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Hellish Nell: the Last of Britain's Witches [Hardcover]

Malcolm Gaskill
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)

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Review

‘Nothing can disguise the strength of the material on display, or the sense of a great swathe of early 20th century mental life brought out into sharp but by no means unsympathetic modern light'. D.J. Taylor, SUNDAY TIMES

‘A fascinating account’ Lesley McDowell, INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY

‘Malcolm Gaskill has researched the whole story of Helen Duncan’s life with extreme thoroughness; his account sparkles with dry humour, but is not without sympathy too. Its main value – apart from…sheer entertainment-value – lies in the light it shines on the social phenomenon of spiritualism in early 20th-century Britain’ SUNDAY TELEGRAPH

‘Comprehensive and scholarly, and also extremely readable, being full of trenchant phrases and vivid analogies. It is balanced, fair and a salutary reminder, in our secularised society, that belief in the supernatural is still endemic.’ LITERARY REVIEW

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From the Author

Explaining Hellish Nell: Last of Britain's Witches
My new book Hellish Nell is a work of social cultural history. Specifically, it is an attempt to recapture something of early 20th-century attitudes and ideas through the subject of Spiritualism, and, in turn, to understand something of Spiritualism through the life and times of the infamous materialization medium, Helen Duncan. In particular, her trial under the 1735 Witchcraft Act at the Old Bailey in 1944 reveals a cross-section of opinions: legal, journalistic, religious, scientific and so on.

Although I hint at my true feelings about psychical phenomena, my main intention has been to suspend judgement in order to allow the reader to glimpse a strange world of religious fantasy. For the purpose of understanding the characters in the story, and through them to recover a taste of the past, I have tried to establish this world temporarily an an alternative reality.

The book tells a strange story, full of spectral visitations and gruesome events, and it should be read as such. But hopefully it also demonstrates that the truths upon which we rely are generated by institutions and the labels those institutions attach to people. In this case, the use of the Witchcraft Act makes it inevitable that Helen Duncan was seen as a witch, even though she was nothing of the sort in a religious or even legal sense. Such was the strange influence of Hellish Nell Duncan over British society sixty years ago.

From the Back Cover

Private seances, at which spirits are said to return from the dead, were once more of a public affair. In darkened back-rooms, cellars and halls across early twentieth-century Britain, thousands of people went to 'the spooks' hoping to see mediums manifest ghostly forms. For many, working-class Scot Helen Duncan – nicknamed 'Hellish Nell' as a child – was the best there had ever been. But fame turned to infamy early in 1944 when she was treid at the Old Bailey under the 1735 Witchcraft Act, and sentanced to nine months in prison.

It was one of the most sensational episodes in wartime Britain. Why did the trial occur just weeks before the Normandy landings? Why was Helen Duncan gaoled for summoning spirits when mediums were usually fined as petty frauds? And what actually happened at the seances to impress so many respectable people, more than forty of whom testified as defence witnesses at her trial? Was she in fact a conjurer, amystic, a con-artist or even a spy? To Spiritualists, Helen Duncan was a martyr. To the state, she became a security risk. Her life story is a broth of wartime anxieties, legal deviousness, science and pseudo-science, conspiracy, politics and sheer entertainment. But she was also the focus for one of the oldest and most difficult questions of all: what happens when we die? It was the question of the age for a generation which had lived through the slaughter and sorrow of two world wars.

Malcolm Gaskill has uncovered a fascintating and poignant story of an ordinary woman thrust onto and extraordinary public platform, on which vaudeville-style get-togethers clattered headlong into the opposing forces of church and state, determined to declare Helen Duncan a witch.

About the Author

Malcolm Gaskill is a Director of Studies in History at Churchill College, Cambridge. He is a frequent broadcaster on radio.

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