“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.

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From Campaign Slogans to Social Movements, New Book Explores the Role Buttons Have Played Throughout History

Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon
Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

From their early days on the campaign trail during the 1896 presidential race to their current role as a way of showing support for social causes like the LGBTQIA+ pride movement, pinback buttons have remained one of the most popular ways for people to express their values and beliefs for well over a century. And now, button experts Christen Carter, founder of Chicago’s Busy Beaver Button Company and the Button Museum, and Ted Hake, owner of Hake’s Auctions, have put their extensive knowledge of the subject into the new book Button Power: 125 Years of Saying It With Buttons ($25), a cultural journey showcasing 1500 of the most important and unique pinbacks throughout American history.

“Buttons seem like really a niche thing, but they really are very general,” Carter tells Mental Floss. “They cover so much history, and the history goes deep and wide.”

For the book, Hake and Carter—who both began collecting buttons during their respective childhoods—cover how buttons have been used to communicate messages during their 125-year history, from pinbacks featuring landmark political slogans and anti-war sentiments to others that simply proclaim a person's love of Dallas.

“[Buttons] are little windows on the world, and you can pick an avenue and head down to your heart's content,” Hake tells Mental Floss.

Some of the 20th century's most important moments had a button to go along with them.Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

One of Hake's favorite buttons in the book doesn't feature a political or social statement—it's just a picture of a buffalo with the words “Eat Me at Bremen, Kans. June 9, 1935” emblazoned across it. But it wasn't just the design that really caught his attention; it was also its backstory.

The button's origins lie within the town of Bremen, Kansas, which, in June 1935, was celebrating both its 50th anniversary and the dedication of a marker for the defunct Oregon Trail, according to Kansas Historical Quarterly. Two weeks before the celebration, 500 townspeople gathered in Bremen to watch a buffalo get slaughtered, which was then shipped to the neighboring town’s ice house for preservation. When the big day finally arrived, the buffalo was shipped back to become the centerpiece of a community-wide feast. The button was made to spread the word for the unique event.

“Here he is on this button, inviting the good folks of Bremen to enjoy him,” Hake says. “So it is a little bit surreal, to tell you the truth.” During his research, Hake recovered this niche historical event that could’ve otherwise been easily lost to history. “At the end of the day, they capped it off with supper, a band concert, and they gave away a baby buffalo calf,” he says.

Buttons have been used to express both support and opposition to the United States's involvement in wars. Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

While pinback button technology has not changed drastically in the past 125 years, Hake and Carter still consider their golden era to be from 1896 to 1921. “The colors are just unusual and beautiful,” Carter says. “They were able to get fine details that, [even] with digital printing, we can’t do.” Carter also enjoys how buttons were used as a communication device during the punk movement, saying, “They're important identifiers to a counter-culture movement, and they were not afraid to piss people off.”

Though the book covers buttons featuring celebrities, bands, and brands, many of the most popular ones come from the political arena and sports. Hake’s Auction just set the record for the most expensive pinback sold on September 23, 2020, with a 1916 Boston Red Sox World Series button that went for $62,980. “What makes it great is that every team member is on the button and up at 11 o’clock is one Babe Ruth. He was in his second year and was a pitcher back in those days,” Hake explains.

Even though there are buttons like the Babe Ruth ones that sell for thousands of dollars, it's still an accessible hobby for everyone. “You can start your button collection with just $10 and already have a good start. It is a good thing to collect if you don’t have much money or much space,” Carter explains.

The power of the political button eventually became fertile ground for satire in the '70s.Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

Looking forward to the next 125 years, Carter hopes that buttons can become more eco-friendly by eliminating steel use and replacing it with recycled materials. “They haven’t changed that much in the last 125 years. They are pretty timeless in that way, and they are inexpensive, so whatever keeps them as inexpensive as possible as resources change in the next 100 years, they will probably change."

You can order Button Power: 125 Years of Saying It With Buttons on Amazon or on the Princeton Architectural Press website.

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