Her talk, Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?, was to take us to the Hagley estate centred around Hagley Hall, a Grade II listed neo-Palladian pile perched in a beautiful rural Worcestershire setting. Hagley Hall so impressed the gothic novelist Horace Walpole that he claimed of it "I wore out my eyes with gazing, my feet with climbing, and my tongue and vocabulary with commending" but it's not due to its spectacular aspects nor its breathtaking ascents that Cathi had brought us here.
She was taking us not just across the country but back in time to the blackouts of World War II. In April 1943 some local schoolboys were playing football nearby on a lovely warm day when they decided to go explore, and poach in, the grounds. Beneath a heavily coppiced wych hazel (not actually a wych elm but the myth has long taken over the truth) they found a human skull that still had some skin and hair attached to it.
So far, so Stand By Me. The boys returned the skull and made a pact to tell nobody about it. That pact, however, did not last long as that night one of the traumatised youngsters broke down his tears and confessed his grisly find to his parents who immediately informed the police.
On attending the scene the police found the skeleton of a woman and a set of decomposed clothing. Some of the clothes, and some of the bones, were found more than one hundred metres from the tree. Verdict was given that this was a murder by a person, or persons, unknown and the corpse was identified as a roughly thirty five year old woman, about 5ft tall, who had lain dead, and presumably undiscovered, for between eighteen and thirty six months. It seemed that the cause of death was asphyxiation by an item of own clothing and immediately it began to look like our old favourite, the 'crime of passion'. But was it?
No further progress was made in the case but in the following days, and weeks, chalk messages began to appear in the local area. The first one, on a side of a house fifteen minutes away, read "WHO PUT BELLA IN THE WYCH ELM?" and this was followed by several more variants, slightly different messages with occasionally aberrant spelling but all essentially asking the same question, chalked around nearby Birmingham, Wolverhampton, and Halesowen. Despite said variance in spelling all the messages appeared to have been written by the same hand.
Professor Margaret Murray was a respected Egyptologist, archaeologist, anthropologist, and historian who lost some credibility in academic circles due to her abiding interest, and belief, in various folkloric tales. Her fascination with, and belief in, witches received support from, and influenced, the writers Aldous Huxley and Robert Graves. Murray believed that the fact that the corpse of Hagley Woods was missing its right hand pointed to 'Bella', whom she was now becoming known as, being a victim of a black magic ritual. This theory was backed up by her assertion that placing a dead woman's body inside a hollow tree was a method of imprisoning their soul after death.
A more rational, if equally unproven, view was that an animal, a rodent probably, had simply gnawed off the hand but Murray's mostly discredited theories found some favour when two years later on Valentine's night in 1945 an elderly, quiet farmer called Charles Walton was found dead in his home in Warwickshire. He'd been pinned to the ground with his own pitchfork, one of the tools of his trade, and had had a large cross inscribed in his chest. Walton's was another case that remained, and remains, unsolved, obscured perhaps by the fog of war, but if it wasn't a black magic ritual it was certainly committed by somebody who wanted to make it look like one.
Eight years passed with no further developments until in 1953 a Wolverhampton journalist received a letter suggesting that Bella was a gypsy condemned by her own 'tribe' for having an 'evil eye'. The police didn't buy it for one moment suspecting, probably correctly, that it was being used to rally anti-romani sentiment in the community. That train's never late.
Another theory came forward that both Bella (in this version Clarabella Dronkers) and her murderer were Dutch and she'd been killed for passing secrets on to the Nazis during the war. This theory posited that the perpetrator had died insane in 1942, after the murder but before the discovery of the body. Again, it's a theory that seems to hold little water.
There's a lot of loose ends in this case, it's anything but an open and shut job, and at times it got quite confusing trying to remember various names, dates, theories, and just general stuff about it. It was fascinating but hard to follow. I hope that comes across but also hope that in some way I'm simplifying it for you, providing at least some kind of narrative structure. Cathi's talk was necessarily slight (not the forty five/sixty minutes that'd been threatened) and it didn't take the advertised digression into the life and times of Helen Duncan, the Scottish medium whose crappy fake ectoplasm saw her become the last person to be imprisoned under the British Witchcraft act of 1735, but it was informative and the slideshow added to it rather than merely illustrated it. I enjoyed it. Yet, now I digress. Back to murder.
In August 1984 the Bella graffiti started reappearing (including the example of the obelisk in the grounds of Hagley Hall) and then in 2012, after the declassification of various documents, another theory came to light. This one supposed that 5ft Bella was actually 6ft Clara Bauerle from Hamburg who had, during the war, become a Nazi spy due to being fluent in English and even speaking it with a Birmingham accent after several years teaching in the West Midlands.
Josef Jakobs was a German spy who was the last man to be executed in the Tower of London in August 1941 after he was captured parachuting into Cambridgeshire. A photo, found on his person, depicted his lover, Clara Bauerle, and speculation ran rife, despite the twelve inch difference in size, that Clara was Bella. This theory was well and truly extinguished when it was discovered that Clara had died in Berlin in December 1942.
Each road in this case appears to lead to a dead end. It frustrates my very human need for a neat narrative and a story that ties up all its loose ends in its denouement but it does mean that the question Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm? remains as unanswered today as it ever has done and, in that, it is both an ongoing mystery and one that, quite possibly, will remain, for all eternity unsolved. Just the kind of thing for an evening of Fortean fun.