Monday, February 19, 2007

Wartime Witchcraft on Trial: Review of Shandler, The Strange Case of Hellish Nell

A story about a World War II witchcraft trial that upstaged war news in Britain, Nina Shandler, THE STRANGE CASE OF HELLISH NELL: THE STORY OF HELEN DUNCAN AND THE WITCH TRIAL OF WORLD WAR II (Da Capo Press, 2006) is reviewed by Kevin M. Wagner, Department of Political Science, Florida Atlantic University in the Law and Politics Book Review. Wagner begins,
Nina Shandler presents a thoughtful and often entertaining look at an unusual chapter in World War II history. THE STRANGE CASE OF HELLISH NELL is a studied look at the efforts of British authorities to use the legal system to silence Helen Duncan, a purported psychic, who was demonstrating uncanny accuracy in revealing otherwise secret war information such as ship movements....

What makes the story of Helen Duncan particularly interesting is the way the trial is juxtaposed against the backdrop of the war. Sahndler explores the absurdity of the events by beginning the book with a review of Winston Churchill’s own disbelief concerning the preoccupation of members of the government with the case while the war rages about Europe. The thematic contrast of the trial with the war continues, as Shandler regularly interrupts the story with notes concerning the state of the war. At one point, the Supreme Court is debating the difference between conjuration and witchcraft as Allied troops land in France. As an historical event, the witch trial seems likely to have been a footnote to far more important events. Yet understood in the context of the time, the trial was much more. Shandler notes that publicity about the trial in Britain briefly replaces war news, such as the advance of Soviet troops in the east.

For the rest, click here.