The dead are all around us

Hilary Mantel

  • Hellish Nell: Last of Britain’s Witches by Malcolm Gaskill
    Fourth Estate, 402 pp, £15.99, April 2001, ISBN 1 84115 109 2

April 1944. Winston Churchill sent a memo to Herbert Morrison at the Home Office:

Let me have a report on why the Witchcraft Act, 1735, was used in a modern Court of Justice. What was the cost of this trial to the State, observing that witnesses were brought from Portsmouth and maintained here in this crowded London, for a fortnight, and the Recorder kept busy with all this obsolete tomfoolery, to the detriment of necessary work in the Courts?

The person tried and convicted at the war-damaged Old Bailey was a stout and ailing Scotswoman called Helen Duncan, whom few people loved and many exploited. She was not a witch in any popular sense of the word; she did not fly, wear a pointed hat or have congress with the devil, and neither she nor her followers imagined that she did. She was a witch only in the sense that she was convicted under an old statute, as a convenience to the court. If the attention-grabbing title can be excused, it is because the author has a strange and pitiful tale to tell.

Rumours of Churchill’s indignation, and of his own spiritualist leanings, have been enough to make the case bob back into public consciousness every few years. As Malcolm Gaskill says, ‘we inherit ancestral tales reworked by each generation to make their truth powerful rather than precise, moral rather than empirical.’ Among the majority today, reverence for Churchill survives surprisingly intact; it is a folk-tale Churchill who intervenes in the case, incisive and on the side of the underdog. In fact, as Gaskill shows, Churchill took no further part in either vilifying or vindicating Helen Duncan. If he was superstitious, that made him like many soldiers and ex-soldiers. If, as a young man, he had consulted an astrologer, then he was a natural leader for a nation that employed state stargazers to track the forecasts of their Nazi counterparts.

Helen’s trial lasted eight days, and ended with a jail sentence of ten months, which (less remission) she served in Holloway. Prosecuted psychics often elicited public sympathy, especially when the police were suspected of entrapment. Helen’s tabloid image henceforth was as the ‘St Joan of Spiritualism’. The charges against her arose from a police raid on a séance in Portsmouth, where informers were planted in the audience. Though Helen was a well-known medium who commanded a troop of followers, her deceptions on this occasion were no more florid, distasteful or ludicrous than the tricks she had been getting away with for years. Fortune-tellers were usually dealt with summarily under the Vagrancy Act of 1824: not hauled before judge and jury, flattered by the attentions of King’s Counsel and the national press. So why was the silencing of Mrs Duncan considered so vital by the state?

Her partisans, and conspiracy theorists in general, looked back to 1941, when at an earlier séance in Portsmouth Helen had raised the spirit of a young sailor. In life, he had served in HMS Barham. News of his materialisation soon spread among the families in the port. This was a source of dismay to the Admiralty, who had not yet admitted that the warship had gone down. Malcolm Gaskill explores this legend, which is central to the strange life of Helen Duncan. There is a question-mark over how specific Helen’s identification was, and whether its precision increased in the retelling. Did Helen actually name the ship, or did she extract the name from an anxious audience member, and produce an apparition to suit? Had there been some security leak which had brought her the knowledge by ordinary means? However it may be, it does seem that MI5 was involved in building the case against her, and it is clear that she was seen as a security risk – damaging to morale, at least. However she got her peculiar knowledge, it was best to lock her up and teach her a lesson.

Malcolm Gaskill has undertaken to tell the life-story of Helen Duncan, placing her in the context of her time and class. The book is also in a wider sense an enquiry into ‘how we know the things we know’ and how what we can know or choose to know is circumscribed by our culture. As far as Helen and her trade is concerned, he will try for a position of observant neutrality: ‘I do not seek to exonerate her, any more than I am committed to a rationalist crusade against superstition.’ A Cambridge historian, he is generally a prosaic and stable guide through what Freud called ‘the black tide of mud of occultism’. Sometimes his material tempts him into a tweedy sarcasm, and sometimes he strays into twopenny-coloured mode; the people who queued to see Helen’s trial were ‘curious citizens, successors to the Londoners of Hogarth’s day who had gathered there to follow the condemned to Tyburn, jeering and sharing the latest from the Grub Street presses’. Anyone who explores the issue of the paranormal is vulnerable, both to accusations of crankiness and to a sort of self-disgust about the sensationalism involved; and it is hard to sift out an acceptable truth, given the human tendency to confabulate, the fallibility of memory, the wide scope for interpretation, and the prejudice which invests the whole subject. As a good historian should, he insists, he is going to try to vanish in the presence of his subject. He would not like to think that, like some spirit guide made of papier-mâché, he is now Helen’s announcer, her mouthpiece, and that his dematerialisation amounts to crouching in the half-light behind a torn curtain on a rickety rail.

He writes very well about Helen’s background and her upbringing in the small Scottish town of Callander. Like much else about her, the date of her birth is uncertain. She was the fourth of eight children in the family of a skilled man, a slate-worker and builder. The family were not very poor, but their circumstances were modest and their outlook austere. At the age of seven or so Helen began to report clairvoyant experiences, which her mother warned her not to speak about outside the family. It was a part of the country where folk belief in second sight, omens and ghosts had simply slid underground, and her mother’s warning was perhaps designed to protect her less against scepticism than unhealthy interest. The name of Hellish Nell, however, had nothing to do with preternatural abilities: she got it because she was a noisy, boisterous tomboy.

But as she grew up, she developed what Gaskill describes as a ‘crippling diffidence, timidity and passivity, punctuated by sudden outbursts of hysterical rage’. It was a passivity which allowed her to be strip-searched before her séances, tied to her chair, enveloped in sacks, sewn into shroud-like cocoons intended to prevent fraudulent limbs from emerging; which made her agree to swallow dye for test-séances, and allow her body cavities to be probed by doctors appointed by those who had an interest in proving that she was a cheat. One could argue, too, that it was this passivity which made her choose her trade in the first place, made her earn her living as the mouthpiece of dead people: travelling the roads of Britain, sustained by tea and endless cigarettes, her parasitic husband in tow, her paying public always fresh and expectant, the thought of her needy children ever in mind, and her heavy body always sicker, and apt to take on the sicknesses of other people. It is no wonder that the rage burst out from time to time, causing her to curse out loud, and lunge at sitters who upset her, and try to knock sceptics down with chairs. In the early 1930s, one witness described her as ‘by no means a magnetic personality . . . rather a repellent one that aroused one’s critical faculties’. There was nothing other-worldly about her coarse features and plain speech, and yet perhaps she was not so unattractive as the self-righteous and brutal busybodies who tried persistently to expose her. If there was money to be made from raising the dead, there was also a profit to be shown from proving the dead to be made of old newsprint and cheesecloth. With credulity on the one hand, bigotry on the other, and greed everywhere, the history of spiritualism shows humanity in an unedifying light.

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