The Strange Case of Hellish Nell: The Story of Helen Duncan and the Witch Trial of World War II

The Strange Case of Hellish Nell: The Story of Helen Duncan and the Witch Trial of World War II

by Nina Shandler
     
 

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On March 23, 1944, as the allied forces prepared for D-Day, Britain’s most famous psychic, Helen Duncan-“Nell” to her family-stood in the dock of Britain’s highest criminal court accused of...witchcraft. It was a trial so bizarre Winston Churchill grumbled, “Why all this tomfoolery?” But the Prime Minister was not privy to the…  See more details below

Overview

On March 23, 1944, as the allied forces prepared for D-Day, Britain’s most famous psychic, Helen Duncan-“Nell” to her family-stood in the dock of Britain’s highest criminal court accused of...witchcraft. It was a trial so bizarre Winston Churchill grumbled, “Why all this tomfoolery?” But the Prime Minister was not privy to the Military Intelligence agenda fueling the prosecution: Duncan’s séances were accurately revealing top-secret British ship movements. The authorities wanted “Hellish Nell” silenced. Using diaries, personal papers, interviews, and declassified documents, Nina Shandler resurrects this strange courtroom episode and the shadowy world of wartime secrets and psychics. Sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, The Strange Case of Hellish Nell is a true crime tale laced with supernatural phenomena and wartime intrigue.

Editorial Reviews

January Magazine
A fascinating work that reads like an interesting but offbeat piece of fiction.
Publishers Weekly
In April 1944 as Allied forces were prepping for D-Day, the British press made headlines about a Scottish mother of six who was being tried under the Witchcraft Act of 1735. Obese and lower-class, Helen Duncan apparently had a gift of second sight that was exploited by her idle husband, who taught her to be a proper medium and sent her act on the road. In addition to communing with the dead, the famed spiritualist had a knack for divulging ship movements and losses, and Portsmouth Chief Constable Arthur West, ordered to protect Britain's premier naval port during wartime, was duly alarmed. But how do you silence a medium without giving away the fact that she had accurately forecast military secrets? West nabbed her as a fake who defrauded innocent victims. Despite an excellent defense, Duncan got nine months and served six; after the war she happily embraced her powers even though she had sworn to retire. Unfortunately, family therapist Shandler (Ophelia's Mom) displays a penchant for overheated, amateurish prose (the red ink from Churchill's note to the home secretary "dripped with disdain") and conjures a tedious tale from an intriguing subject. Photos. (Oct.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A Scottish psychic is charged under Britain's Witchcraft Act of 1735 as the Allies prepare to launch the D-day invasion. Psychologist and family therapist Shandler (Ophelia's Mom, not reviewed) recounts this unlikeliest of tales in brittle, colorless prose that diffuses much of its drama. Nell Duncan, an overweight mother of six whose two sons were off fighting Hitler while she was on trial, never really comes into focus as anything more than a pathetic oddity. Nor is the book's readability helped by the author's habit of skipping abruptly back and forth from Duncan's days as a young tomboy romping through Edinburgh to her adult years as a controversial medium continually hounded by skeptical psychiatrists and authorities. Duncan's psychic powers surfaced early but didn't provide escape from a generally sad life. She was thrown out by her mother after bearing a child out of wedlock and lost an infant daughter. Saddled with a feckless husband and growing family, she resorted to performing in public. Seances and spiritualism were wildly popular in war-torn Britain as grieving relatives tried to contact the soldiers dying daily on the battlefield. Duncan had a history of revealing secret ship movements while in a trance, so when she began giving seances in the harbor town of Portsmouth on Jan. 14, 1944, local authorities feared she would divulge the pending D-day invasion, slated to be launched from a nearby port. Much of the story revolves around her nine-day trial. Duncan's attorney called no fewer than 39 defense witnesses, each of whom testified that she produced the talking ghosts of their departed loved ones through a spirit guide named Albert. Shandler never addresses the credibilityof these accounts (didn't anyone ever think to bring a camera?), and we can't help but feel that the whole truth eludes us. The author never delivers the promised entertainment wallop. Agent: James Levine/Levine Greenberg Literary Agency

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780786732845
Publisher:
Da Capo Press
Publication date:
03/25/2009
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
312
File size:
3 MB

Meet the Author

Nina Shandler, Ed.D., a licensed psychologist and family therapist, is the author of Estrogen: The Natural Way and Ophelia’s Mom. She lives in Massachusetts.

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