HELLISH NELL: The Last of Britain's Witches
By Malcolm Gaskell, published by 4th Estate at £15.99. 402pp. HBk. ISBN: 1-84115-109-2. (Reviewed by Brian Hoggard)
The publishers are all pushing the boat out lately with zingy titles for books lately and this one is no exception – although the author does make valiant attempts to justify the title inside the book. The title would suggest a book about a witch with an evil attitude when what it's actually about is a materialising medium who was tried for fraud during the second world war. As it turns out Helen was nicknamed 'hellish Nell' for a brief period in her youth and her only connection with witchcraft is the law under which she was eventually convicted. It is this latter fact that leads the author to describe her as the last of Britain's witches – what he really means is that she was the last person to be tried under the Witchcraft Act. Of course we all know there are still one or two witches roaming around Britain (grin).
The title provides a good point of sale sensation but is the book any good? Short answer, yes! The book combines biography with history and psychical research and is written in an engaging style which never gets tedious. Gaskill has clearly done his homework both in the library of the Society for Psychical Research and in chasing up relatives of Helen's and people who had attended her seances. Not only this but he's obviously had the patience to wade through the voluminous evidence presented at her trial, which caused a sensation at the time.
The fact that many people who either knew Helen or were sitters at her seances are still alive must have raised many political issues for the author. Not only did he have to interview many of these people who clearly believed in Helen's abilities as a medium, but he had to respect their views and be fair to them despite gathering other evidence which contradicted their testimony. Not an easy task. I imagine his postbag has been full of angry contributors since publication!
Some of the most interesting passages in the book from my point of view concerned the contemporary attempts of psychical researchers to assess the evidence for Helen's mediumship. Some of the photographs taken during her seances which appear in the book show clear evidence of fraud. One of them shows a mask with a vaguely realistic face hanging from a nail – allegedly a spirit. People's experiences of touching the ectoplasm produced at these seances is simultaneously fascinating and horrifying. People often reported a pungent smell associated with this in addition to a fabric-like texture. It appears, from the evidence, that this was compacted muslin which had been concealed in body cavities and somehow manipulated during the seances. The amount of people who touched it believing it to be real ectoplasm is a slightly troubling issue to consider. Additionally many people remarked at how there was a remarkable similarity between the features of some of the spirits and Helen's own face.
Obviously these details of fraud concern the 'materialising' side of her mediumship and do not deal with whether the information regarding these spirits was accurate or not. Gaskill has presented in the book compelling evidence for her fraud (possibly with the help of her husband) but, like the researchers at the time, he is still unable to pin down the exact mechanisms by which Helen and other mediums like her, manipulated various fabrics and objects in the way they did. This appears to be a gap in the critique of materialising mediums and would be a fascinating subject area to see revealed.
The questions surrounding Helen's accuracy in what was actually said to people are the biggest shortcoming of this book in my opinion. There did not appear to be sufficient discussion in the book on whether the information she communicated to people, purportedly from their deceased friends and relatives, was actually accurate or not. He does discuss some of her more famous and widely reported successes and demonstrates convincingly how these could have been educated guesswork and also how her dialogue could easily take advantage of the war situation at that time. Gaskill also presents a few good cases of her obvious failure to convince certain individuals that they were really talking to a deceased relative. Despite this, I was still left wondering how so many people, many from intellectual circles at the time, could be 'taken in' by this Scottish girl of humble origins. Those 'materialising' skills which have clearly been shown to be fraudulent, may have been acquired by her as a way of turning less obvious gifts to profit for all we know. I didn't feel that this area was thoroughly covered in this book.
Nonetheless this book is a fascinating read and taught me far more about this case than I had previously known. There are many rumours and myths about Helen Duncan and this book does lay many of them to rest, but still leaves one or two small mysteries. This hardback book is pretty good value compared to other hardbacks and will provide entertainment and fascination. A worthy addition to your bookshelf.