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Hellish Nell: Last of Britain's Witches Hardcover – 2 Apr 2001
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The 1735 Witchcraft Act, charging that spirits of the dead had been raised by conjuration, was used for the last time in Portsmouth in 1944. The accused was Helen Duncan, a plump Scotswoman, convicted as a fraud yet believed by hundreds to possess the power to speak to the dead. This is her extraordinary story, and of religion and superstition in Britain in the first half of the 20th century. Helen Duncan was born in Callander in 1898 and developed mysterious powers during the World War I when she correctly predicted the guise of the soldier she would marry. Having refined these powers she became increasingly celebrated following her own near death from pneumonia when she was informed of her vocation by a shadowy white figure. She went on to produce spirit forms from ectoplasm that, she said, flowed through her. She was accompanied by a spirit guide named Albert and a young girl spirit named Peggy. Or was she? The Psychic community was divided in two fiercely opposing camps - followers and sceptics.The government of the day got involved (Churchill was said to be more than a little interested) when, during World War II Helen appeared able to tell relatives of the deaths of their loved ones even before offical announcements had been made. And so in 1944, absurdly, anachronistically, she was charged with witchcraft, prosecuted and jailed for the duration of the war. Her life is an amazing glimpse into the spritiual and psychological mood of the times, a story of bathos and absurdity, of credulity and cruelty, and of England's last witch.
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.See all Product description
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Duncan came to the attention of the authorities after she apparently conjured up the spirit of a young sailor who had just died aboard the battleship Barham. As the Admiralty had not yet admitted the loss of this ship, there was some unseemly haste in ensuring the news was covered up and Duncan silenced.
Malcolm Gaskill delivers more than a biography of Helen Duncan. This is not an evaluation of her sincerity or fraudulent intent. Rather, it is an exploration of the world of spiritualism and why it became such a force in the inter-War period.
However, this was a hard book for me to read, jarring as it does with so many more sympathetic accounts of Helen's life and work that I, like other spiritualist readers, am more familiar with. Just how does one reconcile the extremes of testimony Gaskill lays before us? Even the photographs alternate between the convincing to the blatantly mock up. Could the same woman who brought back loved ones to converse is so many languages other than English, who at 20+ stone performed feats of escapology with spirit help, be the same who purportedly cheated so transparently? Was she, as Price suggested, a regurgitator rather than a medium or was she the victim of a deliberate attempt by this embittered man to discredit her? Was she a genuine medium who occasionally cheated because of her or her husbands material needs? Was she the victim of deeper war time conspiracy or state paranoia? Just why were MI5 so interested? But then Gaskill never set out to help us out with any of these questions in the first place. He does nevertheless raise them, hint at the possible motives of the central players in relation to them, and then leave them hanging in the air. Perhaps I feel irritated only because I'd like answers that maybe only God, Albert and Helen will ever be privy to.
Gaskill brilliantly explores through Helen's story the significance of spirituality, beliefs and our understanding of our place in the universe during the turbulent first half of the 20th Century but perhaps does not explore deeply enough the connection between the adverse personal views of Helen as 'fat' a 'drinker' and 'rude' in light of patriarchal views of women at the time. I am sure that her family and friends would offer a more loving image to counterbalance this here.
I thank you for that.
But the book is utter nonsense a complete fabrication from start to finish.
A waste of my hard earned cash.
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