ever to be convicted under the 1735 law. But while the wartime news media and the spiritualist community made much of Duncan’s case, the facts of the case were far less bizarre. The evidence overwhelming suggests that Duncan was little more than a run-of-the-mill huckster. In fact, at the time of her arrest she was already well known to the police as a scam artists.

She and her husband Henry had been exposed numerous times in the 1930s for conjuring up bogus spirits before a vast array of high-paying customers. Duncan’s detractors claimed that the couple had used a variety of time-honoured (and rather pedestrian) techniques to glean fragments of information about their clients prior to her sittings, which would then later be fantastically ‘revealed’ to the dupes during the sessions.

Duncan was also known for her eerie ability to produce a gooey and malleable supernatural substance from her mouth while entranced. The material, known as ectoplasm, was believed by some to be a conduit through which spirits could appear and even communicate with the living. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a number of famous mediums claimed to be able to produce the goop through bodily orifices. Once secreted, the wet mucus-like element would reportedly transform into the shape of spirits and, according to some, even animate. Probing skeptics invariably revealed that the miraculous matter was little more than a mixture of everyday items like paper mache, egg white or cheesecloth. The Duncans’ critics maintained as much. They believed Helen would swallow yards of moistened fabric prior to a séance and then regurgitate it while supposedly in a spellbound state. Prosecutors also alleged that her husband would take advantage of the darkness in the room to drape the wet fabric over dolls or other shapes in order to create the impression that the ectoplasm had magically taken human form.

In 1933, Duncan was exposed as a hoax and was even was jailed for a month following a conviction for larceny.

By 1941, the couple had relocated to Portsmouth where Helen began providing spiritual readings to locals, many of whom were desperate for any news of their loved ones serving in uniform. Although her pronouncement about the sinking of the Barham astounded her audience, it wasn’t an entirely unknown development in military circles. Although the government hoped to prevent word of the loss from reaching the wider public, the Royal Navy had in fact informed the next of kin of all deceased crew-members. There were literally hundreds of civilians in Portsmouth alone who were aware of the sinking. It’s likely that Duncan obtained news of the disaster through other clients or some back channel, after which she eagerly disclosed it.

Even the Crown’s prosecution of Duncan on charges of witchcraft are dramatic than it first appeared. The 18th Century law under which she was charged and later tried was not drafted to bring witches to justice (as one might imagine), but rather to make it an offense to claim magical powers. By 1944, prosecutors were keen to prevent Duncan from causing any more mischief and used the forgotten ordnance to do so.

Despite the ultimately underwhelming aspects of the case, the British media and public made much of the Duncan witchcraft trial. However, Prime Minister Churchill considered the fuss over the entire affair little more than “tomfoolery”.

The public commotion caused by the case eventually compelled the British government to revise and rename the Witchcraft Act to the Fraudulent Mediums Act in 1951.

Duncan was imprisoned for nine months following her conviction. She vowed upon release to cease and desist conducting séances. It was a commitment she would break. In 1956 she was again arrested for dabbling in the ‘supernatural’. She died several days later. Her supporters still claim that a police raid on her home that took place while she was entranced created a fatal physical and emotional strain on the spiritualist. Skeptics point out that Duncan was obese and in failing health at the time and more likely died of natural causes.

Despite this, the Duncan story endures. In 2010, the BBC broadcast a radio play about her entitled The Last Witch Trial and in recent years a public movement has sprung up to see her officially pardoned. The web is replete with sites that maintain Duncan was in fact a bonna fide medium that was unfairly targeted by authorities who feared her powers.

(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AUG. 14, 2014)

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