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

Harry Price, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Harry Price, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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.

The Very Real Events That Inspired Game of Thrones's Red Wedding

Peter Graham's After the Massacre of Glencoe
Peter Graham's After the Massacre of Glencoe
Peter Graham, Google Cultural Institute, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Ask any Game of Thrones fan to cite a few of the show's most shocking moments, and the so-called "Red Wedding" from season 3's "The Rains of Castamere" episode will likely be at the top of their list. The events that unfolded during the episode shocked fans because of their brutality, but what might be even more surprising to know is that the episode was based on very real events.

Author George R.R. Martin has said that the inspiration for the matrimonial bloodbath is based on two dark events in Scottish history: the Black Dinner of 1440 and 1692's Massacre of Glencoe. “No matter how much I make up, there’s stuff in history that’s just as bad, or worse,” Martin told Entertainment Weekly in 2013. And he’s absolutely right. See for yourself.

The Massacre of Glencoe

The West Highland Way in 2005, view from the summit of the Devil's Staircase looking south over the east end of Glen Coe, towards Buachaille Etive Mòr with Creise and Meall a' Bhuiridh beyond
Colin Souza, Edited by Dave Souza, CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia Commons

In 1691, all Scottish clans were called upon to renounce the deposed King of Scotland, James VII, and swear allegiance to King William of Orange (of William and Mary fame). The chief of each clan had until January 1, 1692, to provide a signed document swearing an oath to William. The Highland Clan MacDonald had two things working against them here. First of all, the Secretary of State, John Dalrymple, was a Lowlander who loathed Clan MacDonald. Secondly, Clan MacDonald had already sworn an oath to James VII and had to wait on him to send word that they were free to break that oath.

Unfortunately, it was December 28 before a messenger arrived with this all-important letter from the former king. That gave Maclain, the chief of the MacDonald clan, just three days to get the newly-signed oath to the Secretary of State.

Maclain was detained for days when he went through Inveraray, the town of the rival Clan Campbell, but still managed to deliver the oath, albeit several days late. The Secretary of State’s legal team wasn't interested in late documents. They rejected the MacDonalds's sworn allegiance to William, and set plans in place to cut the clan down, “root and branch.”

In late January or early February, 120 men under the command of Captain Robert Campbell arrived at the MacDonalds's in Glencoe, claiming to need shelter because a nearby fort was full. The MacDonalds offered their hospitality, as was custom, and the soldiers stayed there for nearly two weeks before Captain Drummond arrived with instructions to “put all to the sword under seventy.”

After playing cards with their victims and wishing them goodnight, the soldiers waited until the MacDonalds were asleep ... then murdered as many men as they could manage. In all, 38 people—some still in their beds—were killed. At least 40 women and children escaped, but fleeing into a blizzard blowing outside as their houses burned down meant that they all died of exposure.

The massacre was considered especially awful because it was “Slaughter Under Trust.” To this day, the door at Clachaig Inn in Glen Coe has a sign on the door that says "No hawkers or Campbells."

The Black Dinner

In November of 1440, the newly-appointed 6th Earl of Douglas, who was just 16, and his little brother David, were invited to join the 10-year-old King of Scotland, James II, for dinner at Edinburgh Castle. But it wasn’t the young King who had invited the Douglas brothers. The invitation had been issued by Sir William Crichton, Chancellor of Scotland, who feared that the Black Douglas (there was another clan called the Red Douglas) were growing too powerful.

As legend has it, the children were all getting along marvelously, enjoying food, entertainment and talking until the end of the dinner, when the head of a black bull was dropped on the table, symbolizing the death of the Black Douglas. The two young Douglases were dragged outside, given a mock trial, found guilty of high treason, and beheaded. It’s said that the Earl pleaded for his brother to be killed first so that the younger boy wouldn’t have to witness his older brother’s beheading.

Sir Walter Scott wrote this of the horrific event:

"Edinburgh Castle, toune and towre,
God grant thou sink for sin!
And that e'en for the black dinner
Earl Douglas gat therein."

This article has been updated for 2019.

When Skeleton Rocking Chairs and ‘Vampire Killing Kits’ Fooled People Into Thinking They Were Rare Historical Artifacts

A vampire killing kit at Ripley's Believe It or Not! in San Francisco
A vampire killing kit at Ripley's Believe It or Not! in San Francisco
Glen Bowman, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In 2012, bizarre rocking chairs—usually dark brown, with various kinds of ornate flourishes, always in the shape of a skeleton—began popping up on sites across the internet. Gothic.org and io9 ran stories about them, and Facebook pages like Steampunk Tendencies soon followed. The chairs were sometimes described as modeled on 19th-century Russian examples—and other times described as 19th-century Russian items themselves.

The grotesque chairs were funny, but got even funnier in 2013 when someone appropriated a photo from an auction house and meme-ified it. They added a blurred effect and magnified the skeleton’s anguished, open-mouthed expression, making it seem as if it were screaming into the void—perhaps upon realizing that it must spend the rest of eternity as a rocking chair in some eccentric collector’s parlor. By early 2014, someone on 4chan had associated the meme with the words “Wake Me Up Inside (Can't Wake Up)” after lyrics from the 2003 song "Bring Me to Life" by rock band Evanescence. Then, in true internet fashion, people started adding their own text.

By then, another story had attached itself to the chairs. In 2009, the Lawrence Journal-World discussed the macabre furniture item in a column titled "Ghoulish pieces attract collectors," and suggested that the chair had something to do with a Masonic ritual.

So—aside from the joy of a good meme—what’s the deal? Was this chair used in some secret society's ceremony, or is it just a strange artifact made by some long-forgotten Russian woodworker?

A Macabre Fantasy

According to James Jackson, the answer is neither. Jackson—the president and CEO of Jackson’s Auctions in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and a specialist in Russian art—sold the chair that was featured in several of the early news stories.

He says most of these chairs were probably made in the '90s, but were designed to look older to fool buyers into forking over more money. “These are the type of things that are created in various markets to appeal to the eclectic, exotic tastes of a wannabe fine art consumer,” Jackson tells Mental Floss. “So the person making this chair—and the guy buying it and reselling it—they understand this brain very well.”

The precise origins of the chairs Jackson's sold are murky. A couple of the chairs were sold to a third-party seller called a consignor, who then resold them to Jackson’s Auctions. Jackson suspects they were probably made somewhere in Europe—probably at a workshop where the primary goal is to “make a buck.” That would explain why no artist or craftsman's name is ever attached to the chairs.

These “fantasy chairs” were initially thought to be rare, and some sellers may have benefited from the myths and stories surrounding their origin. Over the years, people started to see more and more of these chairs at auction, which contributed to their diminishing value. Jackson said his auction house sold one of the chairs for $2600 in 2008, but in 2012, the price dropped to $1500. At its lowest price point, a skeleton chair sold for $900 in Detroit, according to Jackson's database of different auction houses.

Artifacts of the Hyperreal

Jackson says the skeleton chairs remind him of the vampire slayer kits that were popular in the '90s, and continued to be sold throughout the 2000s (they still pop up on eBay and other online auctions from time to time). Wooden trunks—purportedly full of vampire-repelling tools from the 1800s such as wooden stakes, garlic, a crucifix, and sometimes pistols—used to command high prices at auction. Sotheby’s even sold one for $25,000 in 2011.

“It was BS,” Jackson says of the trunks, explaining that while they may have contained old tools, the pieces were assembled later for commercial purposes and given a phony backstory. “Whenever we see anything weird like that, it’s an automatic red flag. To the consumer, though, they want it to be some rare and unusual thing—and that’s not true.”

Jackson said one obvious sign that the slaying kits were inauthentic was that "they don’t show up in any literature prior to the 1990s, [and] something like that would have been written about somewhere.” In hindsight, Jackson thinks the whole scam was pretty comical. He said you had experts on TV doing careful analyses of the paper labels inside these kits, when in reality, all they had to do was use a magnifying glass to see that the letters were printed by a dot matrix.

"It’s like doing a metallurgic study on a brand new Mercedes-Benz," he said. “I didn’t have to get a microscope out and a black light and spend an hour fondling it. It’s common sense.”

Jonathan Ferguson, a curator at the UK-based National Museum of Arms and Armour, also debunked these hunting trunks. He wrote in a blog post, “Nowhere was there evidence to support real vampire slayers carting about one of these kits.”

Still, he wrote that they were somewhat valuable as “genuine artifacts of the Gothic fiction,” and rather than being seen as fakes (since there never was a Victorian original), should be seen as "'hyperreal' or invented artifacts somewhat akin to stage, screen or magician's props."

As for the Sotheby's kit that was snatched up for $25,000, its creation was also probably inspired by the popularity of Dracula (1897) and other late 19th century vampire lore, according to Dennis Harrington, head of Sotheby's European furniture department in New York City. Harrington notes that some of the pieces inside the kit are valuable in their own right.

"[The kit] was complete and did contain individual elements that have some intrinsic value themselves, like silver bullets and an ivory figure of Christ on the Cross (though we can no longer sell ivory items today) ..." Harrington tells Mental Floss. "The curiosity value would also have helped, and of course the golden rule of auctions is that any one lot is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it on a particular day."

Likewise, the skeleton rocking chairs—despite not being antiques—certainly have their own unique appeal. “They’re cool, they’re neat. These are ‘man cave’ type things for the most part,” Jackson says. However, “They’re obviously not functional. You can’t sit in it comfortably.”

And what of the skeleton meme? Do the makers of these chairs know that their creation has been turned into an absurd internetism? Jackson, for his part, hadn’t heard anything about it. “I’m glad they made a joke out of [the chairs],” he said, “but I don’t know what meme means.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER