On March 23, 1944, as the Allied Forces were preparing for D-Day, Helen Duncan--"Nell" to her six children and four grandchildren and "Hellish Nell" to her detractors--stood in the dock of Britain's highest criminal court accused of:witchcraft! At the time of her arrest, Helen Duncan was Britain's most controversial psychic, a celebrity medium with a notorious reputation. During her seances, she channeled spirits who spoke from the world beyond, and on a few occasions, her "spirit" seemed to know too much: Helen's seances were accurately revealing top-secret British ship movements. Intelligence authorities wanted "Hellish Nell" silenced. Using diaries, personal papers, interviews, and declassified documents, Nina Shandler resurrects this strange episode and explores the unanswered questions surrounding the trial: Did "Hellish Nell" channel spirits of the dead who gave away wartime secrets? Was she a calculating charlatan or the innocent target of obsessive wartime secrecy? Why did the Director of Public Prosecutions try her as a witch, and not a spy? Sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, The Strange Case of Hellish Nell is a true crime tale laced with psychic phenomena and wartime intrigue.
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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.From 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.)
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