Helen Duncan is back in the news, after petitioners asked the Scottish parliament to give her a posthumous pardon (an attempt to press her case in Westminster last year failed). The Aberdeen medium was one of the last people to be jailed under the 1735 Witchcraft Act and spent nine months in prison, dying in 1956. The plods came calling in 1944, three years after a 'dead sailor' showed up during a séance in Portsmouth, and in the process inadvertently revealing the recent sinking of his ship, the HMS Barham - the disaster was not disclosed by the authorities until some weeks afterwards. Proof of psychism for some, but of treason for the authorities, never mind fakery. Writing at some length in the Independent, Andy McSmith considers Duncan was a fraud who got her just desserts. But he's not particularly militant about it, adding 'If I am wrong, no doubt I shall be turned into a toad.' Yes indeed.
The media is naturally interested in the legal implications. The Witchcraft Act gave way to the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951, which itself is about to be replaced, and the new formula's vagueness is getting professional psychics all hot and bothered. More on that another time. What interests me here is the serious weirdness of what Duncan was supposed to be doing. McSmith, and I should think the great majority of his readers, don't know the half of it.
Most mediums today are clairvoyant and/or clairaudient: they say they hear voices or see figures in their mind's eye. But when mediumship began in the mid nineteenth century it was a much more physical business - the spirits were supposed to communicate by tipping tables and rapping in the dark. That was controversial enough, but Duncan was one of an even more extreme kind, the materialising medium, said to exude 'ectoplasm'. This was a sort of sticky vapour which quickly coalesced into a fully functioning human, a temporary replica of a visiting dead person. He or she - or it - would converse with their relatives in the audience and then disappear back into the 'cabinet' in which the medium was concealed.
It's easy to see how this could be faked, especially as it all took place in pitch dark (the 'spirits' were sometimes said to illuminate their faces by holding up a tablet coated with luminous sulphur, but it would not have revealed much). And it would take a lot of chutzpah to insist that it wasn't. There are lots of exposes on record, where the lights were switched on and the medium was seen dancing around dressed in white drapery. At the same time, the testimony in its favour is more insistent than one would imagine.
The process was observed at close quarters by several scientists, of whom the best known are William Crookes, Charles Richet and Albert von Schrenck Notzing. Their claims can be rejected on the grounds that their experiments were inadequately controlled and reported, but it's extraordinary to think that mediums could have fooled them so often and so consistently.
What's interesting too is that they and others described the process of formation and dissolution. Mostly this happened out of sight in the cabinet, so you couldn't see if it was being faked. But sometimes the cabinet was open, allowing the build-up to be watched. Turning the light up at the end caused the form to dissolve into the floor, and this too could be closely observed. Here's a statement by a sitter who watched the departure of 'Katie King' (produced by Florence Cook):
Her features faded and became blotted out, appearing to turn one into another. The eyes sank in their sockets, the nose disappeared, the frontal bone caved in. Her limbs appeared to give way under her, she sank lower and lower on to the carpet like a falling building. At last nothing but her head remained above the ground, then one or two light masses of drapery, which disappeared with extreme rapidity...and we were left standing under the light of the three gas burners, our eyes fixed on the spot which Katie King had occupied. (Annals of Psychical Science, London: Caesar de Vesme, April 1906, pp. 201-205.)
If these witnesses are not actually hallucinating the fraud clearly goes beyond people impersonating spirits. It also makes me wonder about the other chief line of attack, which is that mediums produced the ectoplasm by regurgitating cheese cloth from their stomachs. This was the only way that scientific investigators of Helen Duncan could account for the material exuding from her mouth, and disappearing back into it, but it doesn't have much to do with what other people said they saw.
Veteran psychical researcher Donald West wrote up Duncan's trial in 1946 in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research (1946). Here's an extract from the cross examination of a witness, a retired nurse, who claimed that Duncan literally reunited her for a brief moment with her husband.
Q. Tell my Lord and members of the jury what happened. . . .
A. . . . the spirit guide announced that there was a gentleman there, and he thought it was for me - an elderly gentleman - and he gave the description. I said, ' Is it you, Daddy ? ' meaning my husband, and he said, ' Yes '. I invited him out and said, ' Come out dear', and he came out.
Q. How far out of the cabinet did he come ? A. He came on the outside of the curtain. I immediately got up from my seat and went right up to him. I said, ' Kiss me, dear '.
Q. Did you recognize anybody ? A. Of course I recognized him.
Q. Do not say, ' Of course ', I want you to tell us. A. I did, sir.
Q. Who was it ? A. My husband.
Q. Had you any doubt about it being your husband ? A. No doubt whatsoever.
Q. How close up to him were you ? A. As close as I am to this. (Indicating the ledge of the witness-box.)
Q. Did he speak to you ? A. He spoke to me.
Q. Did you recognise his voice ? A. I did.
Q. Were you certain of his voice ?. A. I was perfectly certain.
Q. Did he say anything to you in particular that struck you as of importance ?
A. Just spoke about the family. He said that he was always with me, and that he would be on the other side waiting for me ; he would never leave me until I joined him.
The Recorder: It was flesh and blood, was it ? A. It was very cold, my Lord, but it was his hand.
Q. You could hold it, could you ? A. I held it firmly. I felt the knuckles. He suffered from rheumatism, my Lord, and I felt the nobbly knuckles.
Mr Loseby : We must face up to things, Nurse Rust. Are you quite sure that it was not Mrs Duncan ? A. Oh, perfectly certain, perfectly sure. My husband is not quite so big; he is not such a stout man.
Q. You said you asked your husband to kiss you. A. I did, sir.
Q. Did he kiss you ? A. He did, sir, right on the mouth."
This witness went on to state that at the same séance her mother manifested and was recognised on close inspection by two moles, one in the hollow of her chin and one above her left eyebrow, which were reproduced true to life. Then an Aunt Mary came and spoke in Spanish, saying, " I am very pleased to see you. I wanted to come before, but they did not understand."
West is by no means a believer, but concedes this evidence is extraordinary. 'Granting its veracity, either the witness must have been hallucinated and deluded to an astonishing degree or else the phenomena were genuine. It is all the more puzzling, since Mrs Rust appeared to be a level-headed and honest narrator.' He adds that another witness, a senior doctor, said he had witnessed upwards of four hundred materialisations at Duncan séances, many of them in his own rooms at Glasgow. He had heard voices speak in a number of different dialects and languages and clearly recognized a dozen materialised relatives.
Food for thought.