Book Review: The Strange Case of Hellish Nell by Nina Shandler

The Strange Case of Hellish Nell is a great book about the strange but true case of Helen Duncan who was the only person to be prosecuted during World War II under the Witchcraft Act of 1735. Duncan was a medium or spiritualist who had a tendency to reveal state secrets during seances that suggested that she was on the side of the Nazis and had somehow corrupted folk in the British government to give her information that was supposed to be kept secret. However, the British government was unable to discover just how she was getting her information and the only way that British law enforcement could come up with to silence her was to bring her up on charges of witchcraft.

What were these secrets that the British government wanted kept out of Duncan’s seances? Ship movements including those related to the forthcoming invasion of France.

What specific secret that Duncan leaked during a seance sparked the British government’s action against her? The battleship HMS Barham had been sunk in the Mediterranean Sea and the British government withheld this information from the public for fear that it would damage public morale. However, during a seance, Duncan revealed that the Barham had been sunk. To this day it is unknown how Duncan came by this information and it seems unlikely that her naming the Barham as being sunk so soon after it was sunk could have been a coincidence.

In any event, The Strange Case of Hellish Nell is a great book about a bizarre subject.