Helen Duncan

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Helen Duncan
Putting the psycho in
Icon psychic.svg
Men who stare at goats
By the powers of tinfoil

Helen Duncan (1897-1956) was a Scottish medium well known for producing fake ectoplasm made from cheesecloth and was the last person to be imprisoned under the British Witchcraft Act of 1735.


Duncan in a séance with fake spirits. Click to enlarge.

In 1928 during a séance Harvey Metcalfe took flashlight photographs of Duncan which reveal fraudulent ectoplasm "spirits" such as a doll made from a painted papier-mâché mask draped in an old sheet. In 1931 the London Spiritualist Alliance examined Duncan's mediumship and concluded she was a fraud. 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. Duncan refused to be investigated by the Society for Psychical Research, even claiming she wouldn't do it for a million pounds; however, she was investigated by some psychical researchers such as Harry Price.

One of Duncan's tricks was to swallow and regurgitate some of her ectoplasm and according to Haynes (1982) she was persuaded to swallow a tablet of methylene blue before one of her séances by the London Spiritualist Alliance to rule out any chance of this trick being performed and no ectoplasm appeared. An investigation by the psychical researcher Harry Price into the mediumship of Duncan revealed she was using natural substances such as cheesecloth and eggs mixed with paper as ectoplasm in her séances (see below). It has also been suggested by some researchers that Duncan achieved some of her tricks with the help of an accomplice. In 1933 at a séance in Scotland a little girl called Peggy emerged in the séance room, someone grabbed her and the lights were turned on and the spirit was revealed to be Duncan. She was prosecuted and fined £10. Later Duncan was caught cheating again, pretending to be a spirit in the séance room; this time Duncan and four of her traveling companions were prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to nine months in prison.

Harry Price investigation[edit]

Duncan with a roll of cheesecloth.

The psychical researcher Harry Price investigated Duncan at his laboratory and exposed her as a fraud in 1931. Because Duncan had been swallowing natural substances to regurgitate in the séance room for her ectoplasm, she declined to be X-rayed by some of the psychical researchers who investigated her, went out into the street and made a scene. According to Harry Price in a report of the mediumship of Duncan:

At the conclusion of the fourth séance we led the medium to a settee and called for the apparatus. At the sight of it, the lady promptly went into a trance. She recovered, but refused to be X-rayed. Her husband went up to her and told her it was painless. She jumped up and gave him a smashing blow on the face which sent him reeling. Then she went for Dr. William Brown who was present. He dodged the blow. Mrs. Duncan, without the slightest warning, dashed out into the street, had an attack of hysteria and began to tear her séance garment to pieces. She clutched the railings and screamed and screamed. Her husband tried to pacify her. It was useless. I leave the reader to visualize the scene. A seventeen-stone woman, clad in black sateen tights, locked to the railings, screaming at the top of her voice. A crowd collected and the police arrived. The medical men with us explained the position and prevented them from fetching the ambulance. We got her back into the Laboratory and at once she demanded to be X-rayed. In reply, Dr. William Brown turned to Mr. Duncan and asked him to turn out his pockets. He refused and would not allow us to search him. There is no question that his wife had passed him the cheesecloth in the street. However, they gave us another séance and the "control" said we could cut off a piece of "teleplasm" when it appeared. 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 cheesecloth. 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?[1]

Harry Price and his team of investigators took many photographs of Duncan which revealed her fraudulent ectoplasm to be made from cheesecloth, rubber gloves and cut-out heads from magazine covers which she would pretend to her audience were spirits. Following the report written by Price, Duncan's former maid Mary McGinlay confessed in detail to having aided Duncan in her mediumship tricks, and Duncan's husband admitted that the ectoplasm materialisations were the result of regurgitation.


In 1956, the Nottingham police raided another of Duncan's séances and found evidence of fraud. She became ill and died after a month, 59 years old. Contrary to what spiritualists have written there was nothing odd about her death 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.[2]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  • Simeon Edmunds (1966) Spiritualism: A Critical Survey Aquarian Press.
  • Renée Haynes (1982) The Society for Psychical Research 1882-1982: A History London: MacDonald & Co.
  • Helena Normanton The Trial of Mrs. Duncan Edited with a Foreward by C. E. Bechhofer Roberts, Jarrolds Publishers, 1945.
  • Harry Price (1931) Regurgitation and the Duncan Mediumship (Bulletin I of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research, 120pp with 44 illustrations.)


  1. A report written by Harry Price on the mediumship of Helen Duncan in Paul Tabori The Art of Folly 1961
  2. Nothing unexplained about Helen Duncan