Murder by Witchcraft - Donald McCormick - A Font of Inaccuracies
|Murder by Witchcraft -|
In April 1943, four boys searching for bird's nests while trespassing on Lord Cobham's estate near Hagley, England, found rather more than they expected. Within the hollow bole of an old Wych Elm were skeletal remains. The police were called and a massive investigation ensued. But, to date, no one knows who the female victim was... or how she died.
We humans do not like unsolved mysteries and over the decades, many theories have been put forward. A recent spate of activity on the internet has reactivated interest in the case. Some of the theories, however, while quite fanciful, are not firmly rooted in the facts of the case.
Murder by Witchcraft - Donald McCormick
I have come across innumerable references to Donald McCormick's book, Murder by Witchcraft. Published in 1968, the book put forward an espionage connection. Alas, only fragments of McCormick's theories exist on the internet and so I decided to seize the bull by the horns and buy a copy of the book. It wasn't quite what I expected.
The book is a slim paperback, a mere 189 pages in length, with 8 glossy pages of photographs. The reference list, which is of great interest to a serious researcher, is disappointingly short. There are 18 book references, most of which have to do with witchcraft. There are also 7 newspaper references. Still, I had bought the book, and so I read the entire volume in one sitting.
The main focus of the book is the death of 74 year old Charles Walton, a farm labourer, near Lower Quinton on February 14, 1945. Stabbed through the neck with a hay rake and with a cross carved into his chest/neck by his pruning hook, the case reeked of witchcraft (at least to McCormick). McCormick then draws in the story of Bella in the Wych Elm as evidence of another unsolved mystery with possible links to witchcraft. It would appear that McCormick relied upon the newspaper articles for most of his information on the Bella case. He references the "Anna from Claverley" letters that were sent to a journalist and which suggested Bella's death was linked to a Dutchman, Van Ralt, who was gathering information for the Germans. From this tiny seed of concrete information (Anna's letters), McCormick then proceeds to make some rather wild assertions and assumptions.
"Most attempts by the Germans to infiltrate England at this time were consequently made from Holland. The most successful of these for a while was Johannes Marius [sic] Dronkers who was found drifting off the Essex coast in a small boat flying the Dutch flag. He told the authorities a story about his activities in the Dutch Resistance and produced a letter of recommendation purporting to come from the head of a secret group in Utrecht. Dronkers was accepted as a genuine escapee and for some time became a regular broadcaster on the Free Radio Orange transmissions arranged by the B.B.C. Later he was found to be a spy, arrested, tried and executed at the end of 1942." (p. 111) [This information is inaccurate. Dronkers never broadcast anything on the Free Radio Orange and, of the three men found in the boat, he was always viewed with suspicion during his interrogations. He was never at liberty in England and was hardly a "successful" spy. For those who want more information, I highly recommend David Tremain's thoroughly well-researched book - Rough Justice: The True Story of Agent Dronkers, the Enemy spy Captured by the British.]
McCormick then makes some rather confused references to Abwehr diaries (none of which are referenced) while admitting that many documents are missing or inaccessible.
Rudolf Hess, who was contemptuous of the Abwehr, had organized the
Verbindungsstab as an attempt to create a coordinated espionage system.
By means of this he aimed to set up listening posts inside Britain:
undoubtedly even then Hess was obsessed with his theories of being able
to find sufficiently powerful sympathisers inside Britain who would pave
the way to a negotiated peace. (p.111) [The Verbindungsstab or
Liaison Office was generally a failure from what I can gather. In all my
reading of Germany's World War 2 espionage attempts against Britain,
this is the first time I have heard of this organization.]
Now among the agents of the Verbindungsstab was a man named Lehrer who had been one of the most active recruiters of persons for infiltrating Britain. That Lehrer himself was intended to do some infiltration is clearly shown in the Abwehr diaries: 'an attempt is to be made to set down the agent Lehrer with a wireless operator on the coast of South Wales in order to establish better communications.' (p. 111-112) [It would, of course, be nice to know what Abwehr diaries McCormick has supposedly accessed.]
Lehrer had a Dutch mistress who not only knew Britain well, but had had a love affair before the war with a man living in Stourbridge--which, incidentally, was only about five miles from Hagley Wood. The Dutchwoman had lived in Birmingham for five years in the 'thirties and spoke English fluently, she had acquired a Birmingham accent." (p. 112) [Again, a reference for this?]
From the Abwehr records it is clear that in March and April, 1941, five agents were infiltrated to England from Holland. Two were captured, two men were sent across by boat and one, a woman, code-named 'Clara', was dropped by plane in the Midlands area between Kidderminster and Birmingham under cover of an air raid. If one draws a line between Kidderminster and Birmingham, it runs very close to Hagley Wood. (p. 112) [According to British records, the only spies who came over during March and April 1941 were MUTT and JEFF. They turned themselves in and became Double Agents. Not sure who the two captured spies would be. Josef Jakobs was captured in January 1941 and Karel Richter was captured in May 1941.]
Of course there is no suggestion that the woman was dropped in Hagley Wood, though the Germans could hardly have chosen a better site for such an operation. Nor, for that matter, is there any confirmation that she was dropped, or that the authorities in Britain had any knowledge of a Dutch agent in the country. It could be that she was intended to pose as a Dutch refugee and to infiltrate intelligence circles: it seems unlikely that she was intended as a saboteur. All the Verbindungsstab records reveal that she failed to make contact and was presumed missing. (p. 112-113) ["Nor is there any confirmation that she was dropped"... but "she failed to make contact and was presumed missing". Soooo... was she sent or not?]
The Dutch police could not assist much in the inquiries about the missing Dutchwoman reported by Anna [Claverley] because it seems fairly certain that when she was in the Midlands she kept her true identity a carefully guarded secret." (p.113) [How about the Aliens Registry?]
McCormick then makes some tenuous connections between Lehrer's mistress, the 'Clara' parachutist and 'Bella' in the Wych Elm. After a "lengthy search of Abwehr III's records" [Abwehr III was concerned with counter-espionage within Germany], McCormick apparently tracked down Herr Franz Rathgeb, a former Nazi who had been in the German steel business and made frequent trips to the Midlands before the war. Apparently, Rathgeb was a recruiter of Nazi sympathizers in Britain. McCormick tracked him down in Paraguay, living under an alias [quite the feat I would imagine, but McCormick does not elaborate on how he managed this coup].
Today Herr Rathgeb is in his seventies, living in retirement and
anxious to forget his Nazi past like most of his contemporaries. At
first he was suspicious as to my intention, but when I finally convinced
him that my interest was not in his past political peccadilloes, but
purely in the identity of a skeleton in a tree in the Midlands, he
agreed to volunteer some information. (p.114) [Herr Rathgeb must have had a phenomenal memory to recall the following information.]
'I spent much time in England, which I visited on business before the war and my contacts were mainly in the steel areas of the Midlands and South Wales. It is perfectly true that I was anxious to establish contacts with any Britons who were sympathetic towards my country, though my main purpose was trade, not politics. (p. 115) [Most Britons who were sympathetic to Germany, or belonged to the British Union of Fascists, were rounded up shortly after the declaration of war.]
'I also knew the agent Lehrer and it is correct that he had been living in Germany with a Dutchwoman who had spent some time in the Birmingham area before the war. She was well educated, intelligent, attractive and about thirty years of age, I should say. Not more than thirty, possibly slightly under that age. I can't recall much about her except that her teeth were slightly irregular and, as she was attractive, this single blemish was perhaps rather more noticeable. She wasn't tall, probably well below average height for a woman. (p. 115) [Convenient that this description tallies with the particulars of Bella in the Wych Elm, particularly the teeth and the height.]
'As to her name, there I cannot help you. It is not a question of evading this issue. I just cannot remember it. She had an alias and even that I cannot recollect. The alias that I knew was only a first name. The only reason why I recall her so well was that she was singularly well informed about the Birmingham area. she knew the exact locations of most of the big factories in the Midlands, she could memorize map details with remarkable facility and was especially knowledgeable about plans for the evacuation of factories from the Midlands in the event of war. I always imagined that she must have had some means of communication with England after she left that country. This was certainly the case up to about 1939.' (p. 115) [Sounds like an ideal spy.]
'Lehrer said that she had had an unhappy love affair with a man who lived in Stourbridge. I remember distinctly that it was Stourbridge because I had visited that town and the fact stuck in my memory.' (p. 115) [Perhaps she ran afoul of this unhappy lover who, of course, would know about the hollow Wych Elm, and it was he who stuffed her into it!]
'There was some mystery about her origins. She claimed to be Dutch and said she came from Utrecht. But I have an idea that in fact she was part German, or at least German on the side of one of her parents. It is more likely that she posed as Dutch and for some purpose or other--probably espionage--assumed Dutch nationality. (p. 116) [No concrete evidence of anything other than Herr Rathgeb had an "idea" about her origins.]
"I do know that she had been working for Abwehr III and had helped to infiltrate the Dutch Resistance right from the beginning, in the summer of 1940, in fact. she traveled between Holland and Germany quite freely' (p. 116) [I imagine the Dutch would have loved to get their hands on her.]
...'It is therefore quite possible that Lehrer's mistress and 'Clara' were one and the same. Their group was certainly the same. The last time I saw this young woman must have been about the end of 1940. I seem to remember a party at which she read horoscopes about that time. I never heard any mention of her after that. Things became rather difficult in 1941 and it was often politic not to ask questions and not to know too much. I thought that she might have been killed in an air raid in Germany. Or even that she was rounded up in the Aktion Hess.' (p. 116) [Aktion Hess was a round-up of astrologers and occultists that happened around June 9, 1941 in Germany after Hess' ill-fated solo trip to Scotland. Apparently Hess dabbled in the occult and after his trip, Hitler went on a tear against all occultists.]
McCormick admits that the "foregoing is, of course, no proof as to the identity of 'Bella' " yet then turns around ad says "it certainly points to a strong possibility". I rather suspect that McCormick's standards of proof are much lower than mine, particularly as he cites no references in his book. He goes on to weave a very tenuous web around the mysterious Dutchwoman named "Clara', Lehrer's mistress and Bella. He then returns to his equally vague theories about the Charles Walton murder. A few dozen pages later, he revisits the 'Clara' topic while digging up information on Aktion Hess (horoscopes = astrologers = witchcraft). Perhaps 'Clara' had been rounded by during Aktion Hess? Or perhaps she had dabbled in witchcraft?
A further appeal to Herr Rathgeb for information brought from him the suggestion that I should contact a Frau Cremer in Amsterdam. Frau Cremer replied that while she could not positively identify 'Clara', which was undoubtedly a code-name, she felt sure that from the details I had given the woman in question was also known as Dronkers and was a relative of Johannes Marius [sic] Dronkers who had been executed by the British. 'She always posed as a friend of the Dutch Resistance, but there were some who had doubts about her and remarked on her frequent trips into Germany. We rather suspected she might be playing a double game. But it was never proved who she was working for. She was a very serious student of astrology and had attended astrological conferences. ... [digression into various Dutch Resistance contacts] ... Fraulein Dronkers was always a mystery and I should not like to say whose side she was really on, despite what you may have heard. As to whether she had anything to do with witchcraft I cannot say, but I would think it was possible, even probable, [how quickly Frau Cremer goes from "I cannot say" to "I would think it was possible" to it is "even probable".] for the reason that she was particularly superstitious about the number thirteen--not in the normal way, that it was an unlucky number, but rather in the sense that it was lucky. Thirteen is the number of a witch's coven. It was once noticed that she wore a garter of green snakeskin, which was sufficiently unusual to draw comment, especially as a garter of this kind is said to be a witch's badge.' (p. 155-156) [The web of intrigue gets more tangled. A mysterious Frau Cremer could "not positively" identify 'Clara' but is "sure" that she was a relative of Dronkers. I'm just surprised that McCormick wasn't able to link the green snakeskin garter with Bella in the Wych Elm. A pity really as it would have been proof positive of her identity. Unfortunately Bella was wearing blue rayon under garments, not green snakeskin.]
McCormick notes that Frau Cremer was also very knowledgeable about occult matters. Obviously her credentials are impeccable. He is then off on a hunt for German spies in the Midlands.
My next search was into any records which showed whether the Germans
had successfully infiltrated their spies into the Midlands during the
war. This proved both lengthy and in the main unrewarding. This was
quite understandable in that what I was looking for was almost certainly
something which the British authorities themselves had not uncovered.
[Or maybe there were no successful German spies in the Midlands because
of the Double Cross system, the existence of which was still under
wraps when McCormick 'researched' his book.] During world War II a
German spy, never positively identified, carried out a remarkable number
of coups in Britain over a long period. He delivered to the Germans a
top-secret report prepared by Sir Alexander Cadogan, then Permanent
Under-Secretary of Foreign Affairs, a dossier of maps showing the
emergency system of food and fuel distribution in Britain, information
about the deficient defences at Scapa Flow which led to the penetration
of that naval base by the U-47 and the sinking of the Royal Oak,
blueprints of British docks and maps of air-fields as well as a complete
report on the organisation of shadow factories around Birmingham and
Coventry. But who was this mysterious spy who evaded capture? He was
still active in 1944. [This seems to be lifted verbatim from a Ladislas Farago book entitled War of Wits.
Farago was another "historian" who had questionable sources. Farago
goes so far as to make a link between these reports and Jan Willem Ter
Braak.] One suggestion from the German side after the war was that he
was a German-Canadian named Karl Dickenhoff, who lived in a house at
Edgbaston. Dickenhoff also had many aliases , but his real name was said
to be Hans Caesar and is believed to be still alive. [According to Farago, Dickenhoff was 'a demented, amnesia stricken inmate of an insane asylum in England.] (p.157-158)
Whether Hans Caesar, alias Dickenhoff, was the ace spy or not matters very little now. But it is known that he was an associate of a Dutchman named Jan Willem Ter Braak, who, according to Frau Cremer, was a friend of 'Clara' alias Dronkers. The Dutchman was found dead in a deserted air raid shelter in Cambridge, with a bullet in his brain and a German revolver by his side. In his lodgings were found false papers and a German-manufactured radio transmitter. (p. 158) [I am impressed with McCormick, how he has managed to weave such a convoluted web based on mere speculation.]
The Verdict on Murder by Witchcraft
You don't have to search very far on the internet to find repeated denunciations of Donald McCormick. He apparently liked to write on controversial topics where hard facts were scarce, and where his reliance on oral informants made his conclusions unverifiable. I would classify him as a fictional historian. McCormick, to put it gently, stretched the truth a bit, or perhaps more than a bit. Writing after World War II, when many of the espionage files were still highly classified, McCormick could let his imagination run wild. Today, with many of the files declassified, his theories evaporate like mist in the sunlight.
For those interested, there are a few sites that tear McCormick to shreds for some his "history" books. One site examines his book The Identity of Jack the Ripper (surprise, McCormick "identified" the "real" Jack the Ripper - and as early as 1959! Somebody should tell the world, or at least Wikipedia.).
Simon Read's book, The Case that Foiled Fabian, (2014) notes that McCormick was "something of a controversial figure, as his use of anonymous sources made verifying his work difficult". No kidding.
Another site looks at McCormick's reliance on Margaret Murray for the witchcraft theory and also has a post about McCormick himself. That post references Hayek: A Collaborative Biography - Part III, Fraud, Fascism and Free Market Religion, a series of essays written by a variety of scholars with experience of Donald McCormick. I am still tracking down a copy of the book but I gather that it eviscerates McCormick as a serious historian. Some even go so far as to call him a "fantasy historian". Enough said.
Alas, McCormick's tenuous, and unverified, ideas have wormed their way out into the internet and metamorphosed into strange hybrids. For example, The Unredacted states: "According to McCormick’s information, A Nazi agent by the name of Lehrer was operating in the Midlands in 1941 and he had a Dutch girlfriend living in Birmingham called Clarabella Dronkers." That statement stretches McCormick's already tenuous theory to the breaking point. Even McCormick wasn't willing to admit with 100% certainty that Lehrer's girlfriend was a Dutchwoman named 'Clara' who was identified as 'Dronkers'. No idea where the Clarabella came from... at no point does McCormick call this mysterious Dutch woman "Clarabella".
Any books published prior to the revelation of the British Double Cross system (J.C. Masterman's book - The Double Cross System - published 1972) are full of errors and inaccuracies. Many relied on recollections from former members of the German Abwehr (Lahousen and Ritter) who, unfortunately, were not aware that their spies had been compromised by MI5. Even books published between 1972 and the declassification of the MI5 documents in the early 2000s struggle with a lack of concrete information.
McCormick's theories about Lehrer's girlfriend, the Dutch "spy" named 'Clara' and Bella in the Wych Elm are built upon inaccuracies. He provides no references or sources that can be used to substantiate his theories. Unfortunately, many readers and armchair historians have taken his tidbits of false information and treated them as if they were facts. They should be taken with, not just a pinch, but a pound of salt.