Hellish Nell: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in Interwar Britain
One of the last criminal trials using the 1735 Witchcraft Act was, improbably, in London in 1944. The accused was Helen Duncan, a middle-aged Scotswoman. This is her extraordinary story.
Known since childhood as ‘Hellish Nell’, for her uncontainable nature, Mrs Duncan was one of the most popular mediums of the twentieth century, holding seances around the country where she was believed to manifest visibly the spirits of the dead. She also attracted the attention of psychical researchers, eager to prove to disprove her gift, and indeed the existence of ghosts.
What happens when we die? It was the question of the age for a generation which had endured one world war and now was living through another. Mrs Duncan’s seances offered an answer. But when she started foretelling naval disasters, she also attracted the unwelcome attention not only of psychical researchers but of the secret service. And so just weeks before the Normandy landings, absurdly, anachronistically, she was prosecuted for witchcraft and jailed. Was Nell a conjurer, a martyr or a security risk?
Professor Gaskilll’s ‘Hellish Nell’ was first published in 2001 to widespread acclaim and was longlisted for the Whitbread Prize. In a revised edition published in 2023, it remains a fascinating window into the unsettled spiritual and psychological mood of the times: a sensational tale of spectacle, credulity and cruelty, and the life of woman many people remember as Britain’s last witch.
Speaker Bio
Malcolm Gaskill is Emeritus Professor of Early Modern History at the University of East Anglia. Before joining the School of History at UEA, he was Fellow and Director of Studies in History at Churchill College, Cambridge. Prior to that he was a lecturer at Keele University (1993-4), Queen’s University, Belfast (1994-5), and Anglia Ruskin University (1995-9). He left UEA in 2020 and is now a full-time writer. His interests are mainly in British social and cultural history, particularly the history of mentalities. He has written extensively about the history of witch-beliefs and witchcraft prosecutions, and the supernatural in the twentieth century, especially spiritualism and psychical research. His bestselling 2021 book The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World, was a Sunday Times History Book of the Year and was shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize.
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10 Dec 2024 7:30 pm - 9:00 pm

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