Extraordinary Trials (excerpts)



The predictions of witches, who claimed to be conferring with the dead; which is called “necromancy,” “conjuring,” and “witchcraft,” but is really just trickery and conspiracy to defraud.

—Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

It was the spring of 1944 and just outside Portsmouth city center in a nondescript suburban street of no historic charm, the flat above a drugstore became the unlikely stage for an extraordinary legal event. It was here that two worlds would sensationally collide. Determined to apprehend renowned Scottish physical medium, and suspected cheat, Helen Duncan, Police Constable Rupert Cross of the wartime reserve lunged at his quarry mid-séance. The constable’s well-intentioned efforts proved to be a bungled attempt at seizing some damning evidence of fraud. The mission objective was uncomplicated: to surprise and defrock the suspect in flagrante, counterfeiting spirits of the dearly departed for pounds, shillings, and pence. That was the plan, plain and simple.

With an ear-splitting blast from his whistle, PC Cross pounced on his target; there was a confused scuffle and general commotion that left Mrs. Duncan sprawled over an upturned chair. The alleged perpetrator was bewildered, distressed, and disheveled, but there was no tangible evidence of criminality. The white muslin sheet in which she had surely cloaked herself to impersonate the dead slipped through the clutches of the earnest policeman, leaving the poor man to attempt to explain this frustrating conundrum for the rest of his natural life (and perhaps beyond, if you believe in such things).

News of this Keystone Cops escapade was sufficiently theatrical to turn a captivated audience from the dreadful reality of war to a bizarre sideshow that played itself out in the solemn chambers of the Old Bailey. The trial provided rich pickings for the tabloids and no doubt some welcome relief from the daily intensity of war news. Mrs. Duncan and three others were charged with an offense that people in the age of modernity scarcely believed still existed, and it “startled readers and radio-listeners all over the world: they had run afoul of the Witchcraft Act of 1735. It seemed, to put it mildly, an anachronism. Unusual, indeed fantastic, as were some of the incidents (and much of the evidence) at the trial.”

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Some history of witchcraft & the acts of England


Around 2100 BC, Ur-Nammu, the conquering king and ruler of the city-state of Ur in Sumer (a southern region of Mesopotamia near the mouth of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers), left his judicial legacy inscribed on fragmented clay tablets in the wedge-shaped script known as cuneiform.

Then did Ur-Nammu the mighty warrior, king of Ur, king of Sumer and Akkad, by the might of Nanna, lord of the city, and in accordance with the true word of Utu, establish equity in the land; he banished malediction, violence and strife. (Finklestein 1968/1969)

These tablets were discovered in the mid-twentieth century and are considered to be the oldest example of a written legal code in existence. Among the various prescriptions for dealing with society’s ills, the evils of sorcery elicited particularly severe consideration. Renowned Assyriologist Samuel Noah Kramer noted, “The laws themselves probably began on the reverse of the tablets and are so badly damaged that only the contents of five of them can be restored with some degree of certainty. One of them deals with an accusation of witchcraft and involves a trial by the water ordeal.” (1963)

That this law has survived in one form or another throughout four thousand years of civilization—longer even than the monumental wonders of those early civilizations—is a strong indicator of its indispensability....

...[T]here was a firm precedent for the treatment of sorcery stretching from ancient Mesopotamia, wending its way through the millennia, across continents and into the voluminous law books of Europe, and by extension, into the New World.


Medieval Catholics, like the Romans, occasionally faced an unprecedented challenge to their self-appointed patriarchy (not to mention their manhood) during the conflicts that raged between France and England from 1337 to 1453, a period of attrition so relentless it earned the notorious title of the Hundred Years’ War. By now the vestal institution was replaced with a mere will-o’-the-wisp of an idea, an icon to the immaculate motherhood of Christ. The eternal fires of pagan Delphi and Vesta were by now a flickering candle in the draughty chapels of Christendom; that is, until Joan of Arc upset the natural order. The teenage French peasant embodied the ferocity of Boudica, the prophetic powers of the Pythia, and the sanctity of the Virgin Mary all rolled into a variation of the holy trinity. No guesses where she ended up—the fires were burning once again, except this time the virgin was in it. It took another half a millennium of Catholic soul-searching to canonize the most troublesome witch of them all in 1920, just around the time the women’s suffrage movement was gaining traction in the West.

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Occult & espionage

Here there be monsters

Not only do “loose lips sink ships,” they disclose sunken ones, too. King James took particular exception to information ascertained through unnatural channels: “To carrie them newes from anie parte of the worlde, which the agilitie of a Spirite may easelie performe: to reueale to them the secretes of anie persons, so being they bee once spoken, for the thought none knows.” (James I 1597) This is a phenomenon the author and Spiritualist, Arthur Conan Doyle, would later clarify as “travelling clairvoyance, where the soul appears to leave the body, to acquire information at a distance, and to return with news of what is occurring elsewhere.” Apparently, Mrs. Duncan wasn’t the first medium to find herself at odds with the authorities over this kind of revelation. Conan Doyle recorded many years earlier, in his volumes on the history of Spiritualism, the eerily similar case of Mrs. Hardinge Britten, an English Spiritualist described as the “St. Paul of the Movement,” who in 1856 found herself the subject of the most intense scrutiny: “She soon discovered that she was herself a powerful medium, and one of the best attested and most sensational cases in the early history of the movement was that in which she received intimation that the mail steamer PACIFIC had gone down in mid-Atlantic with all souls, and was threatened with prosecution by the owners of the boat for repeating what had been told her by the returning spirit of one of the crew. The information proved to be only too true, and the vessel was never heard of again.” (Doyle 1926)

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Some history of Spiritualism

“I do believe in fairies, I do, I do!”

Plurality of faith is the bedrock of American society. Max Weber, the German sociologist, points to the local community church as being of paramount importance historically to the discipline and, therefore, to the economic well-being of the parishioners, as well as attending to their spiritual requirements. The pursuit of religious freedom is what drove the early settlers to undertake the Atlantic voyage and brave the difficulties of a new life in the wilderness. Their faith bound them together; in the absence of a social contract and the “protection” afforded by a state, it meant survival. In keeping with the liberty of such practices, Ruth Brandon writes: “One great good which Spiritualism had accomplished was to destroy all faith in prescription and authority, and throw men back on their own investigations. Certainly spiritualism rendered heaven utterly democratic and accessible to all in a way which appealed to the American view of things. And this accessibility extended to far more than free entry into heaven.” (Brandon 1983)

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Some history of Mrs. Duncan

Medium rare

A physical medium—crooked or otherwise—could capture a susceptible audience like no other. To a clever and unscrupulous medium, a hopeful sitter would be putty in their hands. No matinee idol, priest or demagogue could satisfy such an elemental and abiding human need: to enable one to talk to, touch, and even kiss one who was thought lost forever, whose most tangible memory hitherto was a fading photograph in a static frame on a mantelpiece—this was a rich and empowering gift indeed. A photograph is only a memento mori, a dead-end attachment, a nagging reminder of what has gone forever, but to be reacquainted with ancestors, or the beloved, is an ancient human requirement and its manifestation, a miracle....

The seen, the unseen, and the in-between

...This was such a remarkable séance to me. I had to wait for some time.... Well, the séance took place. There were ten chosen sitters…. We were all trained observers; we were all professional or business men, who said the séance was a disappointing one, for at the last minute Mrs. Duncan said, in a word, that she would not sit unless her two friends,… with whom she had come, were to sit at the séance also. That seemed to upset the conditions and the manifestations that took place were not satisfactory and we were all disappointed; but at the last, just when we thought it was over, the curtains opened once more, and I saw before me the living form—the living form!—of a young lady aged twenty-one. Her name was Helen [not Duncan] to me, and she was the first sweetheart that I had ever had, and therefore I knew her. I knew her absolutely. She put up her hand to me, and waved in exactly the same way that she waved when I took her to her last social. She stood on the stairs, half-way up, and waved me away. She stood there dressed in a white flowing robe, and over that white flowing robe was a fine curtain of net. I was so astonished that I stood up in my seat, which I ought not to have done, and I called out to my wife at the other end of the room, and I said to her, “Why, it’s Helen; it’s Helen.” The girl did not come to me direct, she came right round the room from left to right, and she stood before me, a living, palpitating woman. The same hair that I knew so well, dark and ruddy; the same eyes, hazel; they shone with animation; her face, the same ivory pallor on her cheeks. I said as I looked at her, “Well, I am glad to see you. I am glad. I was only talking about you last night.” (Roberts and Normanton 1945)....

Harry Price: Ghost Hunter

After negotiating a fee with her husband Henry, the famous paranormal investigator Harry Price finally got hold of Mrs. Duncan and photographed her “teleplasmic” emanations under strict conditions. He was never going to be satisfied however, until he had turned her completely inside out in a manner reminiscent of the inquisitors from darker times. She was subjected to intrusive physical examinations by professional men in an environment more clinical than she was used to, where she was treated more like a lab specimen than a fellow human being....

...“I suppose it is generally admitted that the Commandment which is most frequently broken is the first. The miser makes money his god; the bibliolater worships his books; the politician lives for power, the soldier for glory, the actor for applause, etc. But strangest of all are those infatuated people who worship strips of cheese-cloth when these are served up with hymns, garnished with prayers, and dangled before their eyes in the dim, religious light of the séance-room.” (Price 1933)

...Stage actors fluff their lines, singers sing off key, jokes bomb, orgasms are faked, and even some of her staunchest supporters suggested that Helen occasionally may have improvised when fatigue took over. Whatever the truth of it, performing “wonders” could be as dreary an occupation as any other.

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Rex v. Duncan—the trial and the error

The event that finally brought the Crown’s judgment down upon four conspirators engaged in a pretense to conjure spirits of the dead for the benefit of a roomful of hopeful clients couldn’t have been a crime more comprehensively witnessed.

Now, members of the jury, these four persons are charged with conspiring together to pretend that through the agency of the accused woman, Mrs. Duncan, spirits of deceased persons should appear to be present, and if Mrs. Duncan, by going into a trance or simulating a trance, pretended to hold communion with spirits, that is the kind of conjuration referred to in the statute to which reference has been made. Conspiracy is an agreement between two or more persons to do an unlawful act; the act of pretending to use and the emphasis is upon the word “pretend” a kind of conjuration, is an unlawful act because it is so made by that Act of Parliament, and the offence here, if offence there be, is committed as soon as there is an agreement together to pretend to do this kind of thing. That is the charge against them, and they are also charged, not merely with agreeing to do it, but with each of them specifically pretending, taking a part in the common purpose or design of pretending to do this kind of thing.
THE RECORDER. (Roberts and Normanton 1945)

Some thirty witnesses who sat in rapt attention observed the offense, albeit in half-light. Despite the overwhelming number of witnesses contradicting the prosecution and the absence of material evidence, the jury convicted the defendants. The jurors dismissed the credibility of the majority of the observers—witnesses, it has to be said, from a diverse cross section of society who were freely testifying; indeed, going out of their way to defend the accused.

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The Old Bailey was rebuilt after the Great Fire in 1666, fifty years before the appearance of the Witchcraft Act under which Helen Duncan and her associates were prosecuted. The aging venue was a poignant reminder of just how ancient the quarrel was between the establishment and the auld enemy—the invocateur spiritum—but also how seemingly disconnected, in a surreal sense, from the cataclysmic events happening outside. By the time of Rex v. Duncan, Einstein’s general theory of relativity had been around for nearly thirty years, two years before Max Planck won a Nobel prize for his work in quantum mechanics; the theories of Sigmund Freud were old hat and nearly two decades had passed since women had attained equal voting rights as men. This trial revolved around the contravention of a witchcraft statute that sounded more medieval than it really was; in fact it was a law drafted in the era of Enlightenment that focused exclusively upon prosecuting those who would defraud the ignorant and gullible for profit or advantage (but not those who espoused the Nativity and the miracles of Christ). Medieval or not, factually possible or not, witchcraft was a recurring legal matter through the centuries....

Dancing on the head of a pin

...The Church of England commissioned a report in 1937 to formulate a position regarding the Spiritualist movement, which had become undeniably influential. Two years were spent studying the phenomenon and an in-depth investigation revealed some surprisingly thoughtful conclusions. Although there was negative criticism directed at Spiritualist practice (most of it was quite sensible; even favorable in parts), there was also some honest introspection. The overall tone of the report seems to suggest some of the old animosity had dissipated, indicating a shift in the triadic relationship away from science and closer to Spiritualism. The authorities now viewed the scientific insistence upon the manner in which evidence was adduced (by rigorously objective criteria) to be so strict they couldn’t seem to acknowledge even the very possibility of certain experiences no matter how vehemently a subject attested to it. The authors of the report saw this not only as a threat to the credibility of Spiritualism, but were forced to recognize the concomitant threat to the metaphysical foundations of the Church of England itself…

But the tests applied by scientists as such are in their very nature experimental, objective and impersonal.

It is necessary to ask whether such tests do not in themselves invalidate an inquiry into values which are in essence personal and spiritual.

The experiences which many people have found most convincing are of a kind which could hardly occur in the atmosphere of scientific investigation. They are sporadic, occasional and highly individual. They could not possibly be repeated or submitted to statistical analysis.

It is worthwhile to notice in this connection that in the ordinary affairs and beliefs of human life we do not ask for scientific verification of this kind. We accept many things as certain in the realm of personal relationships upon the basis of direct insight.

When we say that we know our friends, we mean something very different from saying that we can give a scientific and verifiable account of them. But we are none the less sure of our knowledge. Similar certainties are to be found in the sphere of mystical experience.

It may well be that in this matter of the evidence of the survival of the human personality after death, we are dependent exactly upon this same kind of insight, and that a scientific verification, though valuable where it can he obtained, is of secondary importance, and only partially relevant.

And this is precisely the situation in which we find ourselves in our assurance of Christianity itself. “We walk by faith, and not by sight.”

It is thus a weakness, rather than a strength, in the Spiritualist position that it has been represented as resting upon scientific verification. If rigid scientific methods are applied it is probable that verification will never be attained. (Church of England 1937)

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The Iron Curtain

...In an effort to influence the jury, the court may have insinuated that Helen Duncan’s paranormal abilities were implausible, but the wider establishment was more than likely less skeptical; indeed, the authorities were even given to employing psychics of their own, according to some sources....

Crossing over

During the nine months she spent in Holloway Prison, there were no reports of paranormal manifestations issuing from Helen Duncan. Some say she did however apply her skills as a clairvoyant, and some say she looked slimmer and healthier on release. After promising not to resume her psychic activities, Mrs. Duncan slipped into old habits and was raided by the police for the last time on October 28, 1956 in West Bridgford, Nottingham, in what you might imagine was a more skillfully executed operation than the earlier escapade. Any description or physical evidence of the raid is now difficult to come by; there were police photographs, but they are said to be inconclusive, there is little mention of any props or devices that would assist the medium in simulating conjuration, or “fraudulence,” as it was then more properly called. In any case, five weeks after the raid Helen Duncan died in Edinburgh before any formal prosecution could be brought against her. The stress on a person in her poor physical condition probably played a role in her demise. The establishment was rid of one less nuisance and the bother of yet another cause célèbre.

Parliament must have had concerns regarding the awkwardness and outcome of Mrs. Duncan’s trial, because a reexamination of the Witchcraft Act of 1735 led to its repeal in 1951 in favor of the Fraudulent Medium Act.

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