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Helen Duncan

('Hellish Nell')

1897 - 1956

Spiritualist, medium and the last person to be imprisoned for witchcraft in Britain. Born in Callander, the daughter of a cabinet-maker. Duncan travelled the country, holding regular seances. Particularly during World War II, she claimed to make regular contact with servicemen who had been killed. Two incidents brought her to official notice. First, in 1941 during a seance in Edinburgh, she claimed the battleship HMS Hood had just been sunk. A military intelligence officer, who had been present at the seance, checked and found this was indeed true. In 1944, she spoke with a deceased sailor from HMS Barham and revealed it had been sunk in the Mediterranean, although this fact was not released by the War Office until months later.

In 1944, having been arrested in Portsmouth, Duncan was brought to trial at the Old Bailey (London) and became the last person to be imprisoned under the Witchcraft Act of 1735. After a seven-day trial, she was sentenced to nine months in London's Holloway Prison, effectively for fraudulent mis-representation and causing a public nuisance. The severity of the sentence was undoubtedly because of official paranoia that details of the forthcoming D-Day landings could be discovered. As a result of the case, the Witchcraft Acts were finally repealed in 1951.

A bronze bust of Duncan, which was given to the town of Callander, still gives rise to controversy, with those with strong religious views objecting to its public display. Meanwhile, following press interest in the case, attempts are being made to secure a posthumous pardon (2001).

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