SHE is often called Britain’s last witch, but Scottish medium Helen Duncan was nothing of the sort. Instead she was merely a fraudster apart from one extraordinary phenomenon that still has not been explained fully.

In 1944, Hellish Nell, as she became known, was indeed the last woman to be sent to prison for a breach of the Witchcraft Act of 1735, but she was no witch because that Act was brought in to stop people pretending to be witches and mediums.

Duncan wasn’t even a particularly good medium – the way she earned her living was to hold seances and charge plenty for her services, but she was rumbled several times as a fraud.

Nor was she the last person convicted under the 1753 Act – now repealed and replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951 – because in fact three other people were on trial alongside her and one of them was sent to prison, too. Yet somehow the “last witch” nickname has stuck, though records clearly show that some months after her trial and imprisonment in September 1944, one Jane York, 72, from Forest Gate, East London, was charged under the same act with seven counts of pretending to conjure up spirits of the dead. Incredibly, York was simply bound over for the sum of £5 to be of good behaviour for three years.

Ah, but that happened after D-Day, and there is no question when you examine the evidence that the authorities wanted to make an example of Helen Duncan and put her away for the summer of 1944. We will see why.

Helen Duncan was born Victoria Helen MacFarlane in Callander in Perthshire on November 25, 1897. From an early age her own family saw her as fey, and her mother was mortified when the child’s behaviour became impossible – she would predict doom and destruction for all sorts of people and was given to outbursts of hysteria.

Her early life was otherwise normal. She moved to Dundee and worked at the Royal Infirmary where she met Henry Edward Duncan, a wounded war veteran and a cabinet maker. They were married in 1916, and Duncan would eventually have six children by Henry who saw a great way of making money from his wife’s talents in clairvoyance – she read tea leaves and made predictions and earned a few shillings for doing so.

By 1926 she had become a fully-fledged medium giving seances during a time when spiritualism was all the rage. Moving to Edinburgh, her seances were soon the talk of the town – even the ghost of that local man turned Sherlock Holmes creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a great believer in spiritualism, was said to have materialised at sittings.

A prominent feature of her seances was her apparent ability to produce “ectoplasm” from her mouth during her trances when she was transformed into her spirit partners Albert or Peggy, a young girl whose voices “spoke” through Duncan. She had grown quite obese and the contrast between this 20-stone woman and the childish voices was part of the reason why people believed in her.

It was at a seance in January 1933 that Peggy emerged in the seance room and a sitter named Esson Maule grabbed her. The lights were turned on and the spirit was revealed to be made of a cloth undervest which used as evidence that led to Duncan’s conviction on the Scottish offence of fraud at Edinburgh Sheriff Court in May 1933.

The conviction does not seem to have harmed her career. Duncan was by then making a good living by conducting seances throughout Britain at which “the spirits of the dead were alleged to have appeared, sometimes talking to and even touching their relatives”.

But there were suspicions about her. Renee Haynes in The Society for Psychical Research 1882–1982: A History recalled: “The London Spiritualist Alliance had 50 sittings with her between October 1930 and June 1931; for these sittings she was stripped, searched and dressed in ‘seance garments’. Two interim reports in Light were favourable, a third found indications of fraud. Pieces of ‘ectoplasm’ found from time to time differed in composition. Two early specimens consisted of paper or cloth mixed with something like white of egg. Two others were pads of surgical gauze soaked in ‘a resinous fluid’; yet another consisted of layers of lavatory paper stuck together. The most usual material for ‘ectoplasm’ however, seemed to be butter muslin or cheesecloth, probably swallowed and regurgitated. Distressing choking noises were sometimes heard from within the cabinet; and it was interesting that when she was persuaded to swallow a tablet of methylene blue before one of the seances at the London Spiritualist Alliance, no ectoplasm whatsoever appeared.”

She also refused to be X-rayed or allow infra red photography which was then in its infancy.

During World War Two, the Duncans lived in Portsmouth, headquarters of the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet, and this is when something seriously unusual happened.

At one of her seances a “sailor” appeared announcing that he had just gone down with the battleship HMS Barham. The Portsmouth-based Barham was sunk by a German submarine on 25 November 1941, with the loss of 859 of her crew, but the sinking had been made a state secret to hoodwink the Nazis and keep morale. You can see its loss on Youtube.

Word of Duncan’s amazing revelation got to the police and intelligence services. It was all very harmless, really, but an even bigger secret needed to be kept – the destination of the D-Day landings.

On 19 January 1944, police attended one of her seances and pounced on the evidence. Duncan was originally charged under section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824, under which most charges relating to fortune-telling, astrology and spiritualism were prosecuted at that time.

Yet the Crown decided to throw the book at Duncan and her co-accused sending her to be tried by jury at the Old Bailey for contravening section 4 of the Witchcraft Act 1735, which carried the heavier penalty of a prison sentence.

The court record says it all: “Helen Duncan is a professional medium, who was engaged at a substantial fee to give a series of seances in a registered church or temple, as it was called, at 301 Copnor Road, Portsmouth, maintained by Ernest Homer over a chemist’s shop which he had kept for many years. Elizabeth Christine Jones, known as Mrs Homer, lived with him, and had done so for some twenty-five years. Frances Brown assisted Duncan and acted as her booking agent.”

Again from the court records: “The case for the Prosecution was that the whole performance was an elaborate pretence, a fraudulent performance, a mere imposition on human credulity.”

It was a fair cop – the witnesses were impeccable, and the evidence for the jury was of “a pretence that so-called materialisations, which were in fact produced by means of fraudulent devices and apparatus, were of a different nature altogether.”

The jury had no trouble in convicting her. Portsmouth’s chief of police, Arthur Charles West, then gave a speech which sent her to prison for nine months.

“This is a case where not only has she attempted and succeeded in deluding confirmed believers in Spiritualism, but she has tricked, defrauded and preyed upon the minds of a certain credulous section of the public who have gone to these meetings in search of comfort of mind in their sorrow and grief. I can only describe this woman as an unmitigated humbug who can only be regarded as a pest to a certain section of society.”

A few years ago Graham Hewitt, who began fighting for a pardon for Duncan, said: “She was tried under an old piece of legislation that shouldn’t have been used at the time and advice had been issued by the Director of Public Prosecutions that alternatives were available.

“Winston Churchill even described the whole episode as ‘obsolete tomfoolery’ in a memo to the then Home Secretary Herbert Morrison.

“She was viewed as a potential threat by the authorities back then. They feared what she was telling people might lead to a crisis in the security services or to soldiers defecting.”

Academic and filmmaker Robert Hartley agreed: “In the run-up to D-Day, the authorities were paranoid about potential security leaks and Duncan was in danger of disclosing military secrets during her seances. Helen Duncan was giving out very accurate information. There were other mediums round the country giving out news on soldiers that had died and someone in authority took it seriously, whatever the source of the information. D-Day was coming up and it was absolutely essential to keep the Allied deception plans intact.”

Duncan’s appeal against conviction failed, she served her time and left prison to carry on much as before only now with people believing she really was a witch. Well, she had the conviction, didn’t she? She died in Edinburgh in 1956 at the age of 59.

To this day people still argue about her, especially spiritualists. Many want her pardoned because of the excessive sentence and it does seem that the British state is taking a very heavy-handed attitude to her.

Here is what the Home Office said to a petition for a free pardon: “It is extremely rare for the Home Secretary to use his power to recommend a posthumous Free Pardon.

“In modern times, only one such Pardon has been recommended.

“It would also be particularly difficult to apply current knowledge, morality and other criteria to events, which took place some fifty years ago.”

So no pardon for the ‘last witch’ that wasn’t.

One final note. If you Google Helen Duncan you’ll find an official Helen Duncan website. As of yesterday it stated “this account has been suspended”.

Spooky, eh? Or did somebody just not pay the bill…