Helen Duncan


















The Cheese-Cloth Worshippers by Harry Price

Harry Price included a chapter on his sittings with Helen Duncan in his Leaves from a Psychist's Case-Book (Victor Gollancz, 1933) which was published two years after the investigation at the National Laboratory of Psychical Research.  Reproduced here is the complete contents of Chapter XI including the plates which featured the Duncan case.

I suppose it is generally admitted that the Commandment which is most frequently broken is the first.  The miser makes money his god; the bibliolater worships his books; the politician lives for power, the soldier for glory, the actor for applause, etc.  But strangest of all are those infatuated people who worship strips of cheese-cloth when these are served up with hymns, garnished with prayers, and dangled before their eyes in the dim, religious light of the sťance-room.

During the years 1931-32 there was a cheese-cloth mania in Great Britain which was almost as remarkable (and much more diverting) as the "tulipomania" of the seventeenth century.  For the years I have named saw the meteoric flight across the psychic firmament of the Scots materialising medium, Mrs. Helen Duncan.  Perhaps "meteoric flight" is hardly the term I should use, as the lady in question weighed more than seventeen stone.

I first heard of Mrs. Duncan in 1929 through the spiritualist press.  I read of sťances, held almost in full light, at which phantoms materialised out of space, danced, sang, joked, walked about the room, and hobnobbed with the sitters generally.  As I do not believe one-tenth of what I read in the spiritualist press, I was not particularly thrilled.

But later I began to receive first-hand accounts of Mrs. Duncan's marvels from friends of mine.  One of them actually presented me with a bottle of distilled water containing a piece of white stuff which he told me was "teleplasm" which had exuded from some portion of the medium's anatomy.

I was soon engaged upon the histology of the strip of "teleplasm," a portion of which I handed to Dr. X, a distinguished London analyst.  I agreed with his opinion that the stuff looked like the white of a hard-boiled egg.


Dr. X's analysis confirmed his opinion that the "teleplasm" was the white of an egg mixed with salts of iron and other chemicals.

I also analysed the "teleplasm" and made up a number ol slides of it for the microscope.  Also, based on the analysis I had obtained, I made some "synthetic teleplasm" which could not be distinguished from Mrs. Duncan's variety.  My "teleplasm" was composed of the following substances in varying quantities :

White of a new-laid egg.

Ferric chloride.

Phosphoric acid and stale urine mixed with gelatine.

Hot margaric acid from olive oil.


So now the reader knows what ghosts are made of !

Every spiritualist was deeply impressed with all this handing around of teleplasm and the pirouetting phantoms, and a Dundee doctor brought Mrs. Duncan across the Border to London to exhibit her powers to the faithful at one of the spiritualist societies.

It happened that the National Laboratory Rooms comprised the top flat of the building in which the spiritualists' test was carried out.  Great preparations for the sťance were made and a number of persons, including Sir Oliver Lodge, were present.  Needless to say, I was not invited!  Looking over the banisters as they trooped up the stairs, I could not help wondering what the afternoon would bring forth.  I was soon to be informed, however, as very shortly the floor of my office reverberated to the "Hurrahs!" and "Bravos!" of those beneath, and I knew that Mrs. Duncan had received the cachet of the spiritualists.  The cheese-cloth mania had started.

For the next six months Mrs. Duncan sat regularly with the spiritualists, a substantial fee being charged for the privilege of' seeing the signs and wonders alleged to occur.  Her miracles were written up in the spiritualist press and the public was invited to pay for sittings with the woman.  And yet when, as a member of the public, I applied for a sitting, the spiritualists refused point blank to allow me even to set foot in the sťance room!  What were they afraid of?

In April 1931 the friendship between the medium and her


husband and the spiritualists became slightly unstuck, as during that month Mr. Duncan wrote to me and offered my Council a sťance at the National Laboratory of Psychical Research.  We accepted, and the first scientific test ever held with the woman took place on May 4th of the same year.  A number of distinguished people were present, including Professor Dr. William McDougall, F.R.S., the eminent psychologist.

At this first sťance the medium wore her own garments (a pair of black sateen knickers, a man's coat made of the same material, and a pair of black stockings), which she brought with her.  We examined them carefully, and Professor McDougall and others examined the medium's body externally.  We did not make a thorough medical examination of the medium, as this was a "friendly" sťance and we wished to see the phenomena before adopting rigorous controlling methods.

The medium having donned her special garments, she was led into the sťance-room by Professor McDougall and myself, and placed in the curtained recess known as the cabinet.  This was at 8.7 p.m.  In a few seconds the medium was in trance, and within a minute the cabinet curtains parted and we beheld the medium covered from head to foot with-cheese-cloth!  There appeared to be yards of it.  Some of it was trailing on the floor; one end was poked up her nostril; a piece was issuing from her mouth.  It moved, it writhed, it waggled, it squirmed on the floor, it spread itself out like an apron.  Then the medium closed the curtains and the spectacle was hidden from view.  All these transformations and permutations took place in a red light bright enough to read small print by.  Every person and object in the sťance-room was plainly visible.

Then we heard the voice of "Albert Stewart," Mrs. Duncan's chief "control."  "Albert" is supposed to be the spirit of a Dundee pattern-maker who emigrated to Sydney, N.S.W.  "Albert" had a lot to say, and spoke with a drawl.

Then the voice of a little child control was heard behind the curtains.  This was "Peggy," who apologised for not coming in front of the curtains as she "had no frock on."

Curtains opened again and we saw more cheese-cloth - the medium was covered from head to foot as with a large shawl.  The curtains closed once more.

At nine o'clock I asked "Albert" whether I could bind


Mrs. Duncan to the chair.  He said "Sure!"  So Professor McDougall and I bound her thoroughly to the armchair by means of adhesive surgical tape - the stuff with which Chicago gangsters truss up their victims.  The phenomena at once ceased, "Albert" afterwards remarking that I had stopped the medium's circulation.  We loosened the ties.

Just before the binding process I asked "Albert" if I could feel the "teleplasm."  He said I could; at the same time the curtains were opened and I picked up a trail of the stuff.  It was about 30 inches wide, and rather damp.  It felt exactly like my summer-weight undervest.  I stretched it, and the tactile impression was exactly as if I held a piece of cheese-cloth.  I smelt it, and even the odour was reminiscent of a bit of ripe gorgonzola.

This first sťance was over just before ten o'clock, and I must say that I was deeply impressed: I was impressed with the brazen effrontery that prompted the Duncans to come to my Laboratory in an attempt to "put over" their stuff on our experts; I was impressed with the amazing credulity of the spiritualists who had sat with the Duncans for six solid months, and with the fact that they had advertised her "phenomena" as genuine.

The only thing that puzzled us at our first sťance with Mrs. Duncan was where she kept the stuff.  What we had seen was merely a length of cheese-cloth, about 6 or 8 feet long and 30 inches wide, made to take different shapes and forms in order to simulate phantoms of various sizes.  Although we had examined the medium, we had not medically explored the orifices of the body - favourite hiding-places with fake women mediums.

We arranged some further tests with the medium, and I determined to stiffen up the fore-control, and also to photograph the phantoms as they appeared.  Curiously enough, the medium consented to this medical examination and Mr. Duncan allowed us to take pictures of the "phenomena" as they appeared.  Also, we made for her a one-piece garment.

The incredulous reader might ask why we did not seize the cheese-cloth "materialisations" as they appeared.  We could have done so a hundred times, and we were under no promise not to.  But "grabbing" is a crude form of investigation, and we have more scientific - and convincing - ways of arriving


at the truth.  And the "grabbing" would have ended the experiments once and for all, and we should have lost valuable data.

At the next three sťances with Mrs. Duncan I took a series of photographs and our theory concerning the "phantoms" was confirmed.  We secured extraordinary pictures of cheese-cloth in various formations such as veils, trails, tails, twists, sheets, and knots.  The pictures of these cheese-cloth tableaux are the wonder of all beholders.

Every length of it that was spread in front of our cameras was of about the same size.  Every length shows the selvedge, warp and weft, rents in the material where it had been worn by constant use, and frayed edges.  One piece reveals dirt marks where the medium trod upon it.  Two pieces show crease marks where "Albert" (being Scotch) carefully folded it when not in use.  The only thing missing on these cheese-cloth phantoms is the price ticket.  We bought a few yards of cheese-cloth at Woolworths, draped it over our secretary, photographed it, and it was admitted that no one could tell the difference between the Woolworth and "Albert" variety of spook.

But our photographs revealed other things: we found that a hand we had seen at one of the sťances was a rubber surgical or household glove at the end of a cheese-cloth support.  At another sitting we saw a child's head which, "Albert" informed us, was the spirit "Peggy."  Our cameras revealed the fact that this particular "Peggy" was merely a picture of a girl's head cut from a magazine cover and stuck on the cheese-cloth.  We also secured pictures of safety-pins which had been used in forming the cheese-cloth into various shapes.

During the progress of our experiments (in which such distinguished scientists as Professor Dr. McDougall, Professor Dr. J. C. Flugel, etc. took part) we made the fore-control of the medium more and more severe.  Every orifice of her body was medically explored - and we found nothing.  But by a process of deletion we discovered where the cheese-cloth must be concealed.  If one knows that something is hidden in one of ten boxes, and that only nine of the boxes can be examined, it is obvious that that something is in the tenth box.  In the case of Mrs. Duncan the "tenth box" was her stomach - the one place we could not easily explore.  We formed the opinion that


Mrs. Duncan was a regurgitator, i.e. a person who could swallow things and bring them up again at will - a curious faculty which is not so rare as is generally supposed.

Of course there are several ways in which medical men can examine a person's stomach.  There is the "stomach camera," a tiny photographic apparatus which gives us pictures of our internal economy.  There is the stomach pump (rather crude); a violent emetic (which is not pleasant); a medical exploration under a light anesthetic; and the X-rays.

So at the fourth sťance we decided to use the X-rays.  We knew that the rays would not reveal the cheese-cloth, as the stuff casts no shadow, but we hoped for a safety-pin or something similar.  We also knew that the psychological effect of the apparatus on the medium would be valuable, and in this we were not mistaken.

At the conclusion of the fourth sťance on May 28th, 1931, we led the medium to a settee in the sťance-room and gave the signal for the X-ray apparatus to be wheeled in from an adjoining room.  At the sight of the apparatus the medium seemed scared, and promptly went off' into another alleged trance, from which she soon recovered.  She refused to be X-rayed.  Her husband advised her to submit, telling her that it was quite painless and merely a matter of seconds.  The approach of Mr. Duncan seemed to infuriate her, and she became hysterical.  She jumped up and dealt him a smashing blow on the face which sent him reeling.  She then made a lunge at Dr. William Brown, who fortunately avoided the blow.

The medium then said she wanted to retire to the lavatory, so Mrs. Goldney, a Council member, and Dr. William Brown accompanied her to the hall, in which was the door leading to the street.  Then the medium found that she did not want to use the lavatory and sat down on a chair.  Suddenly, without the slightest warning, she jumped up, pushed Mrs. Goldney aside, unfastened the door, and dashed into the street, where she had another attack of alleged hysterics and commenced tearing her sťance garment to pieces.  Her husband dashed after her, followed by the other sitters.  She was found clutching the railings, screaming, and Mr. Duncan was trying to pacify her.

It was a most extraordinary scene.  If the reader can visualise a woman weighing more than seventeen stone, clad in a one-piece


black satin garment, locked to the railings and screaming at the top of her voice, he will have a fair idea of what we witnessed that evening.  Pieces of sťance garment were found in the road the next morning.

Of course, crowds collected and the police arrived.  The medical members of our Council explained to the constables what had happened, thus preventing their fetching the ambulance, which they threatened to do.

At last we got her into the laboratory again, and then the unexpected happened.  She demanded an X-ray examination!  But it was now too late, as our control had been broken owing to the fact that the medium had been alone in the street with her husband for a minute or so and we formed the theory that during that time she had passed the cheese-cloth to her husband.  To test this theory Dr. William Brown asked Mr. Duncan to turn out his pockets.  The medium's husband refused point blank to be searched.

At every sťance with Mrs. Duncan, "Albert" promised that he would allow us to cut off a portion of teleplasm, but he failed to keep his word - until the fifth and last sťance.

After the extraordinary scenes which occurred at the fourth test, I imagined that we had seen the last of the medium.  But I was mistaken.  Mr. Duncan came to see me and admitted that both he and his wife had done the wrong thing in upsetting us.  He offered to give us another sťance on June 4th, and we accepted.

For our fifth experiment with Mrs. Duncan we decided to make the fore-control still more thorough, and to that end we asked Dr. X and Dr. Z, two medical men on the staff of a famous hospital, to make the necessary bodily examination.  This they did very thoroughly.  They brought a bag of tools with them, took off their coats to the job, and really got down to it.  But they found nothing.  Every orifice and crack where an instrument or a hand would go was thoroughly explored; every nook and cranny was examined; but at each fresh place they drew blank.  This all sounds very terrible, but it is modern psychical research: a technique forced upon us by the amazing tricks of the mediums.

There was still one place that could not be explored without an anesthetic and that was the stomach.


The medium was led into the cabinet, the curtains closed, and in a few seconds she was in an alleged trance.

"Albert" then spoke: "You asked me to allow you to cut something off.  I will allow you to cut it off and then I will have to go."  He then said "Are you ready?" and the curtains slowly opened.  We saw the medium with a long white strip or tongue of something hanging from her mouth.  It was about twelve inches long and an inch wide.

It was arranged that when we saw any teleplasm one of us was to jump up and cut a piece off.  We each had a pair of scissors, and it was a weird sight to see the glint of steel round the circle as the scissors flashed in the red light.  It reminded me of a sewing-bee.

When the white strip appeared Dr. X, who was nearest the medium, entered the cabinet and caught hold of the white tongue with his left hand, at the same time cutting away with his right.  Screams from the medium.  At last he secured a few inches, which I immediately placed in a bottle of alcohol.  Dr. X told us that, when he pulled it, the stuff broke in his hand like a wad of sodden paper.  The remainder of the "teleplasm" disappeared down her throat.  We got no more phenomena that night.

After the sťance we examined the "teleplasm" at our leisure, and it appeared to be a tube of paper, flattened and folded zigzag, like a concertina.

Next morning we handed portions of the "teleplasm" to Mr. William Bacon, B.Sc., F.I.C., the chief analyst to the paper trade.  This gentleman analysed our "prize" and declared that the stuff was merely a cheap, thin paper, like a strip of a toilet roll, soaked in white of egg and folded into a flattened tube.  The paper was made partly of chemical pulp and partly of mechanical pulp.  Under the microscope the marks of the machine that pulped it are plainly visible.

A few days later we invited Mr. Duncan to have a heart-to-heart talk with us and to explain why he had taken £50 from us for some photographs of cheese-cloth and a strip of toilet paper.  He pleaded ignorance of his wife's doings, though he admitted our evidence was conclusive.  He said he was still convinced that Mrs. Duncan could produce genuine phenomena, and offered us another sťance at which his wife would be under


a rigid physical control.  The test was arranged for July 2nd, but, without informing us, the Duncans left for Scotland on June 23rd.

That ended our adventures with the Duncans.  I wrote a history of our tests which caused a sensation when it was published.  The strip of paper we saw at the last sťance proved conclusively that the "medium" could secrete objects in her internal economy and produce them at will - in other words, regurgitate.

The reader might well imagine that my damning report on lhe Duncans finished the "mediumship."  Not a bit of it!  It acted as an excellent advertisement for the woman and her curious powers, and spiritualists on both sides of the Tweed began falling over themselves in order to obtain sittings with her.  The cheese-cloth mania had a fresh lease of life.

.     .     .     .     .     .     .     .

The visit of the Duncans to the National Laboratory had a curious sequel.  A Miss Mary McGinlay called on us in February 1932 and told us she had accompanied Mrs. Duncan to London and had acted as maid to her.  She said she had some important information for usShe was interviewed by our Council, and her statements were legally drawn up in the form of a Statutory Declaration.  On February 22nd, 1932, she attended before a Commissioner for Oaths and made the declaration.

Miss McGinlay's story is an amazing one, and sheds some light on our experiments.  She states that she purchased pieces of butter-muslin for Mrs. Duncan and that these pieces "appear to be identical" with those which I photographed at the sťances.  She recognised tears in the fabric as being the same.

She also declared on oath that after a sťance "Mrs. Duncan used to get me to wash out a length of this muslin.  The muslin had a rotten smell.  It put me in mind of the smell of urine.... She would give it to me just as she had used it, and then it would be much stained and slimy."

On the night of the sťance when Mr. Duncan refused to be searched at the National Laboratory, Miss McGinlay met him in the road near the house where they were staying.  Mr. Duncan "took a roll of butter-muslin out of his pocket and said that Mrs. Duncan had passed it to him in the street when they


had been alone for a few minutes after she had dashed out of the sťance-room at the National Laboratory of Psychical Research.  He said that the people at the Laboratory had asked him to be searched and that he had made the excuse that his underclothes were very old, etc."

Miss McGinlay concludes: " During the latter period of my stay with Mrs. Duncan in London, I formed the opinion that the lengths of cheese-cloth which I had sometimes washed for Mrs. Duncan had been swallowed by her.  The conclusion was forced upon me that the cheese-cloth was swallowed by her and then brought up again during a sťance."

After our damning report had been published Mrs. Duncan was taken up officially by the spiritualists and given a diploma by the Spiritualists' National Union!  Sittings were booked for her all over the country, and devotees fell down and worshipped her cheese-cloth puppets.  But she came a cropper at Edinburgh.

A distinguished Scots lady, Miss Esson Maule, had a sťance with the medium and arranged that some well-known Edinburgh people should be present.  The meeting was held on January 6th, 1933.

The usual "spirits" materialised, and towards the end of the sitting "Peggy" was seized by Miss Maule at the same time as someone switched on a light.  A terrific struggle between Miss Maule and Mrs. Duncan took place.  It was a case of "pull Devil, pull baker," with "Peggy" as the prize.  Miss Maule ripped "Peggy" up the middle and got her arm through it, but ultimately had to leave go.  The police were called and the case created a considerable sensation.

In an affidavit sworn by several of the sitters it is stated that "Peggy" was a woman's stockinette undervest.  Mrs. Duncan was persuaded to hand this over, and the tear where Miss Maule's arm went through it is plainly visible.  The vest was sealed with the signatures of most of those present, and I have been promised it for my museum of "psychic" curiosities.

The affair of the undervest attracted the attention of the Scots legal authorities, and Mrs. Duncan stood her trial for fraudulent mediumship at Edinburgh on May 3rd, 1933.  The trial of the Crown versus Duncan lasted two days, and Sheriff Macdonald, K. C., who presided, reserved his judgment, which was delivered on May 11th, 1933.  The woman was convicted


and fined £10 or one month's imprisonment.  I sat through this trial, and my only comment is that I was amazed at the credulity exhibited by some of the witnesses for the defence: it was credulity bordering on imbecility.  I heard very similar statements when I sat through the eleven days' libel action brought against the Daily Mail by Mrs. Meurig Morris, the trance medium, which was heard before the late Mr. Justice McCardie in 1932.

The conviction of Mrs. Duncan was brought up and discussed at the Annual General Meeting of the Spiritualists' National Union (the governing body in Great Britain), held at Doncaster on July 1st, 1933, and a vote of confidence in the medium was carried by fifty-seven votes to two.  Also, the diploma or certificate previously issued to Mrs. Duncan by the S.N.U. was renewed.  (See the Two Worlds for July 14th, 1933.)  Comment is superfluous.

The Duncan case is an extraordinary one, and when investigators are confronted with such problems as a regurgitating "medium" (whose "teleplasm" is found to consist of white of egg, toilet paper, undervest, and cheese-cloth), is it any wonder that I insist that the time has now arrived for orthodox science to lend us a hand in the elucidation of the mysteries of the sťance-room? *

* As this work is passing through the press, I am informed that the Home Secretary is contemplating legislation in order to regulate mediumship and to protect the public from those who batten on its credulity.  It is a most difficult problem.



The Base Room . Biography . Timeline . Gallery . Profiles . Sťance Room . Famous Cases . Borley Rectory . Books By Price . Writings By Price . Books About Price . Bibliography . Links . Subscribe . About This Site

All original text, photographs & graphics used throughout this website are © copyright 2004-2005 by Paul G. Adams.  All other material reproduced here is the copyright of the respective authors.