THE HELEN DUNCAN CASE
by Hannen Swaffer
In the fifth year of our war for freedom! - Orthodoxy was to arrest Helen Duncan, our best materialising medium, after submitting her to a physical examination that was indecent, refuse her a doctor until morning, ill with diabetes and suffering with shock though she was - and to invoke the Witchcraft Act of 1735. Orthodoxy was back to broomsticks!
While she was giving a séance at Portsmouth, a whistle was blown. Policemen rushed into the room, took part in a sort of Rugby scrum, and, because they could not find the white “sheet “- that is what they called the ectoplasm the medium had exuded - were childish enough to believe that she had swallowed it, or else that the sitters, who demanded in vain that they should be searched, had secreted it on their persons.
Baron Schrenck-Notzing, who spent many years on psychical research, had analysed ectoplasm. Dr. W. J. Crawford, of Queen’s University, Belfast, had weighed it, traced its flow - and even certified that one medium, while exuding it, lost 54 lbs. of weight!
Thousands of Spiritualists all over the globe knew it to be living matter, out of which they had seen built up solid spirit forms that walked about the room, talked with their earth relatives, had been photographed - Sir William Crookes took lots of photographs of a materialised “Katie King” which a member of his family destroyed after his funeral, although some of the pictures still survive - and played musical instruments.
But the Portsmouth police said it was a sheet! More, the Public Prosecutor’s department bought cheesecloth - and just because Harry Price, who had apparently forgotten that he once brought me a piece of ectoplasm which he said was cut from Mrs. Duncan’s body and which he had analysed, declared that her materialisations were cheesecloth which she had regurgitated.
So cheese-cloth, bought by Whitehall for Helen Duncan’s trial at the Old Bailey, was actually held up by Treasury counsel before every defence witness, each of whom was asked in turn, “Isn’t this what you saw?” Yes, this took place in 1944!
Did the Treasury, the Public Prosecutor, or the Home Office underling who afterwards boasted of his cleverness in remembering the Witchcraft Act know
that this Duncan prosecution would put every Spiritualist, every medium, and every psychical researcher in Britain in perpetual jeopardy? Someone must have known.
This is no attack on Spiritualism,” said Treasury counsel, time after time. The Recorder of London, who tried the case, stressed the same thing.
But the truth is that, since Helen Duncan’s conviction proved that mediumship of any kind is, in law, “a pretence at conjuring up spirits of dead persons,” public trance has been barred, in Altrincham, in a municipal hall - in case the town council were guilty of conspiracy! More, free speech on the subject is so barred that, when I wanted to address a meeting of protest in Altrincham, I had to do so in Sale, a neighbouring borough. No local minister who was approached would lend his chapel! “It is contrary to the teaching of our religion,” they said - or else dodged it.
When questions were asked about this in Parliament, the Home Secretary was truculent and defiant. When he said that it had been arranged that an address was to be given “by the spirit of a dead man,” and that a collection would be taken, M.P.s roared with laughter.
Little did they know, but the Duncan case had caused such a scare about the Witchcraft Act that two printers who had read about the illegality of mediumship were afraid to print a pamphlet dealing with the subject and planned for distribution in the Commons. One suddenly got cold feet even after he had set up the type.
You saw, no doubt, many comic headlines in the newspapers during the Duncan case. You did not know that it might be destined to rank, one day, with the trial of Socrates, who was condemned to death because he said he had a spirit guide, and with the conviction of Joan of Arc because she obeyed spirit voices, that, remembering Helen Duncan’s conviction, Spiritualists recalled Rome’s threat to torture Galileo, whom it forced to recant, because he said the sun did not move round the earth.
The fact that Helen Duncan is a fat Scotswoman of working-class origin and with a desire to earn more money as a medium than we thought wise for her, does not affect the issue. She had demonstrated to countless numbers of people all over the land that it was possible for the spirits of the dead to materialise, that they need not rely on so-called “resurrection” because of an unproved, and contradictory, story of how Jesus returned from the grave, but that they could test it for themselves.
No fewer than 300 of these were prepared to give evidence at the Old Bailey trial. Actually, 40 of them did so. They included people belonging to all the Services, and various learned professions - a medical officer, a lawyer, one of the best-known Scottish journalists, a sanitary inspector, an electrical draughtsman, and a Church of England clergyman.
For three days, these described how full materialisations of relatives and friends had taken place at Helen Duncan séances, and that they were satisfied about the genuineness of her powers.
Yet, time after time, Treasury counsel held up the cheesecloth or butter-muslin, as some called it, and said, “Wasn’t it like this?
Then I arrived in the witness-box. You must realise that I had nothing to gain, but, although one of the most famous journalists in the country, I was risking obloquy and scorn. Yet Truth is Truth, and you have to stand for it.
“You are also, I believe, a dramatic critic,” said C. E. Loseby, counsel for the defence.
“I was, unfortunately,” I replied.
“Unfortunate for whom?” asked the Recorder.
“For me, my Lord,” I said. “I had to sit through it.”
I did not know until I turned him up in “Who’s Who” that he had once been a playwright of sorts, part author of “Rebel Maid.” You can guess what authors of humorous musical plays think of me!
Well, I told the Court that for over 20 years I had investigated psychic phenomena of every kind and type, and in many countries, and that the purpose of my investigation was: “It is my duty to tell people the truth about the survival of their beloved dead.” Then, saying how I had sat perhaps half a dozen times with Mrs. Duncan under test conditions, I explained to legal high-ups who thought ectoplasm was a piece of cheesecloth that it was exuded from mediums through the mucous membranes, the solar plexus, the ears and the nostrils, that it appeared to be a living substance, that I had seen it perhaps 50 times and that, in the case of Helen Duncan, it resembled “living snow.”
“When was the last time?” the Recorder asked.
“Since this case was sent for trial,” I replied.
The point of this was that, between Portsmouth and the Old Bailey, we had made a rigid test of Helen Duncan’s powers and that the results were so extraordinary that C. E. Loseby, who was present, said at the end, “I am so impressed that I will tell the Court I am willing to allow the medium to demonstrate her powers in open court, and in broad daylight.”
Yet the Recorder decided that all evidence about this test must be ruled out “since it would be under a cloud.”
Before this test sitting, two women took Mrs. Duncan into a room, stripped her stark naked, dressed her only in a loose black garment - the reason for this was that the ectoplasm was white - and then brought her, in our sight, into the séance room. There she went into a trance in a red light in which we could see everything that happened.
Albert, her guide, began: “Something has been said about a sheet. I will show it to you.” Immediately we saw a large mass of ectoplasm, probably eight feet long and six feet wide. This was what the police had called a sheet!
Then, to prove the genuineness of the ectoplasm, the medium moved half across the room, the living substance becoming a sort of rope which lengthened as she moved further away.
Yet all this was ruled out, as, later, was every scrap of evidence sworn to by witnesses who had sat with Mrs. Duncan all over the country. Nor was she allowed to give a test in court. “That would be in the nature of a trial by ordeal,” said the Recorder.
Surely if a woman who is accused of “a pretence at conjuring up the spirits of dead persons” offers to produce them in open court - well, what more can she do? But even if she did so, she would still be guilty under the law of Britain.
“Could the ectoplasm be mistaken for butter-muslin?” Loseby asked me.
“Anyone who described it as butter-muslin would be a child,” I replied. “Besides, under red light, butter- muslin would turn yellow or pink. How could a red light make that kind of material take on a living whiteness?
Then I had to explain to a Recorder ignorant of ectoplasm, how it reacted to light, how the actinic qualities of light which retard photographic processes also affect ectoplasm. More, I had to tell how, the first time I sat with Mrs. Duncan, someone foolishly shone a light on the medium with the result that the séance had to be stopped and that then we discovered the medium was bleeding furiously at the nose.
I also produced a document signed by four magicians after I had taken them along to test Mrs. Duncan. They had tied her up with 40 yards of sash-cord, they said in their agreed statement, handcuffed her, and tied her two thumbs so close together with thick thread that it cut into the flesh. Although it had taken eight minutes for Will Goldston, a professional magician, to tie up the medium, her guide freed her from the cord, the thread and the handcuffs in three minutes.
As a dramatic critic I ridiculed, in the witness-box, the idea that Mrs. Duncan could impersonate Albert, her guide.
Yet, in his summing-up, the only thing said by the Recorder about my evidence was: “All that Mr Swaffer said was to contradict some of the others, not altogether to be wondered at.”
I did not contradict any of the others, for I was talking of séances at which they had not been present, and they were talking of sittings which I had not attended.
Besides, the Recorder seemed to have forgotten that I so smashed the case for the cheesecloth theory that never again, after I left the box, was it held up or referred to.
I remembered how I could have killed the regurgitation theory, had the evidence been allowed, by producing a doctor’s certificate that Mrs. Duncan had a normal stomach and so could not regurgitate, and also X-Ray photographs proving that her stomach was normal. These, I held up in vain. These were not “evidence.”
Then, Treasury counsel, jumping at my remark that I had seen every possible test applied to Helen Duncan, asked if we had applied the electrical controls used by Harry Price when Rudi Schneider, the Austrian medium, came to London.
Treasury counsel did not know, but I was present the first time that test was applied, I sat with Sir James Dunn and Lord Charles Hope, in Harry Price’s laboratory, where the so-called electrical test was used - and I said so.
When counsel tried to force the point that this was the kind of test he had been hinting at all the time, I replied that it was not a real test and that, on the occasion I referred to, I was compelled to point out to the psychical researchers how silly it was. For instance,” I said, “Price’s secretary was walking about the room.”
“Was she covered with phosphorus?” asked counsel.
“No, she was not,” I said.
Then, when the Crown asked whether Mrs. Duncan had ever been tested with a coloured pill - this would prove regurgitation if it occurred - I said “Yes, we tried even that.”
You can scarce believe it, but, only a few months after the King had asked all the nation to pray, Treasury counsel, referring to the fact that séances are often opened with prayer, asked: “Would not prayer make the sitters more receptive?”
“Would prayer make people receptive to the sight of a bus?” I jeered.
“Besides, many people are Agnostics. Sometimes this court opens with prayer.”
Why, even the House of Commons opens with prayer. Does that make Winston Churchill credulous?
Well, we came back to the cheesecloth. This, I explained, would be merely a soggy and stained mess if brought up from the stomach.
May I try to swallow the cheesecloth?” I sneered, wishing to show that it could not be done; for it was hard and stiff.
“We will not reduce the Court to the level of an exhibition,” said the Recorder, reprovingly.
“Why have you got it here?” I asked counsel. “We tried to get Harry Price to try to swallow it. Never have I heard such nonsense - until Price invented this new lunacy of the cheesecloth. It is all a silly invention of his.”
That ended the cheesecloth bunk!
Counsel, coming back to Mrs. Duncan’s nose-bleeding, then asked, “Did you examine her nose?”
“I looked at it,” I said. “What else does one do but look at a nose which is bleeding? Besides, I am a trained observer. My word is taken when I report other things.”
“Aren’t you a Spiritualist with fixed opinions?” said counsel, suggesting, 1 suppose, I would defend any psychic fraud.
Yes,” I replied. “My opinions are fixed because they are based on evidence which is incontrovertible.”
“When you were a dramatic critic,” pressed counsel, “did other critics agree with you?”
“Criticism is not a matter of fact,” I retorted, “but a matter of opinion.’’
Then counsel sat down, looking tired. And I stamped out of the court.
Well, having beenrefused a chance to demonstrate her powers in court, Mrs. Duncan was sent to prison for nine months; the Court of Appeal refused to reverse the judgment; and then the Attorney-General denied us leave to take the case to the House of Lords, saying, “ it is not a matter of sufficient public importance.”
Shortly afterwards, General Eisenhower promised the people of Germany that they would have religious freedom. But we Spiritualists have not got it!
Why, at Redhill, nine months after the Duncan case, the police banned mediumship in the borough!
A few weeks later, I met Herbert Morrison (Home Secretary) in the Ivy Restaurant. We had a friendly argument about my various criticisms of him. Then, at the end, he said, with a grin, “Well, I’ll see you on the Other Side.”
“Herbert,” I replied, “you are on the other side.”
Since then Morrison has changed his mind. A deputation of M.P.’s led by Clement Davies, who spoke for all the Liberal Party, went to see him to explain the disabilities suffered by Spiritualists.
In consequence, Morrison went so far as to say - and this was only a few weeks after he denied that we suffered any - that he understood our grievances, and that it should not be found impossible, when Parliament had time, to get through a non-controversial Bill guaranteeing Spiritualists their religious freedom.http://www.the-voicebox.com/thehelenduncancase.htm