“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.

Turn Your LEGO Bricks Into a Drone With the Flybrix Drone Kit

Flyxbrix/FatBrain
Flyxbrix/FatBrain

Now more than ever, it’s important to have a good hobby. Of course, a lot of people—maybe even you—have been obsessed with learning TikTok dances and baking sourdough bread for the last few months, but those hobbies can wear out their welcome pretty fast. So if you or someone you love is looking for something that’s a little more intellectually stimulating, you need to check out the Flybrix LEGO drone kit from Fat Brain Toys.

What is a Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit?

The Flybrix drone kit lets you build your own drones out of LEGO bricks and fly them around your house using your smartphone as a remote control (via Bluetooth). The kit itself comes with absolutely everything you need to start flying almost immediately, including a bag of 56-plus LEGO bricks, a LEGO figure pilot, eight quick-connect motors, eight propellers, a propeller wrench, a pre-programmed Flybrix flight board PCB, a USB data cord, a LiPo battery, and a USB LiPo battery charger. All you’ll have to do is download the Flybrix Configuration Software, the Bluetooth Flight Control App, and access online instructions and tutorials.

Experiment with your own designs.

The Flybrix LEGO drone kit is specifically designed to promote exploration and experimentation. All the components are tough and can totally withstand a few crash landings, so you can build and rebuild your own drones until you come up with the perfect design. Then you can do it all again. Try different motor arrangements, add your own LEGO bricks, experiment with different shapes—this kit is a wannabe engineer’s dream.

For the more advanced STEM learners out there, Flybrix lets you experiment with coding and block-based coding. It uses an arduino-based hackable circuit board, and the Flybrix app has advanced features that let you try your hand at software design.

Who is the Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit for?

Flybrix is a really fun way to introduce a number of core STEM concepts, which makes it ideal for kids—and technically, that’s who it was designed for. But because engineering and coding can get a little complicated, the recommended age for independent experimentation is 13 and up. However, kids younger than 13 can certainly work on Flybrix drones with the help of their parents. In fact, it actually makes a fantastic family hobby.

Ready to start building your own LEGO drones? Click here to order your Flybrix kit today for $198.

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When Al Capone Ran a Soup Kitchen During the Great Depression

Al Capone: Public Enemy #1, soup kitchen proprietor
Al Capone: Public Enemy #1, soup kitchen proprietor
The Paris Bureau of The New York Times, National Archives and Records Administration // Public Domain

Four years after gangster Al Capone took over Chicago’s leading crime syndicate, he had raked in over $40 million—around $550 million today. The money came from illegally selling booze during Prohibition; bottles were distributed to more than 10,000 speakeasies and brothels in a vast bootlegging network across the Midwest.

Capone’s alcohol distribution was unlawful, but to many Americans, the man’s work was heroic. He claimed he was just a businessman giving the people what they wanted—and what the people wanted more than anything in the 1920s was liquor.

But Capone’s role as an Italian-American Robin Hood didn’t stop there. As he orchestrated criminal activities behind the scenes, Capone simultaneously launched a program to provide milk to Chicago school children and donated huge sums to local charities.

It was the stock market crash on October 29, 1929, however, that spurred Capone to his greatest work of philanthropy. Almost overnight, the American economy collapsed into the Great Depression. Banks failed, businesses shuttered, and millions were suddenly unemployed and hungry. Hundreds of soup kitchens popped up around the country. One of them belonged to Al Capone.

No Questions Asked

Men line up at Al Capone's soup kitchen during the Great Depression
Men line up at Al Capone's soup kitchen during the Great Depression.
The Paris Bureau of The New York Times, National Archives and Records Administration // Public Domain

When Al Capone’s soup kitchen opened at 935 South State Street, in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood, in mid-November 1930, hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans were out of work. By the following year, 624,000 people—or 50 percent of the Chicago workforce—were out of a job.

Capone’s charity had no name, just a sign over the door that advertised “Free Soup, Coffee & Doughnuts for the Unemployed.” Inside, women in white aprons served an average of 2200 people a day with a smile and no questions asked. Breakfast was hot coffee and sweet rolls. Both lunch and dinner consisted of soup and bread. Every 24 hours, diners devoured 350 loaves of bread and 100 dozen rolls. They washed down their meals with 30 pounds of coffee sweetened with 50 pounds of sugar. The whole operation cost $300 per day.

The soup kitchen didn’t advertise its connection to Capone, but the mobster-benefactor’s name was connected to it in stories printed in local newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and The Rock Island Argus. Those who were down on their luck, though, apparently had few qualms about eating from the hand of Chicago’s worst crime boss. Often the line to get in to the kitchen was so long that it wound past the door of the city’s police headquarters, where Capone was considered Public Enemy #1, according to Harper’s Magazine. The line was particularly lengthy when Capone’s soup kitchen hosted a Thanksgiving meal of cranberry sauce and beef stew for 5000 hungry Chicagoans. (Why beef and not turkey? After 1000 turkeys were stolen from a nearby department store, Capone feared he’d be blamed for the theft and made a last-minute menu change.)

Capone's Ulterior Motives

Capone’s efforts to feed Chicago during the darkest days of the Great Depression weren’t entirely altruistic. It wasn’t even originally his idea, but that of his friend and political ally Daniel Serritella, who was elected to the Illinois state senate in 1930. Nor did Capone invest much of his own money into the operation. Instead, Deirdre Bair writes in Capone: His Life, Legacy and Legend, he bribed and extorted other businesses to stock the pantry. In just one example, during Seritella's 1932 trial for conspiring with grocers to cheat customers [PDF], the court discovered that a load of ducks that had been donated to Christmas baskets for the poor ended up in Capone’s soup kitchen instead.

Perhaps more than anything, Capone opened his soup kitchen to get the public back on his side after he was implicated in the 1929 Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. In that murder spree, Capone's associates were believed to have assassinated seven men, five of whom hailed from the rival North Side Gang, inside a Chicago parking garage—though no one was ever prosecuted. Harper’s writer Mary Borden distilled Capone's double-dealing when she described him as “an ambidextrous giant who kills with one hand and feeds with the other.”

Capone’s soup kitchen closed abruptly in April 1932. The proprietors claimed that the kitchen was no longer needed because the economy was picking up, even though the number of unemployed across the country had increased by 4 million between 1931 and 1932. The diners who had attended the kitchen daily were forced to move on to another one.

Two months later, Capone was indicted on 22 counts of income tax evasion; the charges that eventually landed him in San Francisco’s Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. Though Capone vowed to reopen his soup kitchen during his trial, its doors stayed shut. By the time he was released from prison in 1939, a raging case of syphilis had rendered Capone mentally and physically incapable of managing his own life, let alone that of Chicago’s once-dominant crime syndicate and the soup kitchen that softened his gangster image.

Capone died in 1947, but his larger-than-life legacy lives on. His soup kitchen wasn’t so lucky. The building became a flophouse, and in 1955, Chicago authorities deemed it a fire hazard and shut it down permanently. Today, only a parking lot remains at the site of Chicago’s most notorious food pantry.