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Helen Duncan

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Helen Duncan
BornVictoria Helen MacFarlane
November 25, 1897
Callander, Perthshire
DiedDecember 6, 1956 (age 59)
Edinburgh, Scotland

Helen Duncan (1897 – 1956) was a Scottish medium best known as the last person to be imprisoned under the British Witchcraft Act of 1735. She was famous for producing fraudulent ectoplasm made from cheesecloth.


In 1928 the photographer Harvey Metcalfe attended a series of séances at the house of Duncan. During a séance he took various flash photographs of Duncan and her alleged "materialization" spirits including her spirit guide "Peggy". The photographs that were taken reveal the "spirits" to be fraudulently produced, such as a doll made from a painted papier-mâché mask draped in an old sheet.

In 1931, the London Spiritualist Alliance (LSA) examined Duncan's method. An early examination of pieces of Duncan's ectoplasm revealed it was made of cheesecloth, paper mixed with the white of egg and lavatory paper stuck together. One of Duncan's tricks was to swallow and regurgitate some of her ectoplasm, and she was persuaded to swallow a tablet of methylene blue before one of her séances by the LSA committee to rule out any chance of this trick being performed, and because of this no ectoplasm appeared. The committee in a report concluded that the "material was swallowed by Mrs Duncan at some time previous to the sitting and subsequently regurgitated by her for the purpose of exhibition."

Contrary to what some spiritualists have written there was nothing strange or unusual about the death of Duncan and it was not caused by her "trance" being disturbed by the police. Duncan's medical records showed that she had a long history of ill-health and as early as 1944 she was described as an obese woman who could only move slowly as she suffered from heart trouble.


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  • Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology, Vol. 1, (A-L), Duncan, Helen Victoria (1898–1956), page 460