Unknown Author via Wiki Commons
Unknown Author via Wiki Commons

“Hellish Nell,” The Last Person Imprisoned for Witchcraft in Britain

Unknown Author via Wiki Commons
Unknown Author via Wiki Commons

As a little girl in Callander, Scotland, in the earliest days of the 20th century, Helen MacFarlane was known for acting like a tomboy. Her rowdiness and sometimes-violent temper gave rise to her nickname, "Hellish Nell.” But she also known for something else—her seeming ability to communicate with spirits and her frequent visits from ghosts.

Banished from the family home at age 16 after getting pregnant, she went on to marry a devoted Spiritualist named Harry Duncan, who believed in her powers. In the wake of World War I and its massive death toll, communicating with the dead via spirit mediums became a popular pastime, and the freshly named Helen Duncan found a new mission in life: she became a Spiritualist medium. (Though the term “Spiritualist” is often misused today to mean someone who is “spiritual,” it was once a flourishing religion that involved communicating with the dead.)

Duncan earned her living traveling throughout Britain, conducting séances at spiritualist societies and in private homes and charging admission for her services. Duncan was known as a "materialization medium"—someone who could not just commune with the dead but produce physical manifestations of them. Her séances frequently included strings of otherworldly white ectoplasm produced from various orifices, as well as ghostly images of the faces and bodies of departed "spirit guides."

However, a 1931 investigation by famed psychic researcher Harry Price concluded that the ectoplasm was actually cheesecloth covered in egg whites, iron salts, and other chemicals, which Duncan stored in her stomach and then regurgitated. The "spirits" were pictures cut from magazines, while a “spiritual hand” glimpsed in one séance was revealed to be a rubber glove. Price's investigations failed to dim enthusiasm for Duncan's séances, however. Neither did a 1933 trial and imprisonment for fraudulent mediumship, which resulted after one of Duncan's spirit guides, "Peggy," was revealed to be a vest. As the cultural historian Malcolm Gaskill wrote for History Today, “Spiritualists … thrived on feelings of persecution by orthodox science, organized religion, and, above all, the police, who sought to protect the public against imposture. Accordingly, Helen Duncan was lionised and her fame grew to the extent that even a conviction for fraud at Edinburgh in 1933 saw her hailed as a martyr."

After the outbreak of World War II, Duncan's services were especially in demand. The spirits offered consolation amid fear and despair, and in some cases, even shared information that seemingly broke through the tight shroud of secrecy the government had imposed. But it was this wartime climate that proved to be Duncan's undoing.

In November 1941, the battleship HMS Barham was sunk by German torpedoes, with more than 800 lives lost. The British government censored news of the sinking to protect morale; by some reports, they even forged Christmas cards from dead sailors to their families. A few months later, however, at a séance in Portsmouth (the town where Duncan lived, which also happened to be home to the Royal Navy), Duncan told a mother that her son had appeared wearing a hatband with the words HMS Barham on it and saying: "My ship is sunk."

When news of the séance reached officials, they were appalled. And once preparations for D-Day began, they decided to take action. By some accounts, Duncan had also revealed specific details of the sinking of the HMS Broadwater in 1941, and there were concerns that her information—whatever its source—would endanger the secrecy needed for a successful invasion of occupied France.

In January 1944, police burst into one of Duncan's séances, arresting her and three members of the audience. She was originally charged under Section 4 of the 1824 Vagrancy Act, which was commonly used at the time to punish offenses related to fortune-telling, astrology, and spiritualism. Such charges usually resulted in no more than a fine. But Duncan's case was different: as Gaskill notes, "at this most sensitive point in the war the authorities wanted her in prison." In March, Duncan was prosecuted at London's Old Bailey for conspiracy to contravene the Witchcraft Act of 1735, the first change of its kind in more than a century.

Despite what it sounds like, the Witchcraft Act wasn't meant to prosecute actual witches, so much as punish people for pretending to have the powers of a witch. During the trial, which was a media sensation, Duncan was accused of pretending “to exercise or use human conjuration” so “spirits of deceased persons should appear to be present.”

Her lawyer, a spiritualist himself, attempted to defend her by proving she wasn’t just pretending. He called more than 40 witnesses who had seen Duncan's powers at work, and even offered a private séance to the jury (they declined). The defense, however, was unsuccessful, and Duncan was imprisoned for nine months at North London's Holloway women's prison, the last person to be jailed under the act.

Winston Churchill, who was then prime minister, denounced Duncan's conviction as "obsolete tomfoolery." By some accounts, he also visited her in jail. In 1951, he finally repealed the 200-year-old Witchcraft Act, but Duncan’s conviction stood. She died five years later, shortly after yet another police raid. To this day, family members and others are working to clear her name.

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College Board Wants to Erase Thousands of Years From AP World History, and Teachers Aren't Happy
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iStock

One would be forgiven for thinking that the Ides of March are upon us, because Julius Caesar is being taken out once again—this time from the Advanced Placement World History exam. The College Board in charge of the AP program is planning to remove the Roman leader, and every other historical figure who lived and died prior to 1450, from high school students’ tests, The New York Times reports.

The nonprofit board recently announced that it would revise the test, beginning in 2019, to make it more manageable for teachers and students alike. The current exam covers over 10,000 years of world history, and according to the board, “no other AP course requires such an expanse of content to be covered over a single school year.”

As an alternative, the board suggested that schools offer two separate year-long courses to cover the entirety of world history, including a Pre-AP World History and Geography class focusing on the Ancient Period (before 600 BCE) up through the Postclassical Period (ending around 1450). However, as Politico points out, a pre-course for which the College Board would charge a fee "isn’t likely to be picked up by cash-strapped public schools," and high school students wouldn't be as inclined to take the pre-AP course since there would be no exam or college credit for it.

Many teachers and historians are pushing back against the proposed changes and asking the board to leave the course untouched. Much of the controversy surrounds the 1450 start date and the fact that no pre-colonial history would be tested.

“They couldn’t have picked a more Eurocentric date,” Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, who previously helped develop AP History exams and courses, told The New York Times. “If you start in 1450, the first thing you’ll talk about in terms of Africa is the slave trade. The first thing you’ll talk about in terms of the Americas is people dying from smallpox and other things. It’s not a start date that encourages looking at the agency and creativity of people outside Europe.”

A group of teachers who attended an AP open forum in Salt Lake City also protested the changes. One Michigan educator, Tyler George, told Politico, “Students need to understand that there was a beautiful, vast, and engaging world before Europeans ‘discovered’ it.”

The board is now reportedly reconsidering its decision and may push the start date of the course back some several hundred years. Their decision will be announced in July.

[h/t The New York Times]

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Nate D. Sanders Auctions
Sylvia Plath's Pulitzer Prize in Poetry Is Up for Auction
Nate D. Sanders Auctions
Nate D. Sanders Auctions

A Pulitzer Prize in Poetry that was awarded posthumously to Sylvia Plath in 1982 for her book The Collected Poems will be auctioned on June 28. The Los Angeles-based Nate D. Sanders Auctions says bidding for the literary document will start at $40,000.

The complete book of Plath’s poetry was published in 1981—18 years after her death—and was edited by her husband, fellow poet Ted Hughes. The Pulitzer Prize was presented to Hughes on Plath’s behalf, and one of two telegrams sent by Pulitzer President Michael Sovern to Hughes read, “We’ve just heard that the Collected Plath has won the Pulitzer Prize. Congratulations to you for making it possible.” The telegrams will also be included in the lot, in addition to an official congratulatory letter from Sovern.

The Pultizer’s jury report from 1982 called The Collected Poems an “extraordinary literary event.” It went on to write, “Plath won no major prizes in her lifetime, and most of her work has been posthumously published … The combination of metaphorical brilliance with an effortless formal structure makes this a striking volume.”

Ted Hughes penned an introduction to the poetry collection describing how Plath had “never scrapped any of her poetic efforts,” even if they weren’t all masterpieces. He wrote:

“Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like: if she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy. The end product for her was not so much a successful poem, as something that had temporarily exhausted her ingenuity. So this book contains not merely what verse she saved, but—after 1956—all she wrote.”

Also up for auction is Plath’s Massachusetts driver’s license from 1958, at which time she went by the name Sylvia P. Hughes. Bidding for the license will begin at $8000.

Plath's driver's license
Nate D. Sanders Auctions

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