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The Hagley Wood Murder (ePub)

Nazi Spies and Witchcraft in Wartime Britain

P&S History > British History P&S History > By Century > 20th Century P&S History > True Crime WWII

By M J Trow
Imprint: Pen & Sword True Crime
File Size: 10.0 MB (.epub)
Pages: 208
Illustrations: 20 mono illustrations
ISBN: 9781399066471
Published: 6th March 2023

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Astonishingly, The Hagley Wood Murder is the first book solely on the subject (other than a selection of privately printed/self published offerings) ever written on this murder, which took place eighty years ago.

In April 1943, four teenaged boys discovered a corpse stuffed into the bole of a wych elm in a wood in the industrial Midlands. The body was merely bones and had been in the tree for up to two years. The pathologist determined that she was female, probably in her thirties, had given birth and was just under five feet tall. The cause of death was probably suffocation.

Six months after the discovery, mysterious messages began to appear on walls in the area, variants of ‘Who Put Bella Down the Wych Elm – Hagley Wood’. And the name Bella has stuck ever since.

Local newspapers, then the national press, took up the story and ran with it, but not until 1968 was there a book on the case – Donald McCormick’s Murder by Witchcraft – and that, like others that followed, tied Bella in with another supposedly occult murder, that of Charles Walton on Meon Hill in 1945.

Any unsolved murder brings out the oddballs – the police files, only recently released, are full of them – and the nonsense still continues. The online versions are woeful – inaccuracy piled on supposition, laced with fiction. It did not help that a professional occultist, Dr Margaret Murray, expressed her belief, as early as 1953, that witchcraft was involved in Bella’s murder. And ill-informed nonsense has been cobbled together to ‘prove’ that Dr Murray was right.

McCormick’s own involvement was in espionage and his book, slavishly copied by later privately printed efforts, have followed this tack too. It was wartime, so the anonymous woman in the wych elm had to be a spy, parachuted in by the Abwehr, the Nazi secret service.

The Hagley Wood Murder is the first book to unravel the fiction of McCormick and others. It names Bella and her probable murderer. And if the conclusion is less over-the-top than the fabrications referred to above, it is still an intriguing tale of the world’s oldest profession and the world’s oldest crime!

This was such an interesting read that I had never heard of before, but once I started reading, I had to know more.
A fascinating read.

NetGalley, Aria Harlow

4 out of 5 Stars

A fascinating picture of wartime Britain, its population, their obsessions, the changes to society itself wrought by outside pressures.

Read the Full Review Here

Army Rumour Service (ARRSE)

This book did an amazing job at sifting through the possible stories for this particular cold case and I really enjoyed getting to think for myself through his amazing research.

NetGalley, Ashli Meynert

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is a fascinating book that uses research to debunk the myths that have grown around the wartime murder of an unknown woman who ended up stuffed in a tree in Hagley Wood. The investigation was sloppy at best and the evidence has been lost forever but the author has painstakingly refuted the “facts” that were printed in books and articles zapping the embellishments and outright fabrications. She has little mercy for the people who decided to make the story more sensational..

She takes a couple to task but she reserves her greatest vitriol for the journalist whom she holds most responsible for the mythistory. I do like that word. It sums up so much of the drivel that passes for truth on the internet. It was not as easy back in the day for stories to take on a life of their own like it is now but this sad tale got lots of mileage and put more than a few quid in a number of pockets.

The author admits no one will ever know exactly what happened but she sorts the the stories of witchcraft, Nazi spies, gypsies and prostitutes and comes up with a plausible explanation. Whether the author is right or wrong, it is still a riveting book of how one historian can demolish decades of yellow journalism. Five purrs and two paws up.

NetGalley, Susan Johnston

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Who put Bella down the Wych Elm?

This enigmatic graffiti appeared sporadically throughout Worcestershire, England, following the 1943 discovery of a woman’s corpse stuffed into the hollow trunk of a wych elm in Hagley Wood. The murder was thought to have taken place in 1941, as the remains had been skeletonized. In spite of extensive police work being done, the woman’s identity remains unknown.

While the case may seem impossibly cold, one researcher is determined to solve it. M.J. Trow has put forth his best analysis in The Hagley Wood Murder: Nazi Spies and Witchcraft in Wartime Britain released April, 2023 by Pen & Sword True Crime. This is the first book on the subject since Donald McCormick’s Murder by Witchcraft - a book of questionable value.

Trow is able to parse out fact from fiction thanks to the files of the case being made available to the public after it was deemed unsolvable in 2005. He assiduously analyzes the newspapers of the time, comparing their information with case files and McCormick’s later more fanciful account to get as close to the truth as possible.

Trow does much to contextualize the difficulties that World War II posed in solving the case. By studying what spies existed upon Britain’s soil, he is able to put to bed the notion that ‘Bella’ was liable to be a spy. Likewise, he contextualizes Margaret Murray’s comments about witchcraft in relation to the case to help better explain how unlikely that idea was.

Is the case solvable now? M.J. Trow does an excellent job postulating a possible solution for it. Whether or not his solution is the actual one is impossible to say, but he makes a more logical and compelling argument than anyone else has. By dispensing with some of the more outlandish speculation he leaves us with a much more human and intriguing case rooted within the life of the average person within the time period.

NetGalley, Hilary Wilson

Readers can brace themselves to be woven through both fact and fiction in this true crime tale about Bella and the Wych Elm or the Hagley Wood Murder. This book does an amazing job of providing the reader many sources that bring forth questions on how reliable they are. No need to bring the devil's advocate while reading, Trow will bring his own for you to fully analyze this case!

I very much appreciated the author's information about not only the case itself, but also the time period with which this case happened in. The fact this event took place in WWII really sheds light on what was occurring in many towns across Europe, but particularly Britain, during the war. It provides an understanding of just how hard this time period would have been to bring justice to the victim, even in normal circumstances.

NetGalley, Alysia Ascher

In this book, the author sets out to look in detail at the various stories, myths and speculative theories which have revolved around the case, since the discovery of her body by four boys in 1943. Everything from witchcraft to espionage as well as many other suggestions have been purported as theories of Bella's demise. Bella's identity was never discovered, let alone how or why she ended up dead inside of a tree.

This is the first book which pulls together all of these theories and examines them individually. It has been extensively researched and well written. It was easy to read and did not get too bogged down in any particular theory. Instead, the author presents us with a comprehensive guide to the case and the various opinions that have surfaced in the last eighty or so years.

The case was officially closed in 2005 as it was decided that there was no possibility of it being solved.

Whilst, the author has debunked the majority of the theories around this case, he does venture to impart his own, plausible theory of who Bella was and who murdered her.

NetGalley, Anna Elliott

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I like historical true crime and this was excellent. A story about a mystery, endless theories and a good writer.
It was a pleasure and it kept me hooked.
Highly recommended.

NetGalley, Anna Maria Giacomasso

I could not put this book down. Highly recommend if you love historical true crime books. I’ve heard of this case in the past and I love that the author wrote about it.

NetGalley, Alison James

As featured in

Droitwich Standard

Article: Leafing through unsolved murder mystery

Standard (Bromsgrove)

I found the book very interesting and all the solutions to murder that were available. Bella has been thoroughly researched in this book by M.J. Trow and look forward to reading more about this murder. If you love true crime then you would enjoy reading this book.

NetGalley, Eadie Burke

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

A superb retelling of the so called ‘Who Put Bella Down The Wych Elm’ case - an unsolved case which, over the years, has drawn much speculation, discussion and theory. Who was the so called ‘Bella’ and who could have been her killer? This is, perhaps, the definitive and only full account documenting the crime which was discovered in Hagley Wood in April of 1943 by four teenage boys. Along the way, the author neatly unravels fact from fiction and ultimately provides his own theory of what really happened. Eminently readable, beautifully written, perfectly articulated and endlessly fascinating.

NetGalley, Ruth Giles

It's very informative. Overall. a really good read. You learn about the stigma around the wych elm. You also have world war II information as well as nazi information. All around this one event, a woman found in Hagley Wood inside a wych elm. You learn about what the times were like during that time period when the boys found the woman in the tree. It gives a detailed account of what happened, what the conditions were like and what was happening during the time period. It gives you perspective as to where people's minds were at and what kind of thinking was happening among the wartime and rations. It's very informative about the people involved in all aspect: the boys, the detectives and the investigation it includes so much information that I felt like I had just sat through an extensive lecture but in a good way. Overall, it is very in-depth, and there has been a lot of research that has gone into this book. You can tell from the way it's written and the way that it's read that the author took the time to make it as accurate as possible.

NetGalley, Jessica Tully

A very good, informative read, I enjoyed it.

NetGalley, Sheila Treacy

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The Hagley Wood Murder is the fascinating tale of a murder in April 1943 that gripped the country at the time and has continued to produce speculative theories from the possible to the unlikely to the outright ridiculous.

The unfortunate victim was a woman in her 30's who has still not been positively identified and was found by 4 teenaged boys in the someone what unlikely location of the inside of a Wych Elm tree in the Midlands. With the word "Wych" in this context being entirely misunderstood a the case has gone down in urban myth as involving the supernatural with dark rituals and sacrifices spoken about in local legend and sensationalist books. As author M.J.Trow explains there have been many other exotic theories involving espionage ,in yet more trashy books and with the victim being linked to prostitution and being "expertly" claimed to be of a variety of nationalities and ethnic groups to add to the confusion as the crime remained unsolved.
As well as a relatively mundane, but eminently more likely, theory of his own M.J.Trow paints a picture of wartime Britain that is somewhat at odds with the "Blitz spirit" of tradition with it's soaring crime rate and opportunism.
An excellent,thought-provoking and very entertaining book with the author doing his own detective work despite virtually zero remaining evidence and all of those involved in the original investigation now passed.

NetGalley, Dave Blendell

"Murder is one of the very few human activities that can horrify and delight us." For those who know this case (or have not for that matter), you will be unable to put this book down. Looking into the different theories, and providing succinct theories, it leads you to really think as to whether we will ever find out who put Bella in the Wych Elm?

Who put Bella in the Wych Elm? The partial skeletal remains of a women was found in a wych elm in Hagley wood by four young boys on the 18th of April 1943. They initially planned to tell no one of the discovery of the skull, until the guilt got far too much for one of the boys and he told his parents. When the police arrived they found that there was still some hair attached to the skull and that she was missing some teeth. There were irregularities in her jaw which led detectives to believe that they would soon find the woman via dental reports. However, to no avail. The discovery was made during the way and even though missing person reports were scoured, "Bella" could not be found. Since the discovery of the remains, hundreds of theories have come about as to what could have happened to "Bella". From the work of the occult, too that of espionage, or even that of a ritual death. However, nearly 80 years later, the question still remains. Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?

This is one those cases that people just seem to know and have their own theories on such as the disappearance of Madeline McCann and the identity of Jack the Ripper. I had known of this case many years prior to having read this book and could not believe how wrong I was in believing what had happened. It began with simple misunderstandings I previously had- the boys were schoolboys (they were not they were of age for school but were working, we don't know for certain which boy found the body, we don't know for certain where the tree even was (the infamous photo is of something different entirely), and I think most importantly, her name isn't Bella. This book explores all of those discrepancies previously established, and I think for anyone who knows the case, to definitely give this a read. I am a big true crime podcast listener, but to actually read a book where evidence is scrutinised, theories are debunked, it was a whole different experience.

The book also explores at the start (what I believe to be extremely pertinent right now) the implication that the media had on this case. There were incorrect reporting about her clothing for one. It was repeatedly mentioned how the papers wished to sell the juicy story, the one where the fact that a young woman has died is eradicated. The theories of the occult, the theories of Nazi espionage, the theories of her as a lover of an intelligence officer are what this case is known for. However, the fact remains that the identity of the woman remains unknown.

The author provided his own theories at the end, and it was just such a jaw dropping moment as each sentence something else was tied in to another. It was incredible, and the first I had heard of such a theory. However, for now this case has been formally closed, her clothes are no longer, nor are her remains in a disclosed location. It is unclear whether we will know her true identity, but until that day, this book will provide you with all you need to know. T

NetGalley, constance v

M.J. Trow has researched and written an excellent book and has come up with his own theories which I found very interesting but the book has left me pondering the question of who put “Bella” in the wych elm.

NetGalley, Kathleen RIGGS

About M J Trow

M.J. Trow is the author of nearly 100 books covering crime fiction, true crime and historical biography. He is a military historian by training, lectures extensively in the UK and overseas, and has appeared regularly on the History and Discovery Channels. He can be heard in podcasts on all the usual platforms, both as a guest and the main presenter on both historical and true crime subjects. He lives in the Isle of Wight.

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