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The case of Helen Duncan is a strange one indeed. Duncan was a practicing Spiritualist who held regular séances during which she channeled the spirits of the dead. She fell foul of English wartime security officials when she appeared to have used her clairvoyant powers to reveal military secrets, even to foretell events of strategic importance. She was tried and imprisoned under the archaic Witchcraft Act of 1735 in what must have been one of the more bizarre distractions from the blitzkrieg and the D Day landings. Psychologist Nina Shandler's account sets out a narrative of the events, with some intriguing background about Duncan's development and family life. Shandler draws sharp portraits of the key players, finally revealing Duncan as a rather sad, if charismatic con artist, caught up in a complex web of events and personalities she was poorly equipped to handle. The case of Helen Duncan was the subject of a previous account (Hellish Nell: The last of Britain's witches, by Malcolm Gaskill, 2001) and Shandler's book makes frequent reference to that earlier work.
Helen Duncan's life was a drama on many levels. She experienced a harsh, impoverished childhood in Collander, Scotland, and was and early protégé in matters of the occult, causing her mother to predict her imprisonment and trial for witchcraft. Banished from her family for having a child out of wedlock, Helen married the scheming and manipulative Henry Duncan. The couple had more children than they could provide for, and Henry Duncan proved a ruthless exploiter of his wife's talents. There was money to be made in communicating with the dead, and the Duncans had mouths to feed. Had her path not crossed with the war time security services, Duncan might have lived a relatively prosperous life on the proceeds of her séances. But her reputation, and some of her specific claims, brought unwanted attention, and the jealousy of the Society for Psychical Research. It was this combination of enemies that brought Duncan low, and ended with her incarceration in Holloway Prison. In her Old Bailey trial Helen Duncan became a media star. Even a public preoccupied with war in Europe and daily bombing of their cities could find time for such a sensational scandal.
Shandler does a good job of weaving together the diverse strands of Duncan's extraordinary life. If Duncan's spiritualist practices are not bizarre enough, the spectacle of this uncultured, coarse-mannered, shabby figure entertaining audiences of reserved English ladies by producing strands of "ectoplasm" (believed to be the spirits of departed loved ones) seems little short of fantastic. Duncan had an appetite for whisky, loved a cigarette, and, especially during her periods of entrancement, was capable of lewd and vulgar language. Spiritualism provided a cloak of respectability for activities that otherwise would have brought deep public opprobrium, and perhaps the unwanted interest of the police.
The book is written in the racy manner of an expose. Shandler has unearthed a large amount of detail on wartime England, and on the life of Portsmouth's Chief Constable Arthur West and the other major players. The climactic courthouse scenes at the Old Bailey make for compelling reading, with theatrical defense lawyer Charles Loseby and prosecutor John Maude performing for Judge Sir Gerald Gordon like amateur thespians at an audition. Aspects of Duncan's personal life are interposed with the broader narrative, so that as readers' knowledge of her Spiritualist activities increases, so does their understanding of Duncan as a person.
Shandler is at times, somewhat over eager to impress with evidence of her research. The Prologue to her book recounts her visit to the English Public Records Office, where she was given access to a file marked "Closed until 2046". The most revealing document in that file was a note penned by Churchill, in which he complained about the "obsolete tomfoolery" of Duncan's trial. That note was reproduced in full in Gaskill's 2001 publication. Shandler also provides an excess of footnotes, including one for this comment, related to the above note: "The red ink dripped with disdain". There is another for this direction from Chief Constable West to Detective Fred Ford: "...Take him to a pub. Take him out on your fishing boat." Shandler must be given credit for providing details, but the extent of these footnotes is a little unnecessary. At times, too, Shandler mixes American and British colloquial language, for example in the sentence: "At any séance, a zealous band of coppers might march in, wielding nightsticks."
Shandler pulls off some deceptions of her own. Duncan was rarely referred to as "Hellish Nell". The term was used in her childhood, but not during the period of her notoriety and trial. And although she was tried under the Witchcraft Act, she wasn't accused, as the book's title implies' of witchcraft, but of fraud. If she could have "proved" that the dead really did speak through her she would have got off scot-free.
Considering Shandler's professional background there is a disappointing lack of psychological analysis. Shandler is dismissive of Duncan's status as a spirit medium but without really discussing the remarkable credulity of its many adherents, or the popularity of occult practices in the first half of the twentieth century. She refers to Duncan's testimony as "heretical drivel" and there are references to Spiritualists as "goblin chasers". Such dismissive comments do not inform readers of the complex psychology of Spiritualism. Helen Duncan was not an isolated maverick. She practiced a form of Spiritualism that enjoyed wide public acceptance.
In particular, an examination of the case of Helen Duncan offers an opportunity to explore the appeal of Spiritualism to the likes of the Duncan, a downtrodden victimized woman who was an outcast fro her own family. It is not that the spiritualism of war time Britain was a working class affair popularized by outcasts: as Shandler's reconstruction of the Old Bailey trial shows, its supporters were often very influential and well placed members of society. How does such a diverse group come to share a common credulity that flies in the face of reason? These issues are left unexplored by Shandler. Similarly, there is no discussion of what we would now call the phenomenon of dissociation, clearly evident in Duncan's manifesting different personas that gave expression to a remarkable range of personality traits. Shandler's comment that the term "multiple personality" was used during the trial to refer to Duncan is odd, as the term had very limited currency at that time.
The Strange Case of Hellish Nell is a compelling read. The atmosphere of wartime England is well evoked; the events and characters make for a lively narrative. While I would like to have seen at least some analysis of Spiritualism, the book does paint a memorable portrait of Helen Duncan, and the various individuals who played a part in her life. The 1735 Witchcraft Act was repealed in the 1950s, although contemporary legislation leaves one in no doubt as to the powers of the State if its interests are perceived as threatened.
© 2007 Tony O'Brien
Tony O'Brien is a lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Auckland, New Zealand: [email protected]