The Mystical World of Madge Gill

Madge Gill: Self Portrait

The concept of outsider art is a contentious one. Comparatively recent in definition, it is linked both to the work of psychiatrists and their study of art work presented by patients (for example, Dr. Walter Morgenthaler who in 1921 published his book, Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler (A Psychiatric Patient as Artist) about Adolf Wölfli), or isolated self-taught artists who have little to no contact with the artistic world, however as a term it was first unleased on the world by UK based art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972.  It is both a loaded term, and arguably one that seeks to differentiate between the amateur and the professional, and in doing so reinforces differentials that the art world (especially in relation to commerce) has historically thrived upon. There are many noted ‘outsider’ artists, but one of the most noted was from the East End of London, who grew up in poverty, and would go onto to produce works which are now displayed in galleries around the world; Madge Gill.

Madge Gill was born in 1882, apparently named Maude Ethel Eades. According to the research conducted by Roger Cardinal, who as well as coining the term outsider art is also one of the few to write about Madge, she was born in East Ham in Essex. A records search shows that a Maude Eades was also registered in West Ham in 1882 however. Regardless of the confusion of her place and time of birth, what is known is that Madge was born an illegitimate child to her mother, Emma Eades. How old Emma was and what happened to the father of Madge seems to be lost to history, but it is known that Madge was bought up in the house of her grandfather by her mother, and her aunt Clara who also resided in the property. For an illegitimate child in late Victorian England, life typically was unpleasant. To be born illegitimate was to be born a second class citizen, and many families were embarrassed by the presence of such in the home environment. It may have been as a result of this embarrassment, or as a result of financial difficulties of the family (or even something as seismic as the death of the patriarch) but for whatever reason, a probably isolated Madge, found herself placed into the Dr Barnardos’ Village Home for Orphan, Neglected and Destitute Girls in Barkingside, Essex. Detained in the austere environs of a girls home with hundreds of her peers, Madge was later to become part of one of the worst abuses ever suffered on the children of the poor.

Barkingside Girls Home circa 1910 (from: http://www.workhouses.org.uk)

Starting in 1869, a child migration scheme for the poor was founded by Scottish evangelical Annie MacPherson. Under the auspices of the Home Children scheme some 100,000 children from the British Isles were transported to Australia, Canada, South Africa, and New Zealand to alleviate labour shortages. Sourced from the ranks of orphanages and the urban poor, many children were transported across the globe. Many Home Children were either orphaned or from families in poverty. They were placed with settlers or within industrial settings that were often poorly supervised and regulated. Many of the forced young migrants were exposed to lives of privation and abuses of all kinds thousands of miles away from any support networks that they may have once had access to. The Home Children and other forced child resettlement schemes have left dark marks on the history of the United Kingdom and its former colonies, and many of the countries have formally recognized and apologized to the victims. One such was Madge.

Following three years in the home, Madge was transported with 254 other children on the ship, Scotsman headed to Quebec in Canada where it arrived in port on 8 August 1896. Accompanied by a Mr. Owen from Barnardos, these hundreds of children travelled across Canada before arriving eventually in Toronto. Luckier than some who travelled with her across the length of Canada, Madge who was only twelve years old and travelling under the name Maud Jago, found employment or rather had it found for her as a domestic servant and baby minder on a series of farms around Ontario. Many of the Home Children were routinely abused (physically, sexually, and mentally) and it is very likely that in the unsupervised environs that Madge found herself in as a young teenager she was subject to such abuses. Thankfully her time in Canada was comparatively brief and in November 1900, the eighteen year old Madge (now going by the name of Maud Eades) returned to the UK onboard the ship Corinthian. Back in London, Madge was according to Cardinal able to secure work as a nurse at the Whipps Cross hospital, Leytonstone and moved in with her aunt Kate, who was instrumental in introducing the teenager to Spiritualism.

To modern readers, Spiritualism may seem to be something of an historical oddity, but between the 1840s and 1920s, a belief in Spiritualism and mediumistic practice was widespread in the English speaking world. According to reports published in the New York Times as of November 1897, Spiritualism had over eight million followers around the world. Although sceptical minds had begun to question the bahaviours of mediums and their supposed claims, by the time of Madges’ arrival back in the United Kingdom, Spiritualism was both popular and practiced across all sectors of society. For a young adult, who had led a life of privation, it may have offered a raft of belief to cling to. For Madge it was to become part of who she was to become and remain for the rest of her life.

Following her return to the UK and several years living with Kate, Madge was to marry Kates’ son (and thus her cousin) Tom Gill who was employed as a stockbroker when she was twenty five. Here the subject of Madge, like much of her life gets somewhat blurred. According to her Wikipedia entry, the photo below shows a young Madge Gill:

Photo of Madge? (from: http://www.christianberst.com/fr/artiste/gill.html in 2011 and currently displayed on her Wikipedia page)

Further research however illustrates that whoever it is in this photograph it may not be Madge Gill. According to the Victoria Horticultural Library this photograph shows a widower by the name of Madge Williams who married the Portland, Oregon based farmer Edward E. Gill in 1914.

Photograph of Madge Williams and Edward E. Gill? (from: http://www.saveseeds.org/company_history/gill_bros/)

Although Madges’ marriage to Tom was far from happy, they rapidly had three sons, Laurie, Reggie and Bob. Reggie was to fall victim to the influenza outbreak of 1918 aged only eight years old. Considered by many to be the most brutal medical pandemic in history, the 1918 flu outbreak has been said to have killed more individuals than the Black Death resulting in the deaths of some 3 – 6% of the worlds’ total population. Although young Reggie was only one of many millions of victims, his death would leave his mother bereft and would be further compounded less than a year later. In 1919, Madge gave birth to her only daughter who was stillborn, and was also to suffer complications herself which left her bedridden, and resulted in the loss of an eye, which was later to be replaced with a glass replacement. It was around this period that Madge according to her own words first felt the urge to express herself artistically.   In a 1937 interview published by Prediction magazine (and later reprinted in Madge Gill Medium & Visionary, published by Orleans House Gallery, ISBN 1-902643-17-8), Madge stated:

“It was in 1919 when I first started my work. I then had an inspiration to take up my pen and do all kinds of works of an artistic type. I felt that I had an artistic faculty seeking expression. It took various forms. First of all, knitting – even without any pattern. Then came a flow of all kinds of inspirational writing, mostly Biblical. Then I felt impelled to execute drawings on a large scale on calico. I simply couldn’t leave it and I did on average 20 pictures a week, all in colour. All the time I was in quite a normal state of mind and there was no suggestion of a ‘spirit’ standing beside me. I simply felt inspired. Sometimes I would be dissatisfied with the work and tear it up or burn it. But I felt I was definitely guided by an unseen force, though I could not say what its actual nature was.”

Following her initial artistic outpouring, according to the brief biography that is available on Madge from Roger Cardinal it was in March 1920 that she first began to interact with Myrninerest, her supposed spirit guide with whom she was to maintain contact with for the rest of her life, and with whom she would commune in a trance state, and under whose supposed guidance she would produce her works.

Her now daily artistic endevours as well as the depression she arguably suffered following the loss of two children in rapid succession in an unhappy and strained marriage may have led Madge to seek refuge with Myrninerest. It seems likely that she may have begun to suffer from schizophrenia or other delusions, or potentially be utilising her spirit guide as an outlet to allow her artistic creation. Her behaviours definitely were a cause for concern however and in 1922, Madge found herself confined in the Lady Chichester Hospital for Women and Children in Hove which used the then nascent psychotherapy to treat neurosis.

Lady Chichester Hospital in 1976 (from the Brighton Health Bulletin:  http://www.mybrightonandhove.org.uk/page_id__9482.aspx)

It was in this clinical environment that Madge passed on a packet of postcards she had illustrated under the guidance of Myrninerest to a female doctor. The doctor passed the illustrations to the Society for Psychical Research, where they were pronounced according to the London Review of Books to be “more of an inspirational than an automatic kind”. Art critique aside, Madge was soon released from the Hove hospital and found herself returned home to the house she shared with her husband and children in Upton Park. Here, relations with Tom grew even more strained, and he spent more and more time away from home, potentially as suggested by Roger Cardinal with a number of mistresses. Unfortunately, Madges’ ills did not cease. Her youngest son, Bob was involved in a motorcycle accident that left him an invalid for two years. Madge was to spend her evenings sitting by his bedside illustrating and creating under the thrall of Myrninerest by the dim light of a gas lamp.

In 1932, Tom Gill was diagnosed with cancer, however, it was also during this year that the Whitechapel Gallery started holding their annual East End Academy Show. Open to all amateur artists in the East End, the gallery had received entries for exhibit from both Bob and Laurie, and it may have been at the urging of her sons, that the self-taught Madge submitted too. Her entry stole the show, and as later reported by The Times of London (and quoted by the London Review of Books):

“One of the most remarkable works in the exhibition – a work that would be remarkable in any exhibition, both in form and technically – is a pen and ink drawing on calico, measuring no less than 17ft by 5ft 6in., entitled Reincarnation by Mrs M.E. Gill. For convenient description, it is something between the work of modern Dutch and Belgian mystics and that of Mr Stanley Spencer.”

Madge was to continue to exhibit at the Whitechapel Gallery nearly every year until 1947, however she both refused to exhibit at larger venues, and also steadfastly refused to sell any of her voluminous output for fear that it would disturb or upset Myrninerest to whom she was to claim the work rightly belonged.

One of Madge Gills’ many illustrated calico scrolls (from: http://pfeiferthompson.squarespace.com/the-big-picture-blog/tag/madge-gill)

From 1919 onwards Madge continued to produce illustrations, paintings, and tapestries all guided by Myrninerest. Following the death of her son Bob in 1950, she continued to live with Laurie who was to be her faithful carer until she ended her days. Madge was to spend her last days a virtual recluse, however she developed an increasing reliance on alcohol and was prone to both irascible and erratic behaviour and remarks. Through it all until she finally stopped producing art in 1958, Madge produced hundreds of unique artworks.

Madge Gill: Untitled (from London Borough of Newham Collection)

Many of the artworks produced by Madge feature female figures, and have been interpreted by some critics as representing the relationship between herself and her daughter. Although often obsessively and quickly applied, many of them are also haunting. Scratched, etched and inked, the art that Madge created all too easily can be considered amateur and the preserve of the obsessive. Although many of her behaviours were certainly obsessive, Madge was clearly driven to create. Whether governed by the voice of Myrninerest which she alone could hear or by the desire to create art to address her demons, Madge produced over a period of decades thousands of individual works.

Madge Gill: Untitled (from London Borough of Newham Collection)

Following her death in 1961 just before her seventy ninth birthday Madges’ small house was found to be crammed with thousands of unique art pieces. Stored in cupboards, behind wardrobes, and under beds, her surviving loyal caretaker Laurie donated hundreds of pieces to the London Borough of Newham, where they are still stored in archival and controlled conditions. In 1968 a retrospective of some of Madges’ work was held at the Grosvenor Gallery in London, and in 2012, a small selection of the work gifted to Newham was exhibited by the Nunnery Gallery in London drawing both praise and adulation.

Madge Gill: Untitled (from London Borough of Newham Collection)

 

Madge Gill: Portrait of a Head

At the time she was creating her art, Madge was considered an eccentric by the press, her neigbours, and the art establishment. Sadly, history has been equally unkind to her, and she is most commonly considered to be an outsider. This arguably is a phrase that possesses negative connotations. Outsider art is sometime considered as being “less” than that of conventional art, and when considering Madges’ prodigious output and style this certainly does not hold true. Coming from a background of privation and probable abuse, Madge wrestled with the urge to create for the majority of her adult life. As well as potentially struggling with depression, neurosis, loss, and a strained marriage, Madge fought her own demons to leave a rich and sadly largely undervalued artistic legacy that deserves a broader audience.

Madge at work in her studio / living room (from: https://diattaart.wordpress.com/2013/07/30/artist-of-the-moment-madge-gill/)

A Whisper in the Woods

They had been lucky so far. The four friends, Robert Hart, Bob Farmer, Fred Payne, and Tommy Willetts had managed to avoid detection as they wandered through the woods. Spotting a large elm tree, the four approached, thinking it would be a good place to search for what they had come looking for. The year was 1943, and the world was at war, which left many, including the working class young friends who were walking through the woods, hungry. Too young to be conscripted, the boys (all of which were in their teens) had decided to try and assuage their hunger pangs by poaching on private land. Although the tree was old, largely hollow and had been cut so aggressively and frequently that the branches resembled wispy hair, in April they were confident that it may hold both nests and eggs. Reaching the base of the tree, Bob volunteered to climb it. At fifteen he was both a competent and confident climber. As he neared the top of the tree, Bob happened to glance inside the hollow. What he saw inside would remove some of his confidence, and leave a mystery that continues to baffle local historians, anthropologists, and journalists alike.

Hagley Wood is situated in Worcestershire, UK. Running along the boundary of Clent Hill, the woods are part of the estate of Lord Cobham who also owns the nearby Hagley Hall. The history of the Cobham clan can be traced back to Sir Thomas Temple, 1st Baronet, of Stowe who was the uncle of James Temple, a radical puritan and participant in the English civil war who would later be held responsible for the regicide of Charles I. It wasn’t until his grandson, Richard Temple, 1st Viscount Cobham was awarded the estate owing to his actions in Ireland, and in capturing and holding the city of Vigo in North Western Spain for ten days in September 1719 that the estate of Hagley came into the family. Many locals of the nearby village of Hagley, may have been unaware of the history of the Temple family, but they knew that at the heart of the second world war when rationing was at its peak, and food at its scarcest, that the woods made an excellent poaching spot, which was the explanation for the activities of the four local boys.

As he glanced into the hollow of the elm, young Bob Farmer saw what he thought was a pile of animal bones. Ironically the elm has always been a tree that has had long connotations with death and the underworld. In the Aeneid by Virgil for example, the elm occurs as a motif as Aeneas is led to the Underworld by the Sibyl of Cumae. For the Romans and Greeks, the elm tree was perceived as being a representation of ill omen, and some of this belief has leaked into British folklore. The tree that Bob saw the bones in was a wych elm, and many assume that this species gets its name from an association with witchcraft, however some etymologists claim that rather than wych being a derivation of the word witch, that it actually means pliant, which the wood of the elm distinctly is. Driven by curiosity, Bob pulled what he thought was an animal skull from the confines of the tree. Seeing two empty eye sockets staring back at him, Bob also saw strands of human hair attached to the skull, crooked front teeth, and a patch of rotting flesh. Dropping his gruesome discovery back within the hollow of the elm, Bob jumped down from the tree and joined his friends, all of whom agreed to keep their find to themselves rather than admitting they had been poaching in the private woods.

Three of the boys kept their word, but for the seventeen year old Tommy (who is often reported as having been the youngest in all but historical sources of the time such as the Birmingham Daily Gazette of 24 April 1943) the events of the afternoon proved too concerning to keep to himself. At some point on the evening of 18 April 1943 he told his father what he and his friends had found in the woods. The following day, Mr. Willets, reported the gruesome discovery to the Worcestershire County Police Force who were on the scene the following morning. Inside the elm tree they discovered a full set of small skeletal remains, rotting clothes, and nearby to the corpse a crepe soled shoe. Widening the search from the location of the discovery the day before, the police also discovered an empty bottle that was suspected as being attached to the case. In addition the investigators also found a number of small bones that were missing from the body. According to the more lurid accounts of this strange case, the remains of a severed hand were buried close to the base of the tree, however a review of the available documentation of the period which sadly is limited to press reports indicates that the working assumption of the police was that such bones as were recovered not attached to the body has been “carried away by squirrels or foxes that habitate the woods” (Birmingham Daily Gazette, 24 April 1943, ‘Summer Night Scream may be Woods Riddle Pointer’, Pg.4). It also fell to the local police who were soon joined by Detective Inspector Inight, and Superintendent Hollyhead (who was in charge of the investigation as reported by the press at the time) from the County Criminal Investigation Department to remove the body from its resting place. Once carefully extricated the body was transferred to the Home Office Forensic Science Laboratory in the West Midlands where it was examined by Professor James Webster. During his investigation, Professor Webster was able to determine that the body was that of a young woman, no older than thirty five, who was five feet tall, and had mousy brown hair. She also had irregularities with her lower teeth, and had given birth at least once. Whoever she had been, she had been in the tree for at least eighteen months before she was discovered by the boys, dying at some point in 1941.

Oddly considering where the body had been found, there were no marks of violence on the body itself. In the throat and mouth of the body, Professor Webster found a lump of taffeta, which was in his estimation the cause of her death by asphyxiation. The current location of the skeleton and the accompanying autopsy report are not known however, and so it is problematic for interested parties to review what additional data may have been collected. The body in the tree was the likely result of a murder, and had been positioned in the hollow when she was still warm, as the onset of rigor mortis would have made insertion into the narrow elm impossible for her attacker. As well as determining the cause of death, and rough description of the victim, Professor Webster was also able to determine what she had been wearing at the time of her untimely death, and noted that she was also wearing a cheaply produced wedding ring. This allowed the police to circulate a description to the local media and community.

Police sketch circulated in the local press (from http://www.blackcountrymuse.com/myths.htm)

Police enquiries and appeals largely led to naught. Although Professor Webster was able to establish that the victim had distinctive unaligned teeth, and had visited a dentist recently, appeals to local dentists and indeed even a description as printed in widely circulated dental journals (as revealed the Birmingham Daily Gazette on 4 May 1943), failed to result in identification. The clothing worn by the victim also proved to be a dead end from an investigatory perspective. All labels had been removed from the clothing, which was common for second hand clothing sold during the period. The footwear recovered was eventually traced to a market stall in Dudley which only dealt in cash, and had no memory of anyone fitting the victims’ description having purchased them. The police were left with a working class female victim discovered in a highly unusual location and with no motive for her death.

As reported in the Birmingham Daily Gazette at the time of the investigation, a clue to the identity of the victim and the circumstances of her untimely demise may be found a year prior to gruesome discovery in the woods. In July, 1941 several witnesses including a local schoolteacher reported hearing a piercing scream from within Hagley Woods. Although these reports were investigated at the time, no trace of their cause could be found. Some have assumed that this was because that there was nothing untoward to discover, and that the screams heard were actually mating foxes. Although the noises made by foxes can prove terrifying for the residents of cities, for those in the country, they would be a common noise, and not one that long term country residents may ordinarily confuse with the piercing screams of a woman in distress. Perhaps rather than foxes, the noise was more indicative of more suspicious and potentially deadly activities. Like so much with this case, the truth of the cause of the screams may never be known.

According to some accounts of the case, the police were presented with another series of clues that commenced in December 1943. On a wall in the Old Hill area of Staffordshire, block printed graffiti written in chalk was discovered that stated “who put luebella in the wych elm?”, however it is worth noting that seems to be little to support this claim directly. As reported by the media of the period (Evening Despatch, 30 March 1944, ‘Hagley Wood Bella’, Pg.1) the graffiti was joined in March 1944, by further on Upper Dean Street in Birmingham which stated “Who put Bella down the Wich elm Hagley Wood?”. On the same wall of the empty premises that had previously been targeted a few days before on Dean Street, the phrase “Hagley Woods Bella” was found scrawled high up on 30 March. The name ”Lue-Bella” was reportedly first seen on the side of a house in Haden Hill Road in Old Hill (Birmingham Mail, 1 April 1944, ‘Mysterious Writing on Walls, Pg. 1). At the time the theory of the graffiti writer as favored by the local police, was that it was the work of one individual the handwriting being consistent across all three occurrences, and someone who came into Birmingham in the early hours with farm produce for sale in the cities markets. Up until the present time and starting in the seventies when the case of the body in the woods began to enter local legend, graffiti still intermittently appears in the area local to Hagley Woods, typically on the Hagley Obelisk which stands in Hagley Park near the summit of Wychbury Hill (it is worth noting that the last time that this monument was reportedly defaced was in 1999).

There were numerous theories for the unknown victim, who would come to be known to all as Bella owing the activities of a potential hoaxer, and these are worth examination in detail. Perhaps the most lurid is that Bella was the victim of a witchcraft inspired sacrifice. This was seemingly first suggested by the anthropologist and Egyptologist, Margaret Murray who was the author of ‘The Witch-Cult in Western Europe’. Noted for her examination, Murray assumed that the case of Bella was linked to that of Charles Walton, whose badly mutilated body was found in the hamlet of Lower Quinton in Warwickshire on 14 February 1945. According to the theory proposed by Murray, Bella has either transgressed the ordinances of a local coven she was a part of, or been the victim of a sacrifice, and her missing bones, were sufficient to establish as much. Murrays’ theory is that whoever was responsible for the death of the woman in the woods, had taken the opportunity to remove her hand and construct a ‘hand of glory’. This theory was repeated by the British journalist and popular historian, Donald McCormick in his 1968 book, ‘Murder by Witchcraft: A Study of the Lower Quinton and Hagley Wood Murders’ (Murder by Witchcraft. London: Long, 1968) and has been repeated on numerous occasions since Murrays initial theories were published. A hand of glory is a dried, pickled, or otherwise preserved hand that is utilised in witchcraft that supposedly made immobile all those that were presented with it. In some instances the hand of a gallows victim is preserved and made into a candle. Unfortunately for Murray, McCormack, and later lurid researchers into the Hagley Wood incident, a hand of glory according to all the eighteenth and nineteenth century sources that first popularised belief in such, is always traditionally made from the left hand of a male victim of violence, commonly those that died upon the gallows. As shown in the articles of the period, unlike what many later researchers have claimed “Bella” was not allegedly missing a hand, but merely a number of finger joints. It seems far more plausible that such damage as occurred against the body was enacted post mortem, and rather than being as a result of the actions of a clandestine cabal of country witches was a result of natural decal and scavenging.

Another popular theory is that the mysterious body in the woods belonged to that of a war time spy. This theory first came to prominence ten years after the discovery in 1953, when the Wolverhampton Express and Star journalist, Wilfred Byford-Jones writing under the pen name of Quaestor began to compose and publish a series of articles about the case. In one of his initial articles, it was claimed by the local church warden A.H. Hodgetts that the woman found in the woods (now known to all and sundry as Bella) was actually a Roma gypsy that had been punished for an indiscretion of offence. Although more than a little racist by modern standards, it was this theory that was largely locally believed and initially posited by Byford-Jones. He changed his opinion however when he posted a reward of one hundred pounds leading to information concerning the death of Bella. One hundred pounds was a significant sum in nineteen-fifties Britain, and the journalist soon found himself deluged with letters. Of the number that flooded into the offices of the Express and Star, one stuck out from the many cranks, which stated:

“Finish your articles re 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 answer is now beyond the jurisdiction of the 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 – ANNA, Claverley”.

The Original “Anna” Letter as held by the Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service (http://www.explorethepast.co.uk/2016/09/monthly-mystery-who-put-bella-in-wych.html)

Anna was subsequently to meet both Byford-Jones and the police, and tell a tale of a spy ring that was operating in the Midlands area according the accounts provided by McCormick. The actual story she told (which has been conflated with that of Josef Jakobs which will be outlined later) was far more prosaic however. Anna, it transpired was really Una Mossop. According to Una, there were a number of pro German conspirators operating in the Midlands during the war and regularly passing on intelligence about munitions and aircraft factories. One of these was her ex-husband Jack. Although a black marketer, Jack also worked in a munition factory, and occasionally dressed as an RAF officer (even though he was a civilian). According to the confession he was later to make to Una, Jack had been drinking with a Dutchman by the name of Van Ralt, in a pub by the name of the Lyttleton Arms in Hagley. Van Ralt had been with a Dutch woman who was drunk and insensible. According to the accounts later provided when driving back from the Lyttleton Arms, Van Ralt had argued with the woman and killed her and then he and Jack Mossop had deposited her body in a the elm. In another account, the pair had left their victim alive and gagged in the tree, owing to her drunken state. The guilt proved to be too much for Mossop, and he was subject to frequent hallucinations concerned with a face in a tree, prior to his committal to a Stafford mental hospital and alleged death in 1943. In all probability, Mossop may have been committed to St George’s Hospital (known as the Stafford Mental Hospital between 1929 and 1948) however a review of the archives from the 1913 – 1960 Board of Control and Patients Admission Register as available online do not show an admission for either Jack or John Mossop (this may have more to do with the absence of searchable records via the Internet than their absence from the archives in Kew). Although the details provided by Una Mossop to Byford-Jones are intriguing, they have been muddied as highlighted by conflation with the case of Josef Jakobs.

As with the witchcraft theories proposed by Murray the espionage explanation for unknown woman in the woods has been latched upon by a number of people including McCormack. He claimed in 1968 that the body in the woods belonged to a German female spy by the name of Clarabella and sometime occultist that had parachuted into the Midlands in 1941, and lost radio contact with her handlers before for some reason ending up entombed in a tree (possibly as a result of being murdered by locals who subsequently hid the body rather than reporting that they had captured an enemy spy). Utterly unconfirmed, this theory was further confused by the release of MI5 war time records as pertaining to Jakobs. Josef Jakobs was born in Luxembourg in 1898 and by the time of the outbreak of the Second World War was a German citizen. Imprisoned by the Swiss legal authorities for selling counterfeit gold between 1934 and 1937, Jakobs eventually joined the Abwehr, the intelligence department of the German Army. In January 1941, Jakobs parachuted into the UK in Huntingdonshire in Cambridgeshire, but upon landing promptly broke his ankle. Quickly detained by the authorities, Jakobs faced a military court martial and was the last person to be executed by firing squad at the Tower of London on       15 August 1941. During his interrogation, military authorities recovered a photograph of the cabaret singer and German movie actress, Clara Bauerle who Jakobs admitted was his lover. According to statements released later, Bauerle had met Jakobs at the Café Dreyer where she was performing. As well as being as being a singer and sometime actress, Bauerle allegedly was also in close contact with leading Nazis and had like Jakobs been recruited into the Abwehr. According to statements that Jakob provided, Bauerle had a distinct advantage one many wartime agents, in as much as she had spent two years working in West Midlands music halls before the war, and spoke with a convincing Birmingham accent. According to reports published in the Independent Online (‘Is this the Bella in the wych elm? Unravelling the mystery of the skull found in a tree trunk’, 22 March 2013) Jakobs claimed during his interrogation that Clara had been due to parachute into the Midlands in Spring 1941 and had subsequently lost radio contact with the Abwehr. Clarabella or Clara Bauerle could well or so it was assumed be the mysterious Bella in the wych elm and the unsubstantiated claims made by McCormack could hold a ring of truth. Owing to the research of Giselle K. Jakobs researchers now know that not to be the case. In September 2016, revealed how after years of dedicated research she had managed to establish that rather than parachuting into the Midlands in 1941, Bauerle had died on 16 December 1942 at a Berlin hospital of complication caused by Veronal poisoning. Varonal was the first commercially available barbiturate marketed until the 1950s and it may have been the case that Bauerle may well have been the victim of a suicide possibly in reaction to the death of her lover Jakobs at the hands of the British authorities.

Death Certificate of Clara Bauerle from Giselle K. Jacobs (http://www.josefjakobs.info/2016/09/clara-bauerle-is-finally-laid-to-rest.html)

So, if “Bella” was not a spy, a sacrificial victim, an unfortunate Dutch immigrant, a gypsy, or a former coven member, who was she? One theory that has been suggested is that the body in the woods belonged to a prostitute from the Birmingham area that had been taken to the woods and subsequently murdered. This theory too seems unlikely. Although prostitution was rife in Birmingham during the Second World War, for a woman to travel from a secure location where she may have had the protection of her peers to an isolated wooded area which would have required a car ride seems doubtful. Alternatively, it has been suggested whoever she was, she was seeking refuge from a nearby air raid, and in doing so climbed voluntarily into the wych elm. Others have suggested that owing to the wedding ring “Bella” was a local resident who had an abusive spouse or partner who was responsible for her death and the disposal of her body. Still other theories have suggested that “Bella” may have committed suicide in mysterious circumstances akin to those of Elisa Lam in 2013. All of these theories, and those others outlined in this article, are of course conjecture, and they arguably do the victim a disservice.

Whoever “Bella” was, she ended her days in circumstances that were truly hellish. She was a small woman at only five foot. She was also in all probability a financially poor woman. She wore clothes from which the labels had been cut out which was common practice for second hand clothing purchased from markets. She wore shoes that had also been purchased on a market stall. She may have gone to the woods by choice, or by force, alive, or recently dead, but it was where her journey ended. She died on an estate controlled by a family that had huge influence in the local area. She died in an environment where poaching was a dangerous pursuit and where trespassers may have been shot by overzealous gamekeepers. She may have died as the result of a violent attack, or as a result of exposure, or as a result of a gunshot wound that failed to impact upon her skeletal remains, but she died alone and possibly in pain. Although her death remains mysterious it looks likely to remain so. In a final indignity, both the autopsy report and her skeleton have vanished from the Home Office Forensic Science Laboratory in the West Midlands or Birmingham University where they were believed to be present. Advances in DNA testing will never be applied to the remains of the woman found in the elm tree. In 2005 the West Mercia Constabulary (successors to Worcestershire Constabulary) officially closed the file on “Bella” owing to a lack of investigative opportunities. She deserves better than spurious theories, wild conjecture, and to be related to the category of “creepy” local legend. It is my hope that this post can dispel some of the mythos that has been built up around the unfortunate end to a life, and prompt a more serious consideration and examination that may finally produce tangible answers.