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

Nina Shandler, Author . Da Capo $25 (289p) ISBN 978-0-306-81438-9

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.)

Reviewed on: 08/07/2006
Release date: 09/01/2006
Paperback - 289 pages - 978-0-306-81575-1
Open Ebook - 312 pages - 978-0-7867-3284-5
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