S02 Episode 1: Whispers in the Trees

Part One

At 1900 hours on Wednesday, January 19th 2006, Nasa’s New Horizons probe, propelled by the majestic Atlas V rocket is launched into space. Having begun its journey at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, the probe, which is part of the New Frontier’s program, is the focal point of Nasa’s first ever mission to Pluto. 

With the spacecraft being hurled towards its target at over 36,000 mph, it will be another ten years before it begins to uncover the secrets lying in wait at the outer regions of our solar system.

Back home, a week after the launch, in a small bedsit in London, a far more earthly discovery is about to be made.

On the afternoon of Wednesday January 26th, a team of housing officials are making their way towards a flat in Wood Green, North London.  The apartment is part of a complex known locally as Sky City, which forms an estate perched on top of a vast shopping Mall.

When the team arrive at the front door, noises from the TV can be heard emanating from inside the flat, an indication perhaps that the occupier is home. The officer’s subsequent knocks however, go unanswered and after a few minutes, they decide to break down the door. 

Stepping into the gloom of the flat beyond, the officers are first struck by a cloying smell that hangs thickly in the air.  Pushing the front door wider reveals a stack of unopened mail on floor.   All the while the voices from the TV continue uninterrupted. 

A moment later, the officers step into the living room and make a gruesome discovery.  Lying there on the sofa, illuminated by the incessant flickering of the TV screen, are the skeletal remains of the tenant. A pile of Christmas presents lie unopened on the floor.

The tenant was 38-year-old Joyce Carol Vincent and her body had lain undiscovered and unreported for over two years.  Filmmaker Carol Morley was so moved by this revelation, that she began an investigation to uncover who this tragically forgotten woman had been.

Morely’s beautiful and hypnotic film DREAMS OF A LIFE, released in 2011, pieces together the story of Joyce’s life in an attempt to rescue her existence from obscurity.

It is surely a fate that haunts us all, the sadness of a life forgotten, an affirmation of a degree of meaningless too profound to comprehend.  We see it in the propensity for social media to so often operate not as a tool with which to explore each other but rather a means with which to validate ourselves.  Our way of saying not only that this is who we are but, in the way of old school room graffiti, perhaps it is more fundamentally a way of merely saying that we were here.  That we exist.

The British Industrial Revolution was a time of extraordinary physical and philosophical upheaval.  A time, as the inimitable Humphrey Jennings once observed that was borne from a sudden synchronicity of vision and the means of production. 

But its fuel was of course the land, the raw materials that men and women ripped from the ground and smelted in the factories.  Throughout the country colossal cauldrons of industry sprouted up around the places where such fuel was most in abundance. 

One such centre, perhaps the most intense of them all was The Black Country, a region in the West Midlands of England who’s very name proudly bares the scars of its past. 

As the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle once wrote of the place at the time:

“A dense cloud of pestilential smoke hangs over it forever, blackening even the grain that grows upon it, and at night the whole region burns like a volcano spitting fire from a thousand tubes of brick.”

At the height of the revolution, the region was a city of chimneystacks, of iron foundries and steel mills, but its blood was coal.

In fact traditionalists consider the real Black Country to only include the region just West of Birmingham where the 30ft coal seam comes to the surface, a product of once living trees, compressed and buried for millions of years, returning to the surface like an irrepressible secret. 

There are some who say the trees can talk, and if they could, what secrets might they hold?

On the edge of The Black Country, there is an area of forest just outside of Birmingham that today is struck through by the busy A456 road, but in years gone by it was a far more wild and darkly place.  It is thought by some to be imbued with a sort of magic, a place where witches may have gathered and perhaps still do. Or perhaps it is merely a place that echoes with the footsteps of ancient people who once walked and eventually settled on the land.

Indeed, it is possible that settlers may have frequented the area as far back as Neolithic times.  Certainly the nearby Wychbury Ring Fort is evidence of a local community having existed here as far back as the 2nd or 1st century BC.

By 1943, although signs of the fort can still be found they have faded well into the land.

Half the world is in the grip of war and for anyone who has found themselves mercilessly drawn into the horrors abroad, home is a distant and aching memory.  For those left behind, home is a familiar but forever changed landscape, with or without the bombs.

For Birmingham and the immediate surrounds, those bombs would come thick and fast being as it was the second most populous city in the UK and a major centre of industry.

It is hard to imagine that in the midst of such turmoil, something hidden, a secret closer to home, might somehow penetrate the sound of those bombs, but in April of 1943 it did.   

What happened exactly one evening, under cover of darkness, while explosives rained down only a few miles away has never been fully accounted for.  It is a mystery that remains to this day, Unexplained.

Barely 10 miles to the West of Birmingham in the shadow of the Clent Hills lies the village of Hagley.

On a warm spring evening in the magic hour as dusk begins to fall, four young boys are roaming through the Hagley Woods.  The date, is Sunday April 18th and the youngsters are Robert Hart, Thomas Willets, Bob Farmer and Fred Payne.

With rationing starting to bite, the boys, although they wouldn’t tell you, are searching for food.  Bird’s eggs or rabbits if they’re lucky.  As their fathers fight in foreign fields to protect the green and pleasant lands of home, the boys might be forgiven for thinking such wide-open country to be as much theirs as any other Englishman. 

But such is the way of things, the land has been privately owned by the Lyttelton family since 1556 and the boys are trespassing.  The area is known as Hagley Park, taking its name from Hagley Hall, which in 1943 is home to Charles John Lyttelton, the 10th Viscount Cobham.

The boys are about to make their way back home when something catches their eye.  A tree unlike any of the others around. 

The trunk appears strangely squat having at some point been heavily coppiced.  As a result, a shocking mesh of spindly branches has grown out of the top of it forming the perfect sanctuary for nesting animals.  Fifteen-year-old Bob Farmer volunteers to take a closer look and swiftly scrambles up through the branches.  Having soon reached the top, he looks down into the gaping hollow of the tree. 

In the fading light he can just make out the familiar dusty white hue of a bird’s egg.  Reaching down, he stretches his arm deep into the trunk but the egg remains tantalisingly out of reach. With the aid of a stick, he manages to move it but it’s bigger than he expected and seems to be wedged inside. With great care, Bob manages to dislodge the egg but as it starts to move free, something dawns on him.

Not only would this be the largest egg he had ever seen but that familiar dusty white hue is a little darker and more yellow than it had at first appeared, it looks more like bone.

When finally he lifts it from the hollow, it is clear that is not an egg at all, it is in fact a skull, a human skull.  Bob holds it aloft as the other boys look on with a mix of fear and wonder.   A quick discussion ensues, is it really what they think it is, how old is it? Should they tell someone? 

Fred is keen to show it to his older brother Donald but in the end, they decide to keep it between them, better that than risk punishment for poaching on private land. 

With night fast approaching, one of the boys notices some material protruding from the tree.  Farmer pushes it into the skull and taking the stick climbs back up the trunk and carefully lowers the mistaken treasure back into the hollow.

And there it might possibly have remained, if it wasn’t for the fact that, unsurprisingly, something of the event had followed the boy’s home. 

The youngest Tommy Willetts, who was finding it particularly difficult to erase the ghoulish image from his mind, an image that had found its way into his dreams.  The next morning, unable to ignore it any longer, Tommy told his parents who in turn wasted little time in telling the police.

The next day, Sergeant Charles Lambourne is dispatched to investigate.  En route to the forest, Lambourne calls in on Robert Hart, the oldest of the boys, to help lead him to the strange and haunting tree.

A short time later, having pointed out the location, the young Hart watches on, as Lambourne along with Sergeants Richard Skerratt and Jack Wheeler and Constable Jack Pound take it in turns to peer into the cavernous trunk.  The boys had indeed found a human skull, but what they didn’t know was that the peculiar tree was also hiding the rest of the body. 

One of the men remarks that the tree is an old and rotted Wych Hazel, also known as Wych Elm; a tree long associated with the Underworld.  The name wych derives from the old English word meaning pliant and durable. This feature of wych elm wood, is one of the reasons it was traditionally used to build coffins. 

The policemen request a forensic team to come and inspect the body but they are unable to attend until the following morning.  As a result, a volunteer is sort to guard the skeleton through the night.  The task falls to Squadron Leader William Douglas-Osborn a former special constable, home on leave for a few days on leave.

That night, Monday April 19th, Osborne kept watch over the remains of the unknown, encased like a missive from the underworld itself, inside the natural coffin of the old wych elm.

The following morning, on Tuesday April 20th, Douglas-Osborn was relieved of his duty by Superintendent Sidney Knight, Deputy Inspector Thomas Williams and Constable Jack Pound. 

Later that evening, at approximately 6.40pm, the police were joined by Professor James Webster – head of the newly established Home Office Forensic Science Laboratory, at nearby Birmingham University.

Webster was a foreboding figure, described by writer John Mervyn Pugh in his book, Execution, as ‘a large balding Scot with a glass eye and a monocle to enhance the vision of the other.’  He would often arrive on the scene scruffily dressed in baggy trousers and an old Harris Brown tweed jacket, his tie hanging loose half way around his neck.

With a ladder safely secured, the imposing Webster clambered up to take a look inside.  It was clear immediately that greater access would be needed. 

An axe was called for and handed over to Constable Pound.  As the other men stood back and watched, Pound swung the axe and cut into the bole of the tree.  One blow was followed by another, until a clear break had been made, large enough to pull the skeleton out.  With great care, the men worked together to free the bones before laying them out gently on the forest floor. 

On the ground, the skeleton appears at first to be fairly intact but Webster is quick to notice a number of missing fragments.  After a quick search round the immediate vicinity, Webster stumbles upon the slightly chewed tibia of the left leg. 

One small, midnight blue shoe with a crepe soul is also pulled from the splintered trunk. With the pieces now laid out, from the size and frame, as well as the few bits of material that remained, Webster could see instantly that the boys had stumbled upon the skeleton of a young woman.  

Later that evening the first of the bones are delivered to the West Midlands forensic science laboratory to be formally assessed by Webster and his assistant, Dr. John Lund.

Over the course of the next few days, the various sections are deftly laid out by the two pathologists. Any external fabric is delicately removed and slowly a body begins to take shape.  Professor Webster proceeds while Dr. Lund records his findings. 

He begins at the skull noting that it is undoubtedly that of a female and there are no obvious marks of a fatal injury. On the side of the skull is a small clump of mousy brown hair. An examination of the jaw reveals a clean and healthy set of teeth with one peculiarity: a noticeable irregularity of the front two incisors, which overlap slightly.

A piece of material, part of a khaki or mustard coloured dress the deceased would have worn is found lodged into the cavity of the mouth.  Suggesting a possible cause of death, perhaps placed in the victims mouth to hasten asphyxiation.

Moving down the skeleton, Professor Webster notes no signs of disease or ill health with the fine condition of both the hyoid bone and the sternum suggesting a woman below the age of 40.

The pelvis reaffirms the victim as being indisputably female with a particular feature in two of the hipbones suggesting a childbirth at some point though this is deemed inconclusive.  All in all, Webster finds little unusual with the major exception of one thing, the entirety of her right hand was missing.  

Professor Webster concludes the victim to have been a female of approximately 35 years of age, of lower than average height placing her at roughly 5 feet tall.

The time of death is given as approximately 18 months previously due to the state of decomposition and the age of the tree roots which had weaved their way through what remained of the clothes.

Since the victim had to have been placed in the hollow before rigor mortis, if as Webster suspected she had been murdered, it is likely that she would have been placed in the tree while still warm, possibly even alive.

As such, she would likely have been murdered nearby or at least driven to the spot in a significant hurry.

An assessment of the rotted fragments of clothing reveal the remains of a mustard coloured cloth skirt as well as a dark blue and yellow striped knitted cardigan.  An inexpensive wedding ring is also found which may have been worn for as long as four years.

Back in the forest, members of the home guard with the assistance of a local scout group continue to comb the local area.  A second shoe is found not far from the tree as well as a green glass bottle.

A short time later, one of the volunteers notices something protruding from the soil.  As he digs into the earth he recoils in horror as there, buried just below the surface, is the missing right hand. 

Taking Webster’s bone and material analysis, the Worcestershire Constabulary put together a poster campaign in the hope of encouraging any witnesses to come forward.

But as the days turned to weeks and then to months, despite evidence that the victim had possibly been married at the time of death and may also have borne a child, remarkably nobody comes forward.

Then an identity card is found in the woods but when the police visit the owner’s address they are somewhat disappointed to find her alive and well, if a little bemused as to how her ID card was found so close to a possible murder scene.

All in all, the police trawl through 3000 open reports of missing woman but are unable to find a significant match.  The irregularity of the teeth offered a glimmer of hope but a subsequent check of all UK dental records again yields nothing.

The green glass bottle is analysed but reveals little of interest but the police enjoy some luck when the crepe soled shoes are traced to one specific manufacturer by the name of Silesby’s located in nearby Northampton. 

Only 6000 pairs of the shoes have been made, and remarkably all of the owners are traced except for those of 6 pairs that are eventually tracked to a market stall in nearby Dudley where the trail goes cold. 

A similar process is attempted with the clothes but curiously all of the labels have been cut or removed entirely.  A strange state of affairs perhaps, but also one that was in keeping with the notion that the shoes might have been market bought since stall owners would remove the labels of the clothes they sold.

In spite of the distraction and devastation of war, the mystery of the skeleton found in Hagley Wood, now being referred to in the press as the ‘Tree Murder Riddle’, had continued to hold a firm grip on the local community.  But as the months wore on the tale of yet one more wartime death had begun to fizzle from the public consciousness. After 6 months the police had drawn a complete blank with no leads and not even as much as a name for the tragic, forgotten victim.  But all that was about to change.

It was on one morning, some time towards Christmas of 1943, that the rising son revealed a cryptic message hastily scrawled across a wall in the nearby village of Old Hill.  Written in chalk in 3-inch high capital letters were the words:

Who put Luebella down the Wych Elm?

Not long after another message appeared scrawled on a wall in Birmingham declaring, ‘Hagley Wood Bella.’  Again and again, the messages continued to appear, evolving each time until eventually settling on what has perhaps become the most well known phrase, ‘Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?’

But who had authored these teasing questions?  Do they really know who the dead woman was, or what may have happened to her?  Why are they not talking to the police? 

As if from nowhere it would seem, the authorities now had a name to work with, but the mystery was only just begun…

Part Two

Welcome to part 2 of Whisper’s in the Trees, where we return to the midlands of England in the winter of 1943…

As Christmas approached, at last the authorities had something to work with: a name, or at least the derivation of a name. Now the police began to focus their efforts on women with versions of the name Bella who may have gone missing around the autumn of 1941.

One woman was of particular interest whose name Bella Luer bore a striking similarity to the name Leubella as depicted in the earliest of the graffiti linked to the case.  

Bella Luer’s friends had become concerned when they lost all contact with her after she moved to Birmingham from Stamford Hill in London.  Although Bella Luer’s whereabouts were never officially established she was eventually deemed irrelevant to the case.

As for all the other Bella’s that the police looked into, they were found alive and well.  Before long the investigation hit a brick wall.

In defence of the Worcestershire constabulary, 1941 was a difficult time to be keeping track of British citizens.  And with resources stretched to the limit it is much to the credit of the force that such an extensive investigation was conducted at all. 

As the months passed and war eventually came to an end, the public interest in the case soon diminished.  By the summer of 1945, with the nation celebrating an end to hostilities while mourning their countless other dead, the ‘Tree Murder Riddle’ was fated to remain unsolved and forgotten.

But someone was about to make a startling claim concerning a vital piece of the evidence that they believed had been criminally overlooked; the severed right hand.

Back in 1898, at the age of 35, Dr. Margaret Murray was making a name for herself in the field of Egyptology.  She had just become the first female lecturer in archaeology in the United Kingdom, having accepted a post at University College London. She would continue to work and teach at the university until her retirement in 1935 at the age of 72. 

Although formally an anthropologist and historian, Murray was perhaps best known for her highly controversial views regarding the history of witches.  Her primary theory became known as the witch-cult hypothesis. 

The theory suggests that rather than being the hapless victims of vile and arbitrary witch-hunts, witches persecuted throughout European history, were in fact followers of "a definite religion with beliefs, rituals, and organization as highly developed as that of any cult.” 

What drew her attention to the Hagley Wood case was the curious revelation that the right hand had been found separated from the rest of the skeleton and buried in the ground.

The police merely assumed it be the work of an industrious forest animal.  To Dr. Murray however, it suggested something far more sinister.

She believed that instead of being a gruesome but incidental offcut, the hand had in fact been removed and placed in the ground deliberately as part of an elaborate occult ritual. 

Dr. Murray suggested that the severed hand may have been used to create a magic artefact known as a Hand of Glory.  Traditionally such totems were made by removing the right hand of a convicted criminal followed by the casting of a spell to invest the separated extremity with magical power.

A bizarre suggestion you might think, but not so, she believed, if the victim had been considered to be a witch.  The theory was given more weight by the location of the body.  As outlined by James George Frazer’s in his groundbreaking book The Golden Bough, there is a rich tradition in Celtic and pagan beliefs of investing trees with spirits and sometimes souls of their own.  In addition, there are some who believe that certain trees have the power to bind magic. 

There are some who believe Hagley Wood to have long been a traditional meeting place for covens of witches and it certainly it wouldn’t have been the first time that an occult ritual had been conducted in England during the Second World War.

In August 1940, Gerald Gardner, a well-known follower of Pagan Witchcraft, along with a number of other members of the New Forest Coven, performed a magick ritual that became known as Operation Cone of Power.  It was hoped that the operation would ultimately dissuade the High Command of Nazi Germany from invading the United Kingdom. 

It is also important to note that Dr. Murray’s theory wasn’t based on any personal belief in the magic of witchcraft but rather the notion that such practices did occur.  Whether or not a Hand of Glory had any discernible power, it remains that somebody willing to believe in such things may have enacted some form of ritual in the murder of the unknown woman.

In any case despite influencing a number of well-known authors such as Aldous Huxley and Robert Graves, Murray’s Hagley wood theory and her witch-cult hypothesis have been roundly discredited and in reality there is little to support her claim that the victim had been subject to a ritualistic killing. 

What Murray’s theory did do however was to enact a sort of magic of its own, Such spells tend to be most potent during times of uncertainty, when a scapegoat is required to make sense of the ills of the world.   Perhaps it was only ever going to be a matter of time but soon a bogey man would be brought forth from the fog of truth.

With all the talk of ritual murder and black magic, fuelled by a press ever ready to fan the flames of a salacious story many became convinced that local travellers were to blame. The rumour would persist for ten years.  

But all that was about to change.

In 1953, a journalist at the Wolverhampton Express and Star, writing under the name Quaestor, decided to reassess the evidence.  His real name was Wilfred Byford Jones.

Byford Jones, who had never been convinced by the reductive traveller theory, revisited the case in a series of articles appearing in late November of 1953.  Concluding the series in a third and final article, published on Friday November 20th, Byford Jones notes, “whether the young woman is supposed to have been a gipsy who was ritualistically murdered with witchcraft or after a trial by her tribe, well, I do not accept it. It is true that there had been gipsies for years in the area, but every crime is laid at the door of Romanies…”

For Byford Jones the suggestions of witchcraft had been a gross and fanciful obscuring of the facts.

It was a gallant and single-minded campaign that fought to wrestle the case back from acceptable fiction to more unsettling fact.  But nobody could have anticipated what came next when a few days later, a strange letter landed on Byford Jones’ desk.

It was Post marked Claverly, Wolverhampton and dated 18th November 1953 it read:

“My Dear Quaestor,

Finish your articles regarding the wych elm crime by all means they are interesting to your readers but you will never solve the mystery. The one person who could give the answers is now beyond the jurisdiction of earthly courts.

The affair is closed and involves no witches, black magic or moonlight rites. 

Much as I hate having to use a nom-de-plume, I think you would appreciate it if you knew me.  The only clues I can give you are that the person responsible for the crime died insane in 1942, and the victim was Dutch and arrived in England illegally about 1941.  I have no wish to recall any more.

Yours sincerely Anna”

It is not uncommon for people to claim knowledge of crimes they have no connection to, but something of Anna’s letter rang true to Byford Jones.

After a series of pleas for Anna to come forward and reveal herself, a few days later, against all expectation, she did.  And so it was on one cold morning at the local police station, that Anna proceeded to reveal everything she knew.  Her name was Una Hainsworth and this was her story…

Some time in the early thirties Una had met and fallen in love with a dashing young man called Jack Mossop. Not long after, the young lovers would be married and expecting their first child.  Sure enough in 1932, with the couple still in their teens a son, Julian, was born.

As the country slowly clawed its way back from a decade of economic stagnation, here encapsulated in the face of their newborn baby, was a renewed sense of hope for the future. But that hope would be short lived, for there was a shadow looming over the young family, a shadow that was soon to fall across most of the world.

On Sunday September 3rd 1939, at 11:15am families up and down the land huddled around the wireless as Neville Chamberlain announced that the country was at war. Less than a year later, on Friday August 9th 1940 the first of many bombs dropped on the Midlands.  What followed was just under two years of sustained bombing of the heavily industrialised region.

For Jack perhaps to his relief and shame, as a skilled factory worker he was exempt from the draft and was instead assigned to work in Coventry building munitions. But as the months wore on, Una’s relief that Jack had avoided the draft was tempered somewhat by a sudden change in his character. 

He started to drink more and stay out later, often at a new favourite haunt; a lively place on the edge of the Clent Hills called the Lyttleton Arms.  He started buying new clothes, including an RAF officer’s jacket to which he was not entitled.  He had also started to accrue money from an unknown source. Una was particularly suspicious of the new crowd he seemed to be hanging out with, a suspicion that was further aroused when one of the crowd turned up one night at their home.

The enigmatic man, who gave his name as Van Raalt, was well dressed and claimed to be from Holland, with a seemingly endless disposable income despite no discernible occupation to speak of.

One evening in the spring of 1941, after yet another late night, Jack returned home drunk and agitated.  He’d been at the Lyttleton Arms again with Van Ralt where they were joined by what he described as ‘The Dutch Piece’.  Jack claimed that the woman had become awkward and later passed out, at which point Van Ralt decided to play a trick on her.

After carrying the woman to Van Ralt’s car, the pair drove to a nearby wood and dropped her unconscious body into the hollow of a tree.  They had only meant it as a joke, he said, believing in the morning she would come to her senses.

In the weeks that followed it was clear to Una that something was playing on Jack’s mind.  As he retreated further into himself and his behaviour became increasingly erratic, Una eventually had enough. So she left, taking their son with her.

For Jack, now without his wife and child to keep him company things began to unravel drastically.  But it wasn’t their leaving that tortured him every night, but rather what had crept in, in their absence.  Later, after Una and Jack had divorced, Jack confided in Una.  He told her, that he was being driven mad by the recurring image of a woman’s face leering at him from inside a tree.

But it wasn’t until Una heard that a skeleton had been found in Hagley Wood that she put the two events together.  Back in the police station all those years later, the interviewing officers are dumbfounded by Una’s statement and immediately demand a contact address for her ex-husband.  But she couldn’t give them one.  Jack had been committed to a psychiatric hospital in Stafford in 1942.  A few months later, at the age of 29 he was dead, apparently driven insane by his recurring nightmare.

But what really shook things up was Una’s parting thought on the matter.  Van Ralt, she believed, was a spy.

There is no firm evidence to suggest that Jack Mossop had found himself embroiled in a spy ring, so what to make of Una’s story? Certainly much of it is true. She did indeed have an ex-husband called Jack Mossop who had been a regular visitor to the Lyttleton Arms.  It is also true that he would later die in a psychiatric hospital in 1942.  Police also had some luck in tracing the mysterious Van Ralt figure but nothing untoward could be found.

It could be said that much of Una’s story begins to make more sense if her spy theory is applied: certainly, in his capacity as a munitions worker in Birmingham, Jack would have been uniquely placed to pass off useful information to the German Air Force.

Although Una’s spy theory was never officially confirmed, it was a theme keenly picked up 15 years later by writer Donald McCormick. In 1968, McCormick is alleged to have conducted a series of interviews with a former Nazi called Franz Rathgeb.

It turned out that a number of German spies had been active around the Midlands after all at precisely the time that the unknown woman would have gone missing.

One of those spies was Rathgeb.  Although he claimed not to know anything of the murdered woman he did recall a fellow spy by the name of Lehrer who had a Dutch girlfriend called Dronkers, Clarabella Dronkers, who was herself a spy living in the Birmingham region.

Intriguingly, she would have been around 30 years old at the time of the murder and had irregular front teeth similar to those noted on the skeleton.  Could it be that the fruitless search of dental records all those years ago had not failed due to an administrative error but merely because the woman had not actually been from the UK?

McCormick further alleged that he later come across some declassified papers from German military intelligence.  The papers suggested that a spy as had been parachuted into the Midlands in 1941 but had then failed to make contact with their handlers.  The name listed for the spy was Clarabella.

Needless to say, this theory too remains unconfirmed.

However, on the 18th May 1942, the British Navy intercepted an unregistered boat just off the coast of the UK.  In it were three Dutch nationals who were promptly interrogated.  After a routine questioning, two of the men were deemed rational and of little threat, the third on the other hand became hysterical at the first sight of the British officers. He was immediately arrested and later convicted under the 1940 Treachery Act on suspicion of being a spy.  His name was Johannes Marinus Dronkers.

Was this the man Franz Rathgeb knew as Lehrer, come in search of his missing wife? Sadly, we will never know.  On New Years Eve of 1942, Johannes Dronkers was executed in Wandsworth Prison, London.

Towards the end of the twentieth century, a number of British Wartime files were declassified, with one proving of particular interest to our case.  On the evening of January 31st 1941 just above the town of Ramsey in Cambridgeshire, high up in the night sky a man was silently drifting down to earth.  No one saw the black spot as it fell hard and fast landing with a bump in a field next to Dovehouse Farm.  Two men, Charles Baldock and Harry Coulson had been walking by the area shortly after when they heard the sound of a revolver being fired into the air.

Locating the source of the gunshots, Baldock and Coulson were astonished to find a man lying on his back in a field surrounded by the silken canopy of a parachute.  The man, who was in some distress, had clearly broken his leg.   Coulson ran immediately to fetch, James Godfrey, a member of the home guard who in turn telephoned Ramsey police station before accompanying Coulson to take a look at the prostrate man.

Godfrey later noted that the man had been wearing civilian clothes underneath his flying suit. They also found in his possession an attaché case, 4 to 500 pounds in one pound notes and a wallet. Together the three men bound the parachutist’s leg and waited for further instructions.

A short time later, Captain William Henry Newton, arrived on the scene and began to question the mystery man.  He gave his name as Joseph Jakobs and claimed to have flown over solo from Luxembourg before bailing out of his plane.  Needless to say, a plane was never found.  Jakobs was loaded onto a horse and cart and delivered to Ramsey Police station.

Once detained, Jakobs was asked to open the attaché case.  Inside they found a wireless set as well as a pair of headphones and batteries as well as a map on which were marked the location of two RAF satellite stations nearby.  But Jakobs is also carrying something else, something found tucked away deep inside his pocket; a picture photograph of a glamorous looking woman.   On the back of which was a message written in English.  It read, ‘My Dear, I love you forever.  Your Clara, Landau, July 1940.’

The woman is Klare Sophie Bauerle.

Born in Ulm, Germany on 29th of Jun 1906, in 1941 she would have been 35 years old.  She is a cabaret singer and sometime actress who not only worked for a number of years performing in music halls across the west midlands but speaks fluent English with a Birmingham accent and was known locally as Clarabella.

Not only that, but according to Jakobs she is extremely well connected with Nazi Party and had been recruited as a spy with plans to drop her into the Midlands region.  Finally it seemed that the pieces were coming together. Is it possible that Klara Bauerle is our unknown woman? 

Not so according to Jacob’s granddaughter, Giselle, whose own website on the subject provides an exhaustive account of the life of Joseph Jakobs.  As Giselle’s research details, the skeleton found in the wych elm tree suggested a woman of around 5 feet in height.  Klara Bauerle, as has been well documented was substantially taller, at almost 6 feet in height.  In a final blow to the theory it was also discovered that Klara had in fact died in Berlin on the 16th December 1942.

Joseph Jakobs was eventually tried and convicted of being a spy, and sentenced to death by firing squad.  Jakobs protested his innocence to the end, declaring he was a friend of England and had arrived to help in her fight against the Nazis, but it was to no avail. On the 13th August 1941, Josef Jakobs became the last man ever to be executed at the tower of London.

Thinking about the mystery in its entirety it is quite striking when you consider that perhaps the least strange element of the whole thing is that a woman had been murdered and most likely by a man.  And not only had she been disposed of with such apparent ease but there seemed nobody willing to come forward on her behalf.

According to writer and comedian Steve punt, who investigated the Wych Elm Murder, as part of his punt PI series, broadcast by the BBC, there was one report at the bottom of a police fail so often overshadowed by the louder, more colourful components of this compelling mystery.  It notes a missing persons report, logged some time around October of 1941.  A sex worker by the name of Bella had gone missing.  Could it be that that same Bella, a woman whose initial disappearance had perhaps been deemed unworthy of investigation, was the woman they had been searching for all along?

There was one other report recorded shortly after the skeleton had been discovered, an eye witness account by two home guards who had been wrapping up their nightly patrol near Hagley Wood one evening in the Autumn of 1941 when the sound of an approaching engine, stopped them in their tracks.  As the guards look down towards a turn in the road, a scattering of light is followed shortly by a vehicle appearing from around the bend before swiftly pulling in to the side of the road.

The guards approach with caution, surprised to see a private vehicle driving round these parts at this time of night. As they near the vehicle, one of the guards holds a light up to the driver’s window and knocks on the glass. 

The driver blinks into the light and duly rolls down the window. He smiles awkwardly as he hands over his ID.  The guards are surprised to discover, judging by the jacket he is wearing, that the man is an RAF officer.  Shining a light into the vehicle, the patrolmen notice there is someone else in the car, huddled under an overcoat, lying very still in the passenger seat.

At the look on the faces of the guards, the officer gives an embarrassed shrug.  The Guards return the ID, which is gratefully received by the driver, who proceeds to roll up the window before driving away, back into the night.


© Richard MacLean Smith


1.    Woman’s Body Found in 1943, The Manchester Guardian, Oct 4th 1949.

2.    Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm, Series 7 Episode 4 of Punt PI, written by Steve Punt, BBC (2015).

3.    Sparke, A. (2014), Bella In The Wych Elm: In Search of a War Time Mystery APA Publications: UK

4.    Murray, M. (2010), Margaret Murray, England: The Other Within, http://web.prm.ox.ac.uk/england/englishness-Margaret-Murray.html

5.    Haughton, B (2008), Bella in the Wych Elm, Brian Haughton, http://brian-haughton.com/ancient-mysteries-articles/bella_in_the_wych-elm/3/

6.    Josef Jakobs research website run by granddaughter of Jakobs, http://www.josefjakobs.info/

7.    Strangeremains (2015), Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?, Strange Remains, https://strangeremains.com/2015/04/24/who-put-bella-down-the-wych-elm/

8.    Vale, A (2013), Is this the Bella in the wych elm? Unravelling the mystery of the skull found in a tree trunk, The Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/is-this-the-bella-in-the-wych-elm-unravelling-the-mystery-of-the-skull-found-in-a-tree-trunk-8546497.html


S02 Episode 1 Extra: Cone of Power

Welcome to Unexplained Extra with me Richard MacLean Smith.

For the weeks in between episodes we look at the stories that for one reason or other didn’t make it into the show.

In last week’s episode, Whispers in the Trees, we looked at the unsettling mystery of the skeleton found inside the hollowed-out trunk of an old Wych Elm tree.  The gruesome discovery was made one evening in April of 1943 by four young boys looking for rabbits and bird’s eggs.  The boys had been searching through a small stretch of forest just west of Birmingham known as Hagley Wood when they came across the bizarre tree and its grisly secret.

For over 70 years, numerous attempts have been made at piecing together the mystery but to this day the identity of both the victim and the perpetrator remains unknown.  There is one theory however relating to the case that stands out amongst all the others…  

In 1945, the historian and anthropologist Dr. Margaret Murray surmised that whatever crime had been enacted may have been ritualistic in nature, suggesting a possible link to witchcraft and the occult. 

Murray’s supposed authority on the subject was crystallised in her 1921 book, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe.  The book drew a great deal of criticism but in equal measure it was also to become exceedingly influential to a number of like-minded individuals.  Individuals such as Gerald Gardner.

Today, Gardner is perhaps best known for having been a leading figure of Pagan Witchcraft, also known as Wicca. What is perhaps less known is the extraordinary story of what Gardner, along with 16 other witches, claims to have attempted on behalf of the British war effort in August of 1940.

It was an unsettling time to say the least.  After the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939, Belgium and the Netherlands was to follow in May 1940.  After a gallant but disastrous attempt to halt the invading forces, the British army was forced to evacuate from the continent at Dunkirk.  Barely ten days later the Nazi army had captured France.

It seemed only a matter of time before Hitler would send his forces across the channel to claim the British Isles.  And so it was when Gerald Gardner, operating as part of a group known as the New Forest Coven hatched a cunning plan to halt the anticipated invasion.

Born in 1884 in Blundellsands in the North West of England into a wealthy line of timber merchants, Gardner was to spend his formative years travelling the world with his nursemaid Josephine McCombie.  Such exposure to many different peoples and cultures filled Gardner with a deep sense of searching, and a desire to get to the root of life.  It was a path that would lead him to increasingly esoteric and occult interests, culminating ultimately in his devotion to Pagan Witchcraft.

In 1938, shortly after returning to the UK with his wife Dorothea, Gardner had become fascinated with a group known as the Rosicrucian Order Crotona Fellowship who were operating in his newly adopted town of Highcliffe on the Dorset coast.  But something didn’t fit.  Within a year Gardner became sceptical of some of the orders followers who had taken to believing that their founder, George Alexander Sullivan, was immortal.

After expressing his dissatisfaction to other members of the group, Gardner was invited to join a small gathering at a large house known as the Mill House in Highcliffe. After arriving, Gardner was invited to strip naked before being taken by series of initiation rituals by the end of which, Gardner had become a fully-fledged member of the New Forest Coven.

12 months later, the fate of the British nation hung in the balance.

And so it was shortly after night descended on Lammas Day, 1st August 1940, 17 people made their way deep into the New Forest.  They gathered a few miles north of Highcliffe at the foot of an ancient gallows tree known as The Naked Man.  Once the group had assembled they made their way to a part of the woodland called Ferny Knapp.

In a forest clearing of ancient primordial beauty surrounded by birch, oak and fern, the group marked out a large circle of about 9 feet in diameter.  It was a witch’s circle.  A shutter lantern was placed to the east of the circle facing out towards Berlin providing a beacon for which the group could focus their powers.

One by one, the group lined themselves around the circle and began to strip free from their clothes in preparation for the ritual. Some covered themselves in goose fat to better endure the chill summer air.

On the order of one, the group began to chant and dance in a spiral pattern about the circle.  Slowly at first, but then as their awareness grew, the movement became faster and more fluid.  Then they began to chant, louder and louder as the bodies spun around the circle.

More and more they moved as their voices built in unison to an ecstatic crescendo.  Finally with the cone established in all their minds, a collective picture was drawn of a circular base of energy, moving up like clay on a potters wheel, squeezing to an apex of power, rising high into the night sky before being flung into the air.  The energy bursting forth from the cone, thundered over the treetops and across the fields, across the freezing grey waters of North Sea and the low lands of Europe and headed straight for the minds of the German High Command. You cannot cross the sea, they said, you cannot cross the sea, you will not cross the sea…

The rest is of course, history.


© Richard MacLean Smith


1.    Charters, D. (2004), Was Hitler Defeated by Witchcraft, Meta Religion, http://www.meta-religion.com/Esoterism/Magick/was_hitler_defeated.htm#ixzz4YYxX3pm6

2.    Website dedicated to the history of Gerald Gardner, http://www.geraldgardner.com/

3.    Metcalfe, T (2016), Operation Cone of Power: When British Witches Attacked Adolf Hitler, Mental Floss, http://mentalfloss.com/article/86145/operation-cone-power-when-british-witches-attacked-adolf-hitler

4.    Cone of Power, The Mystica, https://www.themystica.com/mystica/articles/c/cone_of_power.html