THAT OLD BLACK MAGIC
BELLA IN THE WYCH ELM
Our cover story this month is a bizarre wartime murder mystery full of tantalising clues and numerous red herrings that remains unsolved to this day.
In April 1943, four teenage boys were on an afternoon poaching expedition in Hagley Woods, part of Lord Cobham’s picturesque estate near Stourbridge in the West Midlands, when they stumbled upon something out of a nightmare. The peaceful Clent Hills might not have suffered death raining down from the air, as had nearby bombravaged Birmingham, but they turned out to harbour a fatal secret of their own. In a twisted old wych elm the boys found not the bird’s nest they’d hoped for but a human skull, complete with a bit of skin and a hank of red hair still attached to it.
As a story opener, it sounds like something straight out of Stephen King; but, as Cathi Unsworth demonstrates in her feature (pp34-41), this was just the first disturbing event in a mystery that grew with each passing month, throwing up baffling new angles as time went by. The skull was that of a woman whose whole body had been stuffed into the tree after she’d been murdered. But who was she? And why was her right hand missing? And who was the author, or authors, of the enigmatic graffiti messages asking ‘Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?’ that began to appear on walls and gates around the West Midlands in subsequent months? Was witchcraft or black magic being practised in the Clent Hills? Was a Nazi spy ring involved in the murder? What about the Dutch trapeze artist from the Birmingham Hippodrome? Or the British Officer who had allegedly died insane in a nearby asylum?
Truth, as they say, is often stranger than fiction; but the enduring mysteries of the Hagley Woods murder have recently inspired both a new film (see p38) and a period crime novel by Cathi Unsworth herself. We have no doubt that forteans will enjoy Cathi’s transformation of the case into a novel, especially one that makes such ingenious use of various strands of wartime forteana to link the Bella murder with Harry Price, the Ghost Club, Hannen Swaffer and the prosecution of medium Helen Duncan, the last person to be prosecuted under the Witchcraft Act of 1735; not to mention Royston Caves, the Knights Templar and the goat-headed god Baphomet – but more on him next issue…
The UK’s water companies have to field an unusual public relations embarrassment recently when it was revealed that a good many of their engineers, when searching for leaking pipes and burst water mains, have recourse to that centuriesold but not scientifically approved technique involving divining rods (see p4). One scientist dismissed such dowsing as “witchcraft”. Despite having atracted the ire of such sceptics, one water company, we learn, has now been experimenting with another unconventional method for detecting leaks: employing a water-sniffing dog. The 16-month-old cocker spaniel, called Snipe, has been undergoing training to sniff out tiny amounts of chlorine in tap water and is now undergoing trials in rural areas where leaks are hard to detect. Hopes are that Snipe’s “senstive nose” will prove successful where other technologies have so far failed. We’ll keep you posted. D. Telegraph, 11 Feb 2018.
Attentive readers may have noticed an outbreak of random passages of unusually dark type in our article on the new Fairy Census ( FT362:30-37). We have been searching for an explanation for this hitherto unknown phenomenon, but to no avail. We have concluded that we must put it down to the Little People’s anger at having their secrets aired in a public forum such as FT.
DAVID R SUTTON BOB RICKARD PAUL SIEVEKING