Fortean Times - - Editorial -


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.


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