Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Intriguing Story from Holloway Prison

As a Crime Fiction writer, I'm drawn to TV programmes about prisons, always on the look out for information that is not normally revealed to the public and bizarre stories. Well - I certainly found one!

Channel 5: Inside Holloway
The current series on Channel 5 - Inside Holloway  whetted my appetite with a curious incident during World War II, when conditions in the jail were decidedly impoverished. Several former inmates of Holloway prison are household names - Ruth Ellis, Myra Hindley and Maxine Carr, for example - but this most intriguing story surrounds a woman called Helen Duncan (1897-1956).
Helen Duncan

Duncan, who had demonstrated psychic ability throughout her life, claimed to produce Spirits from what she called 'ectoplasm' that emerged from her mouth under trance. This was a stringy white substance that was supposed to give form to Spirits and allow them to communicate. Duncan made a living by conducting impressive séances throughout Britain, during which the spirits of the dead were alleged to have appeared, talking to and even touching their relatives. In fact the 'ectoplasm' was a mix of saliva, egg-white, cloth and faces cut out of magazines - essentially Duncan was an expert regurgitator! Her act was alleged to be merely a stage show...

Duncan became unstuck when she performed a séance in Portsmouth in November 1941 and accurately revealed (through the spirit of a sailor) that a battleship, the HMS Barham, had been sunk with 859 lives lost. HMS Barham was not officially declared lost until several months later; its sinking having been kept secret to mislead the enemy and protect morale. Duncan was arrested, but instead of being charged the usual petty fine for vagrancy - she was charged under the 1735 Witchcraft Act, which stated it was an offence to falsely conjure spirits.

Duncan was given a prison sentence of nine months in Holloway in January 1944 - many believed the extreme penalty was imposed for fear that she would reveal other damaging military secrets regarding the war effort. In her cell, she was given soiled underclothes to wear, little hot water and no toilet paper (it was common practice at the time to tear pages from the Bibles that were given to prisoners). Still - she didn't appear to be put off by her ordeal and after her release in September 1944, she went on to conduct further seances, although no further charges were brought against her.

Stories like this just send shivers up my spine!
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AJ Waines is the author of Psychological Thrillers:  The Evil Beneath and Girl on a Train.
Both books went to Number One in 'Murder' and 'Psychological Thrillers' in the UK Kindle charts.

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