James Brogden is the author of Heckla’s Children, a novel we called “a smart blend of science fiction and horror.” His horror and fantasy stories have appeared in anthologies and periodicals ranging from The Big Issue to the British Fantasy Society Award-winning Alchemy Press. Today, he joins us to talk about the unkind myths underlying his new horror novel The Hollow Tree, released this week.
Recently, facial reconstruction experts have put a face to the story of an anonymous murder victim—75 years after her remains were found in a hollow tree.
On the April 18, 1943, four lads poaching in Hagley Wood south of Birmingham, England found the skeletal remains of a woman hidden in the hollow trunk of an ancient elm. Though there was no sign of violence on her remains, a piece of taffeta was found pushed into her mouth, which led the coroner to deliver a verdict of death by asphyxiation. The resulting investigation created more questions than it answered, especially when graffiti appeared in Birmingham which read, “Who put Bella down the Wych Elm?” and she changed from an anonymous corpse into a woman with a name, and hence, a potential identity.
That identity has never been established—let alone that of her killer or killers—a situation not helped by the loss of her remains during the second World War. Given the chaos of wartime, the police did their best to find any “Bellas,” or variations on that name, who had been reported missing, but came up with nothing.
This has given rise, over the decades, to all manner of conspiracy theories. The remains hadn’t been lost, it was said, but were stolen, either by occult forces or government agents (depending on who you believed) to cover up the evidence of her death.
The discovery of bones from one of her hands in nearby leaf-litter was clear evidence for some people that she was a victim of witchcraft, proof that she had been sacrificed and her hand severed in an attempt to create a “hand of glory.” This theory was given traction by the grisly murder, two years later, of a farm laborer called Charles Walton, found pinned to the ground with his own pitch-fork, a trouncing hook in his throat and a cross carved into his chest. In 1968, Murder by Witchcraft, by Donald McCormick, attempted to draw together some of the more lurid and inaccurate allegations of witchcraft with the theory that Bella was a spy for the abwehr, or German military intelligence.
The theory that she was a spy, or at the very least the lover of one, has refused to go down without a fight. Clara Bauerle was a German actress and cabaret singer whose photograph was found in the possession of the last man to be executed in the Tower of London, a German spy named Josef Jakobs. The story goes that she was recruited by German military intelligence as a spy on account of her ability to convincingly mimic British accents, and that she was murdered to prevent her from turning double-agent for the Allies. The fact that she never travelled to the UK, and died in Berlin of lung disease in 1942 (while Bella’s remains were still in the tree) makes this theory somewhat problematic.
Not to be deterred, another spy theory was very popular: that Bella was a Dutch woman called Clarabella Dronkers, wife of yet another German spy Johannes Dronkers—except his wife was called Elise and died in Amsterdam in 1944 without, apparently, parachuting into Hagley to join her husband, who had in any event already been picked up by MI5 and told them everything he knew.
Either way, it’s all very glamorous: witches, cabaret singers and spies. Except that, if the forensic evidence is to be believed, Bella was far from a smoldering, Mata Hari-esque femme fatale. She was short—little more than five feet high—in her thirties, had given birth at least once, was wearing a knitted woollen cardigan and a cheap wedding ring, and had incredibly wonky teeth.
But having no identity of her own, and hence nobody to tell her story, myth and urban legend rushed in to fill the vacuum and provide one for her.
The English countryside is dense with legend, and the road that runs past Hagley Wood has a history of hauntings.
There are reports of drivers experiencing near-collisions with the figures of Civil-War era cavaliers and the ghost of a young woman known locally as the “Wayside Waif.”
There is a clootie well a few miles away in St Kenelm’s pass that runs between the Clent Hills; folkore has it that Kenelm, a Mercian prince, was murdered by an ambitious relative and his body hidden there, and that when it was discovered and disinterred a fresh-water spring burst out of his grave. That spring is now in the grounds of St Kenelm’s church, and the trees around it are decorated with ribbons, shoelaces and scraps of paper.
The Bella graffiti also appeared on the base of a large obelisk in a field near the woods where her remains were found, and is refreshed every so often by anonymous hands. The monument was commissioned in the 1700s by the Sir Richard Lyttleton, owner of the Hagley Hall Park, as part of the then-fashionable vogue for manufacturing picturesque landscapes. The lettering is refreshed from time to time, always anonymously, and is something of a macabre navigation point for folks rambling the fields around Hagley.
For the ancient Greeks, the underworld wasn’t a particularly interesting place; the shades of the dead were grey, passive figures with no real identity, influence or power. The best a man could hope for was to gain some amount of kleos—loosely translated as glory, renown, or reputation—and have his story told by poets to successive generations, thereby achieving a kind of immortality.
But myths have never been particularly kind to women. The anonymous remains of a murdered woman are a fertile medium for sensationalistic and salacious speculation, seeded by the titillating hints of illicit sexual encounters. The competing narratives of Bella’s death say more about our culture’s continuing anxiety surrounding female sexual power than the simple forensic details of a murder. She is a prostitute, selling the sex which should belong rightfully within a good, Christian marriage. She is a spy, seducing and manipulating men with her feminine wiles. She is the victim of witchcraft, if nota witch herself, and we all know what they get up to in the woods at night.
The lack of physical evidence makes it highly unlikely that there will ever be definitive answers about who Bella was and how she died, but the enduring fascination with the mystery goes a lot deeper than the desire to simply puzzle out an unsolved crime. Putting a software-generated face to her is impressive, but at the end of the day, just the latest in a long line of reconstructions.
Bella’s story (or, more properly, the lack of it) holds continuing sway over the public imagination because we live in an age where many of us document every facet of our lives on social media, and the concept of dying without anyone knowing a single thing about us is fundamentally destabilizing to our sense of personal identity. It is akin to the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370—incomprehensible, we think, with so much of the world tracked and monitored. We return to the anomaly, like a tongue seeking out the gap of a missing tooth, exploring its implications for our own mortality, our own kleos.
Bella has experienced a number of reincarnations in the eight decades since her murder—several books, a film, and even a short “opera.” To this day, her death remains unexplained. The case is closed, officially unsolved. With her remains missing, all that is left are the stories that are told about her, and I think that’s why we can’t let it go—because in the end, once we have gone the way of dust and ash, the stories people tell are all that any of us have by way of an afterlife.