Helen Duncan & the Fraudulent Mediums Act, 1951
On the 25th November 1941 HMS Barham, a British battleship, was travelling off the coast of Egypt, as part of a Mediterranean WWII convoy which consisted of three battleships and eight destroyers. At that time, the use of sonar was in it's infancy and what the Royal Navy sonar operators mistook to be a school of fish, was in reality a lurking German U-boat.
The Captain of the U-boat, Kapitšnleutnant Von Tiesenhausen, could not believe his luck, stumbling across the battleships and moved in as close as he dared at periscope depth, identifying HMS Queen Elizabeth, HMS Valiant and HMS Barham. After some hours, the U-boat manoeuvred between the destroyers and managed to fire off four torpedoes. Immediately the loss of weight at the bow of the submarine raised the conning tower above the surface in full view of the third battleship HMS Valiant which now altered course to attempt to ram the now crash diving U-boat.
In Kapitšnleutnant Von Tiesenhausen's hurry to release his torpedoes and escape to the depths, he was unsure which battleship he had fired upon, and as his U-boat descended to avoid retribution from the remaining British ships, his only clue was a series of overhead explosions which led him to believe that he had hit one of the ships.
HMS Barham suffered three torpedo hits which led to 861 British seamen losing their lives. A total of 395 were rescued while the U-boat escaped without knowing the result of their stealth attack. Some time later it became apparent to the Admiralty that the Germans had no idea that they had in fact sunk HMS Barham. Sir Winston Churchill decided not to announce the sinking of the battleship in order to deceive the Germans, and an elaborate cover up followed, designed so that initially not even the relatives of the crew would be informed of the battleship's sinking.
Days later at a séance in Portsmouth England, a Spiritualist medium from Callander in Scotland called Helen Duncan, told of a spirit presence who claimed that he had been a sailor on HMS Barham and that his ship was now sunk. Due to the suppression of this information by the British Admiralty, it came as a shock to the sailor's mother who was present at the séance.
Maurice Barbanel, who was the editor of Psychic News at the time, contacted the Admiralty to ask if the sinking of the Barham was true. Military intelligence were not too happy that this "top secret" information had leaked into the public domain so soon after the event.
Helen Duncan continued to work as a medium until January 1944 when she was arrested on a charge of vagrancy. She was convicted of "fraudulent mediumship" under the Witchcraft Act of 1735 and after a eight day trial was sentenced to ten months (less remission) in prison. Many believe that her arrest had more to do with national security than enforcing a law dating back over two centuries. With the D-Day landings planned only five months ahead of her arrest, perhaps British intelligence were seeking to tie up any loose ends prior to the Normandy invasions?
The Witchcraft Act, 1735 was repealed seven years later and was replaced by the Fraudulent Mediums Act, 1951, which many people believe was a direct result of Helen Duncan's conviction. During her trial the Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill sent the following memo to Herbert Morrison, the wartime Home Secretary.
Let me have a report on why the Witchcraft Act, 1735 was used in a modern Court of Justice.
What was the cost of this trial to the State, observing that witnesses were brought from Portsmouth and maintained here in this crowded London for a fortnight, and the Recorder kept busy with all this obsolete tomfoolery, to the detriment of necessary work in the Courts.
Winston Churchill (3rd April 1944). "
Helen Duncan was released from prison in 1945 and although she had promised not to conduct any more séances, twelve years later in November 1956, she was arrested in Nottingham when police raided a séance she was conducting.
Spiritualists have always maintained that a trance medium should never be touched when they are in a trance state, but unfortunately as the police grabbed Helen, the ectoplasm returned into her body too quickly causing severe burns to her stomach. She was later rushed into hospital and died five weeks later.
There is an ongoing Spiritualist campaign to clear Helen Duncan's name which so far has not been successful. A posthumous pardon was denied in 2006 and most recently a petition calling for Home Secretary Jacqui Smith to reconsider this decision was submitted to the Scottish Parliament for consideration by their Petitions Committee. On the 4th March 2008 the petition was closed (rejected) as the committee considered the whole issue to be not worth their time.
In April 2008, the Fraudulent Mediums Act, 1951 will be repealed and replaced by the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2007 (CPRs) which implement the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive (UCPD).