Sunday, April 4, 2010

Nothing unexplained about Helen Duncan

I have always enjoyed the performances of British actor Tony Robinson. First and foremost, he is the charmingly nutty sidekick of Blackadder in the classic BBC comedy series. But he is also great as presenter in the archaeology programme "Time Team", where he runs around among archaeologists and researchers on intensive three-day excavations all over Britain and sometimes abroad. But there is a dark cloud...

In 1982, Tony Robinson received a call from TV producer John Lloyd, who wanted him to audition for the role of servant to the Duke of Edinburgh in a sitcom set in 15th century England. Robinson got the job and when BBC 2 aired the pilot in June 1983, his portrayal of several generations of Baldricks in the service of several generations of Blackadders granted him a place in the Great Hall of Comedy Fame. Four series were produced, along with several one-off installments and if you haven't seen any of it, I strongly urge you to do so - preferably something from the second or third season of the original TV series.

After Blackadder, Robinson turned to digging. In 1994, UK Channel 4 launched the archeology show "Time Team", with Robinson as presenter. The format is simple. During three days, a team of archaeologists and experts conduct an excavation somewhere in Britain or, on occasion, abroad. Robinson acts as a kind of middleman between the scientific crew and the viewer, asking questions and explaining in laymen terms. After more than 200 episodes, the show is considered to have improved public understanding of archeology in Britain and Robinson, along with others in the crew, has been awarded several honorary degrees for popularizing science.

In 2005, Robinson hosted Wildfire Television's two hour documentary "The Real Da Vinci Code." The show is an almost ruthless demolition of the myths and hoaxes presented as facts by Dan Brown in his bestselling novel, and by Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln in their Dänikenian "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" from 1982.

So when Robinson turned up as host and associate producer of the three episode paranormal documentary series "Tony Robinson & ..." in 2008, my hopes were high that he would bring his fact oriented and inquiring mind from "Time Team" and "The Real Da Vinci Code." The production company, Flashback Television, did indeed announce that the series, also known as "The Unexplained", would "bring a rational approach to the world of psychic mysteries and the myths and legends of the past." Having seen the first episode dealing with psychic medium Helen Duncan, aired on British Channel 4 on 29th of December 2008, I must conclude that Robinson's dig into the sewers of spiritism is yet another example of how journalistic inquiry turns into naïve ignorance when facing supernatural claims.

Although Robinson is accompanied by freelance scientific journalist Becky McCall, the episode on Helen Duncan adds to the myth surrounding her rather than present facts. Even if Richard Wiseman in one sequence stresses that one needs to "look very closely in the records", no such scrutiny is employed. Instead, the viewer gets the standard "eyewitness" accounts, albeit over 60 years old, and an emotional testimony of Duncan's granddaughter Mary Martin.

I understand the need for television shows to be entertaining, but I don't understand how someone honored for popularizing science so easily converts to popularizing myth and fraud. And I particularly don't see why the facts about Duncan are less entertaining than the fiction.

Let's look at some of the claims made in the show. First of all, there is the suggestion that Duncan was hunted by MI5, that she in some way was a threat to national security during WWII. Did she pose such a threat? And her granddaughter claims Duncan was arrested as a spy. Was she really?

The suggestion that Duncan had revealed war secrets during her séances was put forward by Percy Wilson at a conference organised by the College of Psychic Science in 1958, i.e. two years after the death of Duncan. Prior to that, nothing. There is no such claim or suggestion in the 1944 court proceedings - and nothing in the Old Bail Trial report that covers over three hundred pages. No public mention of it at all by anyone prior to 1958. It is in essence a later fabrication aimed at rendering Duncan martyrdom. Several circumstances supports this conclusion. First, Duncan had allegedly conveyed the message that HMS Barham had went down in the Mediterranean before that information had been made official by the naval authorities. The Barham was sunk on 25th of November, 1941 and the news was released 28th of January, 1942. Helen Duncan was arrested two years later. It is an absurd thought that a suspicion of being a security threat would take two years to result in an arrest, in wartime.

Second, according to myth, Duncan received the Barham message in the form of a sailor with the name "HMS Barham" on his capband. But during WWII, capbands had only "HMS" on them, ship names were omitted for security reasons. This is illustrated by a sculpture at the memorial Robinson and McCall visits in the episode, see picture below.

Similar claims regarding another ship, HMS Hood, are made by one of the "eyewitnesses" in the episode. Duncan is supposed to have received a message during a séance on the same day it went down. This is, in lack of any supporting evidence whatsoever, of course another fabrication.

Was MI5 involved in the arrest? Well, let's recall what really took place. In January 1944, Helen Duncan gave a series of séances at The Master Temple Psychic Centre in Portsmouth. The establishment, along with the drugstore above which it was situated, was run by spiritualist couple Homer. Duncan was paid £112 for six days of performance. During one of these séances, two naval officers attended. One of them, Lieutenant Worth, received a vivid message from his aunt, which left the officer unimpressed since he didn't have any deceased aunt. Later during the sitting, he became even more suspicious when a spirit materialised claiming to be his sister. When Worth confronted Duncan about the fact that he had no sister, the psychic explained that his sister had been premature.

When Worth's mother assured him she had never had a premature child, he was disgusted by the psychic's show and reported the matter to the local police. Following instructions, Worth booked two seats for another seance and attended in the company of a policeman in plain clothing. During a materialisation, Worth switched on a light and the policeman sprang forward grabbing the psychic in order to remove the white drape. Sitters rushed to the psychics defense and as one turned the light off, another snatched the cloth from the policeman's grasp. When the light came on again, the cloth had disappeared.

This incident, and nothing else, is what brought Helen Duncan to the Old Bailey, along with her assistant Mrs Brown and the Homer couple. Duncan was sentenced to nine months imprisonment, Brown to four, and the Homers were bound over for two years. An appeal was made but the verdicts and sentences were upheld. The group was sentenced for falsely conspiring to pretend that Duncan was able to communicate with the dead, under section four of the Witchcraft Act. Nothing else. Not for spying or revealing war secrets. Duncan was accused and committed for being exactly what she was - a psychic fraud. MI5 had nothing to do with it.

Twelve years later, in 1956, the Nottingham police raided another of Duncan's séances. She became ill and died after a month, 59 years old. And no, there was nothing odd about her death. It was not caused by her "trance" being disturbed by the police or other ridiculous claims in that line of thinking. Duncan's medical records showed that she had a long history of ill-health and as early as 1944 she was described as a large, obese woman who could only move slowly as if she suffered from heart trouble.

So, contrary to the suggestions of Robinson, there is nothing unexplained about Helen Duncan. Had Robinson followed Wiseman's advice and looked into the records, he would have found that Duncan was exposed as fraudulent by the research department of the London Spiritualist Alliance and by Harry Price in 1931, that following Price's report, Duncan's former maid came forward and confessed in detail to having aided Duncan in her psychic feats, that her husband admitted that he believed the materialisations to be the result of regurgitation, and that a suspicious sitter in a 1933 séance grabbed the psychic and when the lights were turned on, Duncan was found sitting in stockinged feet, hastily stuffing a torn white west up under her clothes. Perhaps Robinson would have had something to respond to the "eyewitness" account of how a one-piece garment was sufficient safe-guard against any fraud - Duncan's trick with that garment was exposed as early as 1931.

In closing, I would like to quote Price's report from the Duncan tests, as quoted by Paul Tabori in The Art of Folly:

At the conclusion of the fourth seance 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 seance 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 cheese-cloth in the street. However, they gave us another seance 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 cheese-cloth. 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?

Needless to say, Helen Duncan was one of the more revolting and offensive con-artists on the psychic scene, so perhaps Robinson should let her remains stay in the sewers of spiritism, where they belong. Or at least look for facts instead of boosting myth.

See the episode on

Part 1,
Part 2,
Part 3,
Part 4,
Part 5