Monday, 2 February 2015

Who put Bella in the witch elm?

One of the more bizarre unsolved killings of the twentieth century happened in my newly adopted region of the Midlands. During the second world war, a quartet of boys discovered the corpse of a women stuffed into a thicket of branches of an elm tree. Wikipedia has a good synopsis of the case, and surmises that the general wartime confusion of the country lead to the victim never being identified nor anyone being convicted of the crime. Graffiti reading "Who put Bella in the witch elm" (or words to that effect) appeared near the scene right up until 1999 suggesting that this gruesome killing still weighs heavy on the psyche of locals.

The scenario immediately reminds me of the MR James story The Ash Tree where a tree plays host to some particularly nasty denizens which plague the local lord of the manor. Indeed, trees and death have a long association. The wold over they are used as improvised gibbets, and in certain cultures "Burial Trees" support corpses or coffins. The idea that trees can grow from seeds nourished by corpses links them to re-birth and the cycle of life. Jesus was, of course, nailed to one, albeit dismembered into the constituent parts of a crucifix.

The comedian Steve Punt recorded an investigative radio programme on the Bella case and it is well worth a listen. Though light-hearted, he uncovers some interesting facts about the case and potential links to local covens, war time spies and even conspiracies. It is now unlikely that we'll ever know the full facts surrounding this mysterious corpse, but I am sure it will continue to shape the psychogeography of the region.

Props to the excellent Hedge Row Devil tumblr for putting me onto this horrible bit of folk history, and for being the source of the images above.

1 comment:

  1. Reading the Wikipedia summary reminds me of reading player briefs for investigative horror role-playing games - I suspect due to the odd subject and the desire for authenticity among the writers meaning that they look at how such accounts are typically written...