THERE IS NO EVIDENCE THAT HELEN
DUNCAN WAS NOT A GENUINE MEDIUM
Skeptics universally claim that the best
known materialization medium of the twentieth century, Helen
Duncan, was a fraud and that anyone who accepted her materializations—and
by extension any materializations—must be simple minded.
As evidence they point to a photo that comes
up on the internet whenever you Google ‘Helen Duncan’—a
photo that looks like crude paper mache doll. They claim
that this is evidence that Helen Duncan smuggled dolls into
her séances and used them to fool people into thinking
they were spirits. Further, they say, she was convicted
of fraud on two occasions. Case closed.
Or is it? When we examine the EVIDENCE the
matter of the 'hokey photos' is not so clear cut.
Skeptics usually quote four witnesses to show that
Helen Duncan was a fraudulent medium: Harry Price, The Maid,
Miss Esson Maule and Stanley Worth. None of them has an
ounce of credibility.
The other ‘evidence’ they use
to claim that Helen Duncan was a fraud is the photos of
paper mache models which they falsely claim she was using
to pass off as materialized figures.
In fact according to the unpublished journal of Henry Duncan
the main photos that they refer to were taken by Helen and
her circle members as a mockup for a local newspaper to
explain how physical mediumship worked. They were trying
to show how dangerous it was for sitters to try to touch
the materialized figures which were connected to the medium’s
body via ectoplasm.
We know that these photos were taken in
the home circle around 1930 because her hands are clearly
visible and she is not wearing her black séance costume.
Whenever she gave a public séance she always stripped
naked, examined by two women and dressed in her black séance
costume which enfolded her hands. This was proof that she
was not taking any dolls or masks or sheets into séances
The issue of paper mache models was never
raised by Harry Price in his unfavorable Report on Helen
Duncan and was never raised at either of Helen Duncan’s
HARRY PRICE- A PROVEN FRAUDSTER
The main critic of Helen Duncan was Harry
Price. There are at least six books that show he has no
- He was not a scientist or an unbiased researcher. He was
- He was a proven hoaxer like James Randi and would do anything
- He was a close friend of Charles Dawson, the man behind
the infamous Piltdown Man hoax.
- He and photographer William Hope staged an elaborate photograph
depicting a ghost looking over the shoulder of Price as
he sat for a portrait.
- He went ‘on the road’ with a fake statue of
Hercules. He exhibited a fake silver ingot from the reign
of Roman emperor Honorious. He showed gold coins from the
kings of Sussex and a bone carved with hieroglyphics, all
proven to be fakes.
- His investigation of the supposedly haunted Borley Rectory
was debunked after his death. Marianne Foyster stated that
she believed many of the strange incidents that Harry used
as the basis of three books were being staged by her husband
working in league with Harry Price.
- When the Borley Rectory burned down the insurance company
found the fire to be arson and the owner, Captain Gregson’s
claim to be fraudulent.
- This same Captain Gregson organized for Harry Price to
excavate the cellar. Price claimed to have found the skeleton
of a nun in spite of the fact that previous excavations
had found nothing.
- After Harry price died some of his former associates from
the English Society for Psychical Research published their
own findings and analysis.
A similar report was made by the London Society for Psychical
Research. Both reports concluded that
(1) there were no verifiable events that could not have
had natural explanations,
(2) that Harry Price’s duplicity made it hopeless
to determine the validity of his findings, and
(3) that the most popularized events were caused by Harry
(See THE HAUNTING OF BORLEY RECTORY: A Critical Survey of
the Evidence. By Eric ]. Dingwall, Kathleen M. Goldney and
Trevor H. Hall. Gerald Duckworth & Co., Ltd., London,
When Harry Price decided to go into psychic research he
claimed his organization was ‘The University of London
Council for Psychical Research’ trying to fool people
that he had some links with the University of London which
Then he called his rented rooms ‘The
National Laboratory of Psychical Research’ which had
no affiliation with any of the existing psychical research
He tried to link up with Dr. Osty French organization the
Institut Metaphysic Internationale but when Dr. Osty refused,
Price began a vicious campaign to discredit Osty’s
brilliant medium Rudy Schneider (Gregory, A. (1985)
The Strange Case of Rudi Schneider. Scarecrow).
He had no qualifications to investigate physical mediumship
and had never witnessed a materialization and had never
sat in a development circle.
Harry Price was hostile to the London Spiritualist
Alliance which was conducting test sittings with Helen Duncan
in 1931. They were his landlords and he was angry that they
had not allowed him to sit in on their sessions with Helen
Duncan which they were conducting above his ‘laboratory’
in the same building.
They claimed that he created the wrong atmosphere
for relaxed spiritual communication. He expected the medium
to submit to vaginal and rectal examination, x-rays and
Also his room was set up with photos of the mediums he had
discredited ‘like trophies’. All of this was
designed to create stress and tension. In the end he lied
to get Helen Duncan to agree to five test sessions by telling
here that he fully accepted the existence of ectoplasm (he
called it ‘teleplasm’) and wanted to be the
first in England to publish a report about it.
Price had no experience in sitting with
a materialization circle. He made no attempt to interview
the members of Helen’s development circle who at that
time had been sitting with her every week for more than
ten years. He made no attempt to interview the many other
people who later testified to her genuine powers of mental
mediumship from an early age. He had never witnessed a full
materialization and never talked to a materialized entity.
The only contact he had with Helen Duncan was in four short
sittings in London (she refused to complete the contract
The emphasis in the Price sittings was on
the production of ectoplasm to be photographed. To save
energy knowing that light was needed for the photographs
Helen Duncan’s ‘control’ Albert Steward
did not materialize but spoke to Harry Price by direct voice.
There was no way that anything in these photos could have
been faked by Helen. She was dressed in her black séance
gown which bound her hands and she had been thoroughly searched
including vaginal examination by a doctor beforehand. The
sittings were conducted in light.
In his 1931 report Harry Price never claimed
that Helen Duncan fooled her sitters by using paper mache
models. Instead he claimed that she swallowed yards and
yards of cheesecloth and regurgitated it. This was in spite
of a letter that was sent to Harry Price on 30th November
1930 by J.B. McIndoe, President of the Spiritualists National
Union, that said “So far from being able to regurgitate,
she has a small throat. When in Dundee Infirmary, it took
a doctor half an hour to put a small stomach pump down her
throat” (Cassirer p. 44).
Hannan Swaffer challenged Harry Price to
demonstrate swallowing and regurgitating ectoplasm and he
Hanna Swaffer also claimed that during a test séance
with Helen Duncan he gave her and everyone present in a
tablet that would have made the contents of their stomachs
blue; Helen Duncan’s ectoplasm was as usual snow white.
MARY McGINLAY- THE MAID
Harry Price was involved with the second
witness against Helen Duncan- the so-called maid. In February
1932 he published as a supplement to his Bulletin against
Helen Duncan. He called it
‘A Statutory Declaration of Miss Mary McGinlay as
to her experiences with Mrs Duncan.’
In this statement Miss McGinlay- a young
girl who was paid by Mr and Mrs Duncan to stay with their
youngest daughter while they were traveling- supposedly
claimed that Mrs Duncan, has sent her to buy ‘butter
muslin’ which she had to wash after Mrs Duncan’s
Her statement agreed point by point with Harry Price’s
Report and was ridiculed by those who studied it (see Professor
West’s published work). However it soon emerged that
the maid was looking for money from Harry Price and when
he refused “to help her out” she changed her
story. When J.B. McIndoe the President of the Spiritualists
National Union interviewed her, she assured him “in
the most positive terms that she had seen nothing incriminating.”
(Cassirer, M. (1996) Medium on Trial. Stanstead:
MISS ESSON MAULE AND THE HOLEY VEST
Harry Price was deeply involved with the third witness against
Helen Duncan, Miss Esson Maule.
Miss Maule was a friend of Harry Price.
She organized some sitters (four men and four women) to
take part in a séance at her home in Edinburgh. The
whole thing was a set-up from the start. She initially gave
Helen Duncan a false address and met her there to take her
to the premises where the séance would be held. She
told Helen Duncan NOT to wear her ‘fraudproof’
black sack and not to take the usual precautions against
Miss Maule later claimed that she had grown
suspicious of Helen Duncan and decided to’ turn on
the lights’during the seance- something which can
cause great harm to a medium. This is a good indication
of how little she understood about physical mediumship.
She claimed that she had seen Helen Duncan (who was in deep
trance at the time) trying to conceal something white and
had grabbed a small stockingette vest (a singlet) that Helen
Duncan had been wearing.
Miss Maule grabbed hold of the vest and later had it photogrpahed.
She sent the photos to Harry Price who published them far
and wide, claiming that this was what Helen Duncan was trying
to pass off as her ‘spirit guide’ Peggy.
There is every reason to believe these photos
are fakes concocted by Harry Price. They are undated and
Price deleted his notes on them from his usually detailed
records when Helen Duncan’s lawyer wrote to Harry
Price’s lawyer alleging that Price had fraudulently
concocted several other photos at the same time.
Harry Price already had a track record of creating fraudulent
photos- - He and photographer William Hope staged an elaborate
photograph depicting a ghost looking over the shoulder of
Price as he sat for a portrait.
Maurice Barbanell, editor of Psychic News,
complained that Miss Maule had told him a totally different
story to what she said in court a few days before the trial.
He also learned that Helen Duncan was the one who called
However the matter went for a trial in Edinburgh
on May 3, 1933 and lasted two days. There were five witnesses
against Helen Duncan– Miss Maule and the four people
she had invited to the séance. There were no witnesses
in her defence because of time and financial constraints.
Helen Duncan was convicted of “AFFRAY” (fighting
with Miss Maule over the vest) and the verdict on the charge
of fraud was the Scottish verdict of ‘not proven’.
She received a fine of ten pounds.
However at the time (1931) many prominent
people supported her publicly:
1) Dr. Montague Rust, a respected member
of her Circle, maintained that Mrs. Duncan was the most
remarkable physical medium in Europe'.
2) Will Goldston, the well-known professional
magician and illusionist, said that what he had witnessed
could not have been effected through trickery.
3) Nandor Fodor, a leading parapsychologist
wrote in his Encyclopedia of Psychic Science that in a séance
with Helen, 'ectoplasm, was seen in quantities . . . figures
of adults and children appeared under voluminous drapery,
movement of objects beyond the reach of the medium were
observed and as a means of control the medium was placed
nude into a sleeved sack with stiff buckram fingerless gauntlets
sewn to the sleeves of her suit. The sack was sewn in at
the back and fastened with tapes and cords to the chair.
At the end of the sitting the medium was often found outside
the bag, the seals, tapes and stitchings remaining intact'.
MANY PSYCHIC RESEARCHERS TESTIFIED
THAT THE MATERIALISATIONS SANK THROUGH THE FLOOR
In any event there are many witnesses who testified that
throughout the 1930s and 1940s they could not have been
fooled by dolls or fake figures .
Dr John Beloff, an experienced psychical researcher and
president of the Society for Psychical Research writing
in 1990 refers to persons who witnessed the mediumship of
Helen Duncan and says they
" all tell much the same story": two of these
witnesses being "good friends of mine and prominent
members of the S.P.R.".
He goes to detail how: " They all speak
of watching figures emerging from the cabinet or sometimes
taking shape out of swirling masses of amorphous ectoplasm,
sometimes they are of recognizable individuals whom the
sitter had known in his life, sometimes they engage in conversation,
but, invariably, they soon disappear by sinking through
the solid floor."
Many witnesses at her later trial in 1944
said that the ectoplasm streamed out from under the curtain
and the figures built up in the middle of the floor and
then sank into the floor.
There were witnesses who testified that they saw Helen Duncan
and her materialised guide Albert at the same time. One
of them was journalist Maurice Barbanell who was inside
the cabinet with Helen Duncan when Albert materialized.
NO FAKE PROPS WERE
EVER FOUND IN PUBLIC SEANCES
There were NEVER any fake dolls, props, sheets or any other
items found when Helen Duncan demonstrated publicly. This
was a huge issue in her trial in 1944. When she was arrested
on the advice of Stanley Worth she and all of the people
present demanded that the police search the premises. NOTHING
For three days witness after witness said it would be impossible
for them to be tricked by dolls or masks because they had
seen spirits building up from the floor directly in front
of them and then sinking into the floor after speaking.
• Nurse Jane Rust testified on oath at the Old Bailey,
among other things, that she, through Helen Duncan, actually
met a loved one again—her husband who materialized
from the afterlife and kissed her. ‘I have never been
more certain of anything in my life before’, she said.
She stated that she had been enquiring for 25 years as a
skeptic but it was only when she met Helen Duncan that she
was able to actually meet her loved ones including her mother
who had passed on (Cassirer 1996: 68).
• A high ranking Air Force officer,
Wing Commander George Mackie, stated on oath that through
Helen Duncan's materialization gifts he actually met his
‘dead’ mother and father and a brother (Cassirer
• James Duncan, (no relation) a jeweler,
testified that both he and his daughter had seen his wife
materialize on eight different occasions, in good light.
Duncan had seen her close up at a range of 18 inches and
they had talked of domestic matters including a proposed
emigration to Canada that they had previously kept secret.
He had, he said, not a shadow of a doubt that the voice
was that of his wife. He also claimed to have seen materializations
of his father, who was about his own height and bearded,
and his mother (Cassirer 1996:103).
• Mary Blackwell, President of the
Pathfinder Spiritualist Society of Baker Street London,
testified that she had attended more than 100 materialization
séances with Helen Duncan at each of which between
15 and 16 different entities from the afterlife had materialized.
She testified that she had witnessed the spirit forms conversing
with their relatives in French, German, Dutch, Welsh, Scottish
and Arabic. She claimed that she had witnessed the manifestation
of ten of her own close relatives including her husband,
her mother and her father all of whom she had seen up close
and touched (Cassirer 1996: 87).
• Leading journalist and medium Maurice
Barbanell testified that he had seen Helen Duncan and her
materialized spirit ‘control’ at the same time
from inside the medium’s cabinet (Cassirer 1996: 134).
• The best known journalist and drama
critic in London, Hannan Swaffer, testified that he had
sat with Helen Duncan in controlled tests on five or six
occasions and found her ectoplasm to be genuine. He also
stated that he had seen genuine ectoplasm in sittings all
over the world more than fifty times (Brealey and Hunter
• Lilian Baily, a top London medium
who gave sittings for the British royal family testified
that she was quite sure that her mother and her paternal
grandmother had manifested (Cassirer 1996: 89).
• Dr. John Winning, an assistant to
the Medical Officer of Health of Glasgow, said that he had
sat with Mrs. Duncan 40 times and seen 400 materializations.
He had heard many voices, several languages and a number
of dialects spoken by materializations. These included Scots,
Irish. American, Hebrew and German. Once he had heard Gaelic
spoken (Cassirer 1996: 208).
DENIED THE RIGHT TO PROVE HER INNOCENCE
Helen Duncan’s attorney was convinced
that if the jury could attend a demonstration of her mediumship
they would be convinced that she was a genuine medium. He
had attended such a demonstration after the trial had started
and was overwhelmed. The Recorder (judge) at first refused
saying that it would be a waste of time but then allowed
the jury to decide that Helen Duncan would not be allowed
to prove her innocence. The prosecution objected and the
jury followed its lead.
As expected, Helen Duncan was found guilty
and sentenced to nine months in prison. She was denied the
right to appeal and was sent to the notorious Holloway women’s
prison where she served six months. According to the official
Helen Duncan homepage, the warders refused to lock her cell
for the duration of her sentence and she continued to apply
her psychic gifts for the benefit of warders and inmates
The English and Scottish Law Societies individually
and together expressed disgust at the miscarriage and ‘travesty
of justice’ in the Helen Duncan tragedy created by
cowardly armchair-violent men to do untold harm to a spiritual
KNOWLEDGE OF THE SINKING OF THE HOOD AND BARHAM
Skeptics falsely claim that Helen Duncan
learned of the sinking of the HMS Hood and Barham though
‘gossip’. This is patently false. It is documented
that Helen Duncan’s control Albert announced the sinking
of the HMS Hood and the HMS Barham before the information
had been released by the Admiralty.
In a séance in Edinburgh on 24th May, 1941 Albert,
her control, announced that HMS Hood had been sunk earlier
that day in the North Atlantic. The time of this
séance was 3:30 pm.
Brigadier Firebrace, a very enthusiastic believer in Spiritualism
who was the Head of Military Intelligence in Scotland, attended
that séance. He returned to his office and telephoned
the Admiralty to see whether the ‘rumor’ of
the sinking was true. At that time it was denied.
By 9:30 p.m., as he was leaving the office, a telephone
call was received from the Admiralty confirming the
sinking at 1:30 p.m. that day.
In November 1941 at a Helen Duncan séance at Portsmouth
a sailor materialized and was reunited with his mother.
He told the assembled sitters that his ship, had recently
been sunk and he had been severely burnt and died. HE was
wearing a hatband of the HMS Barham.
The editor of the Psychic News, Maurice Barbanell, innocently
telephoned the British Admiralty to enquire whether this
was true and if it was true why the Admiralty had not advised
the sailor's mother about the loss of her son. Military
intelligence was furious. For security reasons and for public
morale, news of the sinking had been withheld and had been
classified ‘top secret’.
After being released from jail Helen Duncan eventually resumed
her mediumship. Even though she was ill with diabetes her
mediumship was still spectacular. For example:
At a séance in Stoke-on-Trent: in
one case an airman materialized for his mother, complete
with the birthmark that he had on his face before his passing.
Another man materialized for his wife, lacking the two fingers
that he had lost while working. Further proof was given
on the occasions when Albert, over six foot in height, brought
Helen, only five foot, four inches, out
of cabinet, still entranced, and stood beside her. To demonstrate
their separateness even further, Albert would ensure that
the sitters could see Helen while he was standing, and speaking
up to four feet away (Nicholls n.d.).
The Death of Helen Duncan
In 1956, the Nottingham police again raided
a séance Helen Duncan was giving. The police knocked
on the door of a private home without a search warrant on
the supposed complaint of two police officers who had earlier
attended one of her séances. The police had technical
knowledge that materialization usually has to be conducted
in semi-darkness and that if the lights are put on suddenly
very serious injury or death to the medium can occur.
When they were admitted to the home they
made a grab for the medium's cabinet and grabbed the medium.
More men arrived and took flash photographs. The whole house
was searched and even the medium’s luggage was gone
But just as at Portsmouth nothing incriminating
was found. The medium was left unconscious and, according
to a doctor who was called, in deep shock and likely to
die if moved. (Brealey and Hunter 1985:13)
Helen Duncan’s daughter Gina writes
that there was no doubt the police raid was the cause of
Helen’s death five weeks later. She says that Helen
had burn marks the size of a saucer on her breast and abdomen
(Brealey and Hunter 1985:155).
Helen Duncan returns
Since her death, Helen Duncan has returned
on many occasions through other materialization mediums.
We have been present on two occasions when she materialized
through David Thompson in order to talk to one of her grandchildren
who was present. She also returned during the Scole Experiment
(Foy 2008 ). Helen Duncan was claimed to be one of the main
members of the Spirit team working with English materialization
medium Rita Goold in Leicester England in the early 1980’s.
Rita's seances were all held in the dark
and no ectoplasm was used; Helen Duncan said her death was
one of the reasons they were not using ectoplasm. On many
occasions she materialized and had long conversations through
the mediumship of Rita Goold with Alan Crossley who had
written a biography of her (Crossley 1975).
Psychic News assistant editor Alan Cleaver reported that
he had attended one of Rita Goold’s séances
when Helen Duncan's daughter, Gena Brealey, of Luton Beds,
visited the circle to see whether it really was her mother
communicating. He writes:
Within minutes she knew. Helen apported
to her daughter a single red rose. This had a special significance
known only to the two of them. When she was given the rose,
Gena broke down in tears of joy and cried, ‘What greater
proof could I have?’ For more than an hour mother
and daughter spoke to each other about intimate details
only they knew, often using Scottish slang they then had
to ‘translate’ to the other sitters. Afterwards
Gena declared: ‘Yes, it is my mother. There is no
doubt about it’ (Psychic News, No. 2646 Saturday,
February 26, 1983).
Gena (Brealey) worked with Kay Hunter to write a biography
of her mother called The Two Worlds of Helen Duncan first
published in 1985 which has been reprinted (Brealey and
In conclusion: There is
absolutely NO reliable evidence that Helen Duncan was a
fraudulent medium. NONE. EVER. On the contrary there is
ample evidence that she was one of the most gifted mediums
the world has ever seen.