Sunday, August 8, 2010

Who put Bella in the Witch Elm?

Black magic was blamed in 1943 four teenagers found the skeleton remains of a woman within a tree. Fifty years the crime remains unsolved and the reasons behind it stir a dark and sinister reason within the locals' imagination.

It begins on a sunny April Sunday in 1943, when four teenage boys from nearby Stourbridge went birds'–nesting in Hagley Wood. Their quest took them to an old, hollow wych–hazel – also known as a wych–elm, on account of its size and age. For a minute or two they climbed and searched. Then one of them, Bob Farmer, gave a cry: from out of the tree, a white skull was grinning at him. "There was a small patch of rotting flesh on the forehead with lank hair attaching to it, and the two front teeth were crooked," he later stated.


The frightened boys ran away and – unsure if the skull was human or animal but certain that they should not have been in the woods in the first place – at first told no one about their find. Then Tommy Willetts, the youngest, told his father, who told the police. Their investigation uncovered the more–or–less entire skeleton of a young woman within the tree. Her mouth was stuffed with taffeta, and a gold wedding ring and some crepe shoes were found nearby – but perhaps most chillingly of all, one of her hands was missing. This, it was suggested, was a classic sign of a black–magic execution.

The general use of the name Bella, a common Black Country name, to describe the unknown victim gained currency when Professor Margaret Murray, of University College, London, made the suggestion that the severed hand was a sign of a black–magic execution. Belladonna is associated with witchcraft, as is wych–hazel, and as was, according to local legend, Hagley Wood. The "witch" theory – that Bella had been executed for unspecified crimes against a coven – quickly became popular."

But in 1953, a rival theory – this one involving spying – arose to challenge it. Wilfred Byford–Jones, a columnist on the Wolverhampton Express & Star, wrote about the 10–year–old case and was contacted by a woman who called herself "Anna" and claimed that Bella had been murdered for knowing too much about a pro–German spy ring which included a Dutchman, a foreign trapeze artist, and a British officer who died insane in 1942.

But no one I asked in Hagley – from a self–professed paranormalist to a respected local historian – could tell me anything of a current occult tradition involving Hagley Wood. "If it was witchcraft, it's the only incident of its kind that I've heard of round here," says Geoff Pardoe, Hagley representative of the Worcestershire Local History Forum. "I've never come across any of it," says Harry Tromans, a former Daily Mirror journalist who wrote about the Bella case as a cub–reporter in 1943.

Later, in the archives of the Black Country Bugle, I found old letters suggesting that, before the war, witches' sabbaths were regularly held in Hagley Wood, while the pub opposite, The Gypsies' Tent, was associated with hauntings and other occult goings on. But The Gypsies' Tent has long since made way for a Travel Inn, and the authors of those letters are dead, as, indeed, are all who were directly associated with the mystery.

"It's a thorny old chestnut," says Tromans, stirring the arboreal metaphor with the conscious panache of an old hack. "There are all these theories, but no one actually knows anything. We'll probably never know. Anyone who might have known anything is dead, anyone who might have done it is dead. It's lost – we should let it go."

Yet visiting vandals from nearby Birmingham are unlikely to have been responsible for a message whose full resonance is appreciated only by that dwindling number of elderly Hagley–dwellers who have lived there since the Second World War. And, as long as the message remains for all to see, people will wonder what dark thoughts animated the elderly hand that wrote it.

Source: 1&2



Hermes, draw near, and to my pray'r incline, angel of Jove, and Maia's son divine; Studious of contests, ruler of mankind, with heart almighty, and a prudent mind. Celestial messenger, of various skill, whose pow'rful arts could watchful Argus kill: With winged feet, 'tis thine thro' air to course, O friend of man, and prophet of discourse: Great life-supporter, to rejoice is thine, in arts gymnastic, and in fraud divine: With pow'r endu'd all language to explain, of

care the loos'ner, and the source of gain. Whose hand contains of blameless peace the rod, Kerukeion, blessed, profitable God; Of various speech, whose aid in works we find, and in necessities to mortals kind: Dire weapon of the tongue, which men revere, be present, Hermes, and thy suppliant hear; Assist my works, conclude my life with peace, give graceful speech, and me memory's increase.

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