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Hellish Nell: Last of Britain's Witches Paperback – April 2, 2002
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'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
About the Author
Malcolm Gaskill teaches History at Cambridge University where he is Fellow and Director of Studies at Churchill College. He specialises in the history of witchcraft and popular beliefs, and is the author of CRIME AND MENTALITIES IN EARLY MODERN ENGLAND.
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The book is divided into three main parts. Part one, Helen Valorized, deals with Helen's childhood, depicting in a very detailed way the recognition and development of her second sight skills. Moreover, the first part gives insight to her position in society and illustrates her ambiguous reputation she enjoyed already in her early life: she was either treated with respect, anxiety or hatred. Gaskill goes on to describe Helen's days after her banishment from her family because of pregnancy in 1914, illustrating the events that led up to her first encounter with Henry Duncan, their marriage, their tormented relationship, which was mainly due to illnesses, and finally her development as a medium to its fullest potential.
In part two, Helen Vilified, the author vividly depicts Helen's growth in reputation, gives insight to her private séances she started to hold in the early 1930s and profoundly illustrates her engagement with several research organization in London, which not only helped the Duncans to attain financial stability but also followed the aim in accusing Helen's performances as fraudulent and deceiving. Especially Harry Price, the founder of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research (NLPR), who did some research work with Helen and eyed her activity more sceptical as anybody else, is skilfully depicted by Gaskill as the main reason for Helen's final physical and mental breakdown. Apart from Helen's ups and downs as a living medium and detailed descriptions of various occurrences during her private as well as public sittings, part two also concentrates on the importance of the war for Helen's and other mediums' increasing status in society at that time. The main focus of this part of the book is however given to the events that led up to her final imprisonment in 1944 and the trial itself, which was held at the Old Bailey in London and ended with Helen's imprisonment for nine months.
In part three, Helen Vindicated, the question of phenomena versus fraud is risen by the author and he tries to investigate this seemingly irresolvable problem by citing opinions of several scientists and other mediums. Gaskill also lists some prominent people who allegedly were spiritualists or even mediums themselves, such as Abraham Lincoln, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe or Benjamin Franklin. At the end of part three he finally returns to Helen Duncan's fate, demonstrates a mixture of reactions that followed her imprisonment and in the end refers to her last few years as a medium after her release that were marked by a tremendous decline in the overal interest in Spiritualism.
Hellish Nell is a highly recommendable book for one whose interest lies not only in the personality of Helen Duncan as such but is also interested in rather exhaustive information about the spirit of the age and background information on witch hunt Gaskill gives.
However, there are sections of the book that are hard to follow since Gaskill tends to jump back and forth in his descriptions, mixing the illustration of Helen Duncan's life with historical details that in some occasion could easily be left out for the convenience of the reader. Consequently, the book might leave one in a state of utter confusion because the author seems to have failed to concentrate only on the essential facts, namely the fate of Hellish Nell. If some of the detailed information and explanations were left out the book would be easier to comprehend not only for a scholarly but also for a ordinary readership.
This book contains several pictures, a prologue, three parts - each subdivided into three sec-tions - and an epilogue. It deals with Helen's early life, her career as a medium and the inci-dent that almost destroyed it.
Helen McFarlane - with her nickname Hellish Nell for her tomboyish behaviour - was born in Scotland, to be more precise in a small Perthshire town called Callander. Helen was told by her mother that she would be burnt as a witch if she refused to be silent.
Furthermore, Nell was banished from home because of her illegitimate child. Helen finally found work in Dundee and married Henry Duncan, who had been invalided out of the army. The Duncan family consisted of six children, and they had to live under bad conditions, until Helen developed her gift of passing messages from deceased people to their relatives - she became a successful spiritualist medium. Mrs. Duncan could contact the spirits of dead people and manifest them. Clothed in ectoplasm, luminous matter generated inside the medium's body, these spirits would be reunited with their friends and family before returning to the other side.
Nevertheless, it has to be mentioned that Mrs. Duncan raised the attention of sceptics, as well. One day Helen had given a seance in the naval base of Portsmouth. The spirit of a dead sailor had materialised for his mother, upon his cap-band the name HMS Barham, a warship sta-tioned in the eastern Mediterranean. His mother contacted the naval authorities; they knew that HMS Barham had been sunk, but the government was hiding this fact from the public and would not state this for three months. It seemed to be nearly impossible for Mrs Duncan to know that the crew of the Barham was dead, so she appeared to have psychic powers. There-fore Helen Duncan was arrested - the police raided this seance. Towards the end of March Duncan was found guilty and prosecuted at London's Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey, for conspiracy to break the Witchcraft Act of 1735. Helen had to spend nine months in Hol-loway Prison.
After Duncan's sentence, she seemed to be rather exhausted, but she continued to hold se-ances. In December 1956 Helen Duncan fell ill and diet at the age of 59 at home in Edin-burgh.
This book by Malcolm Gaskill is very detailed and depicts all the friends and enemies of spiritualism, for instance Harry Houdini is mentioned, moreover Helen's case came to the attention of Winston Churchill.
Today it is said that Helen Duncan still makes contact in her work as a spirit-guide to another generation of mediums.