Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Helen Duncan

Helen Macfarlane was born into a poor family in Perthshire, Scotland, in 1897. She fled the village and settled in Dundee after becoming pregnant out-of-wedlock in 1918. Soon she married a soldier, Henry Duncan, and had five more children.In a Europe still reeling from the ravages of World War I, séances came into fashion as thousands reached out to lost loved ones and sought solace in alternative belief systems. Helen MacFarlane Duncan, by all counts a gifted woman, became a well-known spiritualist. By the 1930s Helen took her traveling séance on the road, calling up spirits for incredulous (or perhaps too credulous) audiences.

In 1931, psychic researcher Harry Price invited Helen and her husband Henry Duncan to come to London in order to have her skills “scientifically” tested.According to David Edwards in an article on “Britain’s Last Witch Trial” in the UK edition of the Mirror, 6/12/2006, Harry Price wrote: "She was placed in the curtained recess. In a few seconds, the medium was in a trance. The curtains parted and we beheld her covered from head to foot with cheese-cloth!

"Some of it was trailing on the floor, one end was poked up her nostril, a piece was issuing from her mouth. I must say that I was deeply impressed - with the brazen effrontery that prompted the Duncans to come to my lab, with the amazing credulity of the spiritualists who had sat with the Duncans and with the fact that they had advertised her 'phenomena' as genuine."In a bid to reveal the contents of Helen's stomach, Price asked if she would undergo an X-ray. "She refused. Her husband advised her to submit. But that seemed to infuriate her and she became hysterical. She jumped up and dealt him a blow on the face.

"Suddenly, she jumped up, unfastened the door and dashed into the street - where she had another attack of alleged hysterics and commenced tearing her séance garment to pieces.

"Her husband dashed after her and she was found clutching the railings, screaming."

Despite Harry Price’s alarming account of the séance, Helen Duncan continued with her successful practice into the forties.

On November 25, 1941, HMS Barham, a 29,000-ton battleship in the Mediterranean was hit by three German torpedoes. The ship went down and 861 lives were lost. Already reeling from the Blitz, the British government decided to keep the news under wraps – believe it or not, they went so far as to forge Christmas cards from the dead to their families.

But just days after the attack, Helen Duncan held a séance during which she saw a sailor with the words HMS Barham on his hatband. According to Helen the apparition said: "My ship is sunk."

Two years later, in January 1944, amid fears that Helen would somehow reveal plans for the upcoming D-Day landings, Britain’s Admiralty arrested the psychic and charged her with witchcraft, alleging that she intended "to exercise or use human conjuration that through the agency of Helen Duncan spirits of deceased dead persons should appear to be present".

The trial lasted seven days. Mediums and believers of all sorts rallied to her defense and set up a defense fund which allowed her barrister to call 44 witnesses to testify she wasn't a fraud.
Ironically, it was precisely their fear that she was NOT a fraud that led to her conviction and sentencing.

Years later, in 1956, Helen Duncan gave a seance in Nottingham. Though the Witchcraft Act had been repealed five years earlier and spiritualism had been recognized as a bonafide religion, Helen was once again arrested and subjected to a strip search.

She never got over the shock and remained hospitalized for the next five weeks, until passing over to the next dimension on December 6.

Was Helen Duncan a gifted seer able to communicate with other realms, or a skilled charlatan who exploited grieving families? Whatever she was, she scared the British government enough to become the “unfortunate victim of Britain's last witch-hunt”.

You can find more information here and support the call for Helen's pardon.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Britian’s Last Witchhunt

When would you guess the last witch trial in Britain? As the witch-hunting hysteria in Europe was finally waning? 1780? 1820?

Guess again.

In 1944, professional medium Helen Duncan, affectionately known as “Hellish Nell”, was arrested during a séance in Portsmouth, Hants, and charged under section four of Britain’s 1735 Witchcraft Act.

Examination of a Witch, by T.H. Matteson 1853. Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum

The jury deliberated only half an hour before declaring her guilty. Happily, though the court used a law written in 1735 to convict Duncan, at least the punishment for witchcraft had been reformed. Her sentence was nine months in London’s Holloway prison…a step up from the traditional Scottish burning or hanging of witches.

But how in the world did Helen Duncan end up on trial for witchcraft as recently as 1944?

More tomorrow...

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Checking in...

I am busy at work -- finishing the book 4 manuscript, drafting a second Juliet Blackwell manuscript, planning book signing events and in general preparing for the July 7th release date of Secondhand Spirits. That is the first in Juliet Blackwell's A Witchcraft Mystery series!

I will get some new posts up here VERY SOON.

In the meantime, my new blog, under the name Juliet Blackwell, is up and running.

I have also started fan pages for both Hailey Lind and Juliet Blackwell on Facebook!

Please check them all out -- become fans/friends and follow the blogs.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

First Review for Second Hand Spirits

Posted by Harriet Klausner at May 7, 2009 at 10:08 AM at Genre Go Round:
Lily Ivory is a bona fide witch; a powerful mage who can feel the vibrations emitted from old clothing, can smell and sense auras, and can cast spells through brewing. She has been on the run for most of her life; hiding her “witchiness” skills by never allowing anyone to get to close to her so that one would think she is a freak. However, now thirty-one Lily feels a need to settle down so she moves to San Francisco assuming she can fit in best in the City on the Bay. There she opens up a vintage women’s clothing shop Aunt Cora’s Closet.
Her friend Maya takes Lily to the home of Frances Potts who has a ton of beautiful vintage clothing. Lily senses evil directed at Frances by the demon La Llorona. Late that same night Lily returns to Frances’ home to cast a protection spell against La Llorana. The next day the woman is dead and a child is missing presumably by La Llorona who feeds on the souls of children. The magical community rallies around Lily who uses her skills to hopefully bring the child back and send the demon back to the Texas/Mexico border where she came from.

Readers who anxiously await the next works of Victoria Laurie or Madelyn Alt will appreciate SECOND HAND SPIRITS, an enchanting mystery that enables the audience to believe in the supernatural. A mysterious male witch Aiden welcomes her to the neighborhood by giving her a familiar, a goblin disguised as a pot bellied pig. Lily is a great character; a strong woman who believes in doing what she feels is ethically right though it might cost her. Juliet Blackwell provides a terrific urban fantasy with the opening of the Witchcraft Mystery series.

Secondhand Spirits
Juliet Blackwell
Obsidian, Jul 2009, $6.99
ISBN: 045122745X

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

What the Heck is a Witch, Anyway?

I love research. It gives me an excuse to spend big chunks of my day reading, following leads, and talking to people about… say… the intricacies of binding spells or the difficulties of practicing witchcraft in the modern world.

But anyone who’s ever done research for a book knows that only a tiny fraction of the fascinating stuff you dig up ever makes it onto the printed page. This blog is my forum to share some of the interesting history of witchcraft; an occasional spell or book review; some specialized terminology; and occasional excerpts or deleted scenes from my Witchcraft Mystery Series, the first installment of which, Secondhand Spirits, will be released July 7, 2009, from Obsidian (a Penguin imprint).

I invite you to correct me when I’m wrong, elucidate further on subjects of interest, ask questions about my posts or my books, and fill us all in on anything witch-related that you might know about.
Soooo, What the Heck is a Witch, Anyway? According to the third edition of the American Heritage Dictionary:

Witch [wich] n.

1. A woman claiming or popularly believed to possess supernatural powers and practice sorcery, and often believed to be aided by spirits or a familiar.
2. A believer or follower of Wicca; a Wiccan.
3. A hag.
4. A woman considered to be spiteful or overbearing.
5. Informal A woman or girl considered bewitching.
6. One particularly skilled or competent at one's craft: "A witch of a writer, [she] is capable of developing an intensity that verges on ferocity" Peter S. Prescott.

Dontcha just love the juxtaposition of #5 with numbers 3 and 4: A charming woman might also be a spiteful hag….

But as Walt Whitman would say: Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.

Women in general and witches in particular are no stranger to the concept of duality.

Throughout history and across the globe, witches have been treated with reverence and adoration for their skills in physical and mental health and healing, as well as their talents for “seeing” into the future or other realms. But those very same witches have also inspired fear and loathing, often rooted in fear of their rare abilities. In a later post I will discuss the direct link between the suppression of witches as lay healers in Europe and the creation of the male-dominated medical profession. For now, suffice it to say that powerful women are scary to many male-centered social structures, especially during times of social and economic stress and upheaval.

Most recently, followers of the Wicca religion have taken on the moniker of “witch” in an attempt to reclaim the label so often association with the negative. As is the case with most religions, the practice of Wicca has many different interpretations and I wouldn’t presume to try to define the various belief systems here. But in general, Wiccans may or may not lay claim to particular supernatural powers, but they do tend to practice a pre-Christian, female-centered tradition that worships nature and the seasons, pagan goddesses, and the beauty of humanity. Their coven meetings might include rites such as drawing pentacles, casting a cone of power, and invoking the Lady and Lord – but they are in no way Satanists, and typically do not even believe in the concept of Hell or the Devil. Their beliefs are pre-Christian rather than anti-Christian,

From Secondhand Spirits:
In the old days –the burning times—there was a distinction made between sorcerers and witches. It was said that a sorcerer learned magick through training, while a witch was born with innate talents and connections to the spirit world. The latter was true in my case, to an extreme degree. I hadn’t chosen this path; it had chosen me. One of the many curses my status bestowed was a near-perfect memory, and I could recall every alienating episode, every isolating incident, of my thirty-one years.