On a dreary November night in 1941, a woman sits alone on a stage in a spiritual church in Portsmouth. Dressed in black silk and her head lolling forward, she is watched eagerly by a small crowd of eager spectators in complete silence. Suddenly there is a movement; a white, ghostly figure rises up, dressed in a sailors cap reading ‘HMS Barham’. It moves purposely towards a young woman in the audience. It hovers before her and begins to speak in a soft, low voice: “Sorry sweetheart,” it utters. “My ship sank in the Mediterranean. I’ve crossed over to the other side.”
This was not an unusual event. As war claimed more and more British lives, many distressed relatives turned to spiritualism to ease their pain, with some 50,000 séance circles popping up all over Britain.
However, this séance was different. Nobody but government officials should have known about the sinking of the HMS Barham. It was classified information. The news of a spiritualist having knowledge of this sensitive information soon caught the attention of far more than desperate widows eager to connect with their lost husbands. The single utterance that this ‘vision’ had spoken would turn a woman’s life upside down and prompt a trial so sensational that it would involve not only her devotees and skeptics, but also the British government itself.
Victoria Helen Duncan had earned the nickname ‘Hellish Nell’ in her youth. Thanks to her stubborn and fiery personality, as well as her tomboy tendencies and claims she witnessed ghoulish visions, she stuck out like a sore thumb in her quiet Highland village. Her own mother had tried time and time again to force her daughter to dismiss these silly thoughts of ghostly apparitions, but Nell was adamant – ghosts were real, and she saw them frequently. She had the gift, she was convinced of it.
It wasn’t until many years later when she met her husband, Henry Duncan, that Nell began to use her gift to conduct séances. Struggling desperately for money, with six children to feed, Henry encouraged and persuaded his wife to turn her peculiar talent into financial gain. She quickly became popular, so popular in fact that her husband was able to fully devote his time into accompanying his wife on her travels across the country, serving as her aide. By the late 1920s she had become one of the most famous mediums in the country.
People from far and wide appealed for Nell’s services, and this was largely thanks to the amazing and shocking sights seen at her séances.
Her séances always began with those involved invited to examine her naked body. Nell would sit, or stand if asked, to confirm that she wasn’t hiding any scrap of material that might enable her to fake her powers. Once the spectators were satisfied, she would dress herself in her black silk séance dress and take her place on a makeshift stage. There she would fall into a trance and undergo a metamorphosis into various spirit guides.
There was Albert – a well-traveled and well-spoken Englishman, and Penny, an upbeat and lively child, all very different from the shy Scottish woman with an accent so thick some struggled to understand it. These spirit guides would then reunite the sitters with their loved ones. Most remarkable of all was the existence of ‘ectoplasm’, this mysterious slimy white substance would allegedly take the form of deceased humans with remarkable likeness and human features.
Such alarming and incredible sights soon caught the attention of skeptics as well as believers. In 1928, a photographer called Harvey Metcalfe photographed séances conducted by Duncan. In the dimly lit room he used flash photography to capture the alleged spirit of Peggy and the strange ectoplasm. What they revealed instead were peculiar dolls comprised of paper mache faces and old sheets. Concerned by the images, in 1931 the London Spiritualist Alliance examined samples of Nell’s ectoplasm and determined it to be nothing more than cheesecloth, paper and egg white.
To put the final nail in her spiritual coffin, one of her séances was infiltrated by an undercover policewoman. When ‘Peggy’ appeared, the policewoman made a grab for the spirit and found herself with a handful of white underwear. Duncan was convicted of fraud and fined £10. Hellish Nell, it seemed, was a fake.
However, her fans were adamant. Nell had knowledge of their lives and loved ones that she couldn’t possibly know – how was it she was able to produce voices so unlike her own that the spirits spoke in?
Nell continued to be in high demand and it was her devotees’ firm belief in her skills that attracted Harry Price, a psychical researcher, to the case. Price was acclaimed for his investigations into psychical phenomena but was not purposely out to disprove mediums. In fact, he had certified many mediums who he deemed to be genuine and now he was eager to investigate Nell more closely.
Price paid Nell £50 for a chance to examine her under scientific conditions. Price suspected that Nell swallowed the cheesecloth prior to the séance and then regurgitated it, thereby producing ectoplasm. Upon being faced with an x-ray machine, Nell fell into a hysterical state. Although her husband attempted to soothe her worries, she screamed and punched him hard in the face.
She also made a swing for a doctor who was present before rushing out of the door. She tripped and tore her black satin gown to shreds as she ran, now almost entirely naked, down the steps and fell to her knees. She clutched the iron railings outside of the building, screaming and sobbing into the night. Her husband attempted to pacify her as a crowd formed but it wasn’t until the police arrived that she finally calmed and asked to be x-rayed. Suspicious that she had passed the cheesecloth to her husband, Price demanded he turned out his pockets, but he refused – nulling the experiment.
Finally Nell agreed to a controlled experiment where the researchers would be allowed to take a sample of the ectoplasm. Eager to confirm his suspicions and put all the drama to rest, Price agreed and summed up the events as follows:
“The sight of half a dozen men, each with a pair of scissors waiting for the word, was amusing. It came and we all jumped. One of the doctors got hold of the stuff and secured a piece. The medium screamed and the rest of the “teleplasm” went down her throat. This time it wasn’t cheese-cloth. It proved to be paper, soaked in white of egg, and folded into a flattened tube… Could anything be more infantile than a group of grown-up men wasting time, money, and energy on the antics of a fat female crook.”
This conclusion had no effect at all on Nell’s adoring public, and with the outbreak of World War II she was in greater demand than ever. Except now it wasn’t just psychical researchers who were interested in her – but the police and government.
After her HMS Barham prediction in 1941, Nell was being watched very closely, and in 1944 a séance she was conducting was raided by the police. A policeman had hid himself amongst the spectators, blew a whistle and his colleagues streamed into the room. They all made grabs for the ectoplasm, but in the panic it escaped their grasps. The room was searched but they found absolutely nothing. This didn’t seem to matter, Nell had pushed her luck for long enough. She was arrested and taken to Portsmouth Magistrates’ Court on charges of conspiracy.
But it was an altogether different charge placed against Nell that drew the attention of the country to the case. When the case was transferred to the central criminal courts, it was the Witchcraft Act of 1735 that was cited. Rather than accusing Nell of actually being a witch, and adding any credibility to her act, this ancient act accused Helen of purporting to have the powers of a witch. Regardless of the details, the public was hooked – a witch trial in 1940s Britain? It seemed too unbelievable to be true. Even Churchill became wrapped up in the trial, angrily penning the below note:
Let me have a report on why the Witchcraft Act of 1735 was used in a modern Court of Justice.
What was the cost of the trial to the state, observing that witnesses were brought from Portsmouth and maintained here in this crowded London for a fortnight, and the Recorder [His Lordship Sir Gerald Dodson] kept busy with all this obsolete tomfoolery.”
Witness after witness was brought out from Nell’s circle of faithful, passionately adamant that her abilities were real, and that she had brought relief to their suffering. They claimed to have witnessed not crudely created paper mache masks, but their actual loved ones, emerging out of the darkness as if they were still alive.
It was maintained repeatedly by the defence that it would be impossible for Nell to regurgitate the great amount of cheesecloth allegedly produced. But Nell’s own history was against her – the photos taken some 20 years previously, as well as Harry Price, reared their ugly heads for the prosecution. The ectoplasm in the photos looked almost comically fake, the alleged ‘faces’ were either belonging to dolls or had been cut out of magazines, and a hat bearing the name ‘HMS Barham’ was discovered in Nell’s possessions.
An offer for Nell to perform a live séance from the defendant’s dock was rejected by the judge and jury. It seemed that such a show was unnecessary. As the trial reconvened for the verdict, the judge maintained that the verdict was not concerned with whether “genuine manifestations of the kind are possible… this court has nothing to do with such abstract questions. The jury has found this to be a case of plain dishonesty.” Nell was found guilty and sentenced to nine months in prison.
Completely horrified from the verdict, Nell moaned, groaned, sobbed, “I have done nothing; is there a god?” then crashed to the floor in a faint.
Although she promised to stop conducting séances upon her release, the spiritualist community’s faith remained strong and she was arrested later in 1956 during another séance. However, this time she was released when no evidence of fraud was discovered. She died later that year, and some time after that her husband admitted to seeing his wife swallow items before her séances, while Duncan’s personal maid also maintained that she had purchased multiple lengths of cheesecloth for her mistress.
The mystery of the HMS Barham was finally solved when a leak was identified in the form of the secretary to the First Lord uttering details to the Ministry of Economic Warfare.
Nell’s conviction contributed greatly to the repeal of the Witchcraft Act of 1735 in 1951, which was replaced by the Fraudulent Medium’s Act. Although to many Hellish Nell is now the poster woman for fake mediums, taking advantage of others pain for financial gain, to her followers Nell was a martyr of the movement. Even today her devotees and ancestors campaign to clear her name of the conviction that has branded her ‘Britain’s last witch’.
- The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women: From the Earliest Times to 2004, Elizabeth Ewan, Sue Innes, Sian Reynolds
- The Strange Case of Hellish Nell: The Story of Helen Duncan and the Witch Trial of World War II, Nina Shandler
- Mystic Apprentice Volume 5: Psychic Skills, Ken Ludden
- Harry Price: The Biography of a Ghosthunter, Paul Tabori