20 May 2020

Research during a Pandemic

A few weeks ago, I took advantage of the free digitized files from the National Archives at Kew. I had a happy little downloading streak bouncing between several different email addresses that I own. The archives limits downloads to 10 files/day/registered user with a maximum of 50 files every 30 days. I admit I did a bit of an end-run around that and used three registered accounts to download the 100+ files that I had my eye on. With the first swarm of files done, I'm doing a more detailed sift through of the KV 2 (Security Service/MI5) files to see if I missed anything.

National Archives - Kew
National Archives - Kew
Having said that... I've noticed a few things. While the KV 2 files have a very good digitization rate... the other KV sections are hopeless. The KV 2 files are the Personal Files or the files of individuals. The other KV sections deal with organisations and subjects and... while I have a bunch that I would love to download.... No luck. I keep coming up against this implacable notice... "This record has not been digitised and cannot be downloaded."

And let's not even talk about WO, CAB, CRIM, PCOM, LCO, DPP files... all of which are not digitized...

Which means I will have to wait until I can visit Kew in person. And who knows when that will happen given the pandemic. Even the copying options are not available right now... although that is a very expensive proposition. Sooo... I'm going to have to be happy with the KV 2 files.

The other thing I noticed was that the downloading spree forced me to get seriously organized with my National Archives research. I had created a spreadsheet a few years ago, tracking the files that I accessed at the National Archives, but... this bonanza of files has bumped it up a level. Whenever I visit the National Archives, I have limited time and so I prioritize the files that I want to look at it. There are always more files than time... sigh...

On top of that... I've discovered a few new file categories that look interesting... Specifically, the WO 208 series which seems to have a treasure trove of files. There is a whole section that has CSDIC interrogation reports and likely has info on Nikolaus Ritter, Julius Jacob Boeckel and a few of the other Hamburg Abwehr officers. I'm adding those files to my "next-time-at-Kew" list... since they too are not digitized. I always have the hope that I will come across some extra information on Josef, on his recruitment, training, etc. Time will tell.

In the meantime... I have more than enough other material to keep me busy! Between all the downloaded KV 2 files... I also realize that I have several unread/unfinished books on my to-read list. Soooo... there is no danger of me becoming bored during the pandemic's stay-at-home time.

13 May 2020

Bella: A Mystery within a Mystery

While listening to some podcasts on the Bella in the Wych Elm mystery, I was struck by one claim which didn't sound right. This extract is from the Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories podcast, Episode 165 (part 1 of their Bella trilogy). The excerpt below comes from around the 16:30 mark of the podcast.
Narrator: The final and most promising item was a woman's identification card. The investigators were relieved and briefly hoped that the skeleton belonged to the woman named on the card, but when they visited the address on the card they found its owner was still alive. 
    **sound of knocking at door**
Woman: Hello?
Officer: Hello ma'am, sorry to bother you at home. Your address was listed on this identity card and we wondered if you knew the owner.
Woman: Oh thank you, that's my card!
Officer: Yours?
Woman: Yes, I've been missing it for months. Wherever did you find it?
Officer: That's just it, this card was found in Hagley Wood.
Woman: Hagley Wood,  you mean where they found that woman in the tree.
Officer: Well, yes, we actually thought this card might have been hers.
Woman: But that's so strange, I've never been near Hagley Wood in my life.
Officer: Really?
Woman: Never even been to Hagley. Can I have my card back?
Officer: Sure you can have it back, just as soon as we catch whoever put that lady in that tree.

Narrator: Mysteriously, the woman had no knowledge of how her ID card had ended up in Hagley Wood and claimed to have never been there in her life. With no evidence to discount her story the police were forced to move on.
A typical buff coloured Identity Card from the early years of WW2 in England
A typical buff coloured Identity Card
from the early years of WW2 in England
This did not ring true to my ear and I decided to do a bit of digging. The obvious thought that came to me was... perhaps this woman had stolen Bella's identity. Perhaps it was actually Bella who lived at that address, and this woman had had her knocked off and stepped into her life.

But... there were also several problems with this theory... the most obvious one being that no-one could survive for long in wartime Britain (1943) without a valid identification card and ration book.

In the dramatization, the woman says she has been missing her card for months. That would clearly be impossible since identification cards needed to be produced when requested  by the police, when opening or withdrawing from a Post Office (bank) account and when accessing National Health Services. Logically, the woman, upon noticing that her card was missing, should have gone and applied for a replacement. Perhaps she didn't, because she had stolen it in the first place? Hmmm...

This little story seemed rather odd, and I decided to go back to the police files on the Bella case and try to trace the origins of the story. Perhaps I could even find the name and address of the woman. But... after much searching, I found no reference to the identity card. I checked with Pete and Alex Merrill, who have sifted the police files with a fine-tooth comb and... they said that they had found no reference to the identity card either. Stranger and stranger.

ID Card in the Literature: Coley & Sparke
Interesting... I had a look in Joyce Coley's booklet and Andrew Sparke's book, and they both mention the identity card but give no references. Their versions differ slightly from the podcast dramatization.
An identity card was found in the wood with the name and address of a woman from a town some distance away. This clue was also pursued. The woman was not aware that her card was missing and she had never been to, or heard of, Hagley Wood. There was no further work on how her card came to be placed there. (Joyce M. Coley, p. 7)
In this piece, the woman didn't even know her card was missing, which seems even more far-fetched given conditions in wartime Britain. It would be the same as me not noticing that my driver's license was missing.

We then have the account from Andrew Sparke:
The search of the area around the hollow tree turns up a woman's identity card but at the address stated on it the presumed victim is discovered alive and well. If baffled as to how her identity card could have ended up in Hagley Woods, a place she's never been.
Very brief and doesn't make clear if the woman knew her card was missing or was clueless as to its disappearance.

What is also baffling is that the police did not question the woman further as to her fellow lodgers. Was there someone else within the household who could have taken her card? Could she have been lying? Was there any proof that she was actually the person listed on the card? How old was she? Why was she not considered a prime suspect?

And the questions multiply.
Murder by Witchcraft (cover)
Murder by Witchcraft (cover)
Back to McCormick
Pete Merrill, while confirming there was no mention of the ID card in the police files, said that the earliest reference he and Alex had found was in Donald McCormick's 1968 book, Murder by Witchcraft.

Ah yes, back to McCormick, a well-known source for all sorts of rumours and fables. Somehow this does not surprise me. Here's what McCormick has to say about the identity card...
At last, however, a clue was reported. An identity card was found lying under a sodden bush near to the site of the crime. It was a woman's identity card and the police hoped it might belong to the victim. They called at the address in the Midlands which was written on the card and asked to speak to the woman of that name. There was no hesitation on the part of the woman the police saw: before they had announced the reason for their call she readily admitted her identity.
'Then perhaps you would please let us see your identity card,' said the detective.
'Certainly,' replied the woman, and she went to get her handbag. But when she searched through the bag the identity card could not be found. She could not think how she had lost it. As far as she could remember it had always been kept in her handbag and she had never missed it before.
'Then how do you account for the fact that your identity card was found in Hagley Wood?' inquired the detective, producing it for her to examine.
The woman was incredulous. "I just don't know,' she said, completely bewildered. 'I have never been to Hagley Wood in my life.'
Nor could the police prove she was lying. And even if she had been, the mystery of the identity of the skeleton in Hagley Wood remained unsolved. (Murder by Witchcraft, p. 65-66)
Carry your Identity Card Always (poster from wartime Britain)
Carry your Identity Card Always
(poster from wartime Britain)
This too, is rather an odd account. An identity card found lying under a sodden bush... Given that the identity cards were made out of paper card stock, one could wonder at the condition of the card which was, presumably, also sodden. The fact that the woman had lost track of her identity card, and could not find it in her handbag, makes one wonder when last she accessed her card. At least there is a hint that the woman might have been lying... but no police follow-up.

Now, where McCormick got his story from is a mystery. Given that he had no access to the police files, one might guess that he was relying on anecdotal stories from eye-witnesses and/or folk from the area. And, as with many stories, things can get exaggerated rather quickly. Perhaps the original source seed of the identity card story was the discovery of a handbag in Hagley Wood.

The Handbag of Hagley Wood
There are a couple of police reports from the Bella police files, which mention a handbag found in Hagley Wood in November 1944. This was about 19 months after the discovery of the skeleton in the tree. Was it connected to Bella or not?

On 17 November, 1944, Special Constable R. Sheppard was in Hagley Wood, "by virtue of being connected with the shooting rights of this Wood", and discovered a brown leather lady's handbag "some distance" from the Wych Elm tree. The discovery was reported to the Chief Constable of the Worcestershire Police on 20 November, by Police Constable (302) Arthur J. Pound.

Approximate location of handbag discovery in Hagley Wood
Approximate location of handbag discovery in Hagley Wood
(thanks to Alex Merrill for identifying the location
in his first book on Bella)
This may be the same police constable, Jack Pound, who took an ax to the tree to widen the opening when the police first investigated. This is confirmed by the 1939 National Register in which Arthur John Pound (1895-1954) was a Police Constable living at the Bromsgrove Police Station with his wife (Rhoda Auden) and a child. Pound had served as a Bombardier with the Royal Garrison Artillery in the First World War.

On the morning of 18 November, 1944, P.C. Pound accompanied Sheppard to the Wood and found the empty, dilapidated handbag at the base of a small birch tree. The handbag was 9.5" x 6.5" with no separate compartments. It was made of brown leather, nickel plated strengthened corners and a nickel plated snap fastener. According to Pound, the handbag had obviously been exposed to the elements for quite a while since it was falling apart and was covered with green moss on top. The handbag had been found just north of the Elan aquaduct, just off of Hagley Wood Lane, about 170 yards north of the Wych Elm.

1930s Handbags
1930s Handbags
The Clent Police Station records were searched and a lady's handbag of a similar description had been reported stolen from a motor car in Hagley Wood Lane on 16 December 1939. The owner of that handbag was Doctor Dorothy Edith Marhkam [sic] of 25 Elgin Road, Alexandra Park, London, N.22. Her address in 1944 was No. 1 Compton Court, Compton Road, Wolverhampton. When stolen, Dr. Markham's handbag had 15/- in cash, her driving license and a fountain pen, but none of those articles were found in Hagley Wood. Pound closed his report by noting that he planned on visiting Dr. Markham to determine if it actually was her handbag.

Two days later, on 22 November, Pound submitted another report in which he stated that he had met with Dr. Markham that morning at 8:15 am. He showed her the handbag and she confirmed that it was hers. Pound concluded that the handbag had no connection with the Hagley Wood murder.

Unlike the story of the identity card, Dr. Markham presumably never said that she had never been to Hagley Wood in her life, since she had reported the handbag stolen from Hagley Wood Lane!

Dr. Dorothy Edith Markham
I did do a little poke at Dr. Dorothy Edith Markham, just in the interests of completion. She is listed in the 1939 Electoral Register as living at the General Hospital on Steelehouse Lane in Duddeston. This is likely Birmingham General Hospital, right in the heart of  Birmingham. Which makes sense, given she was a physician.

The 1942 UK Medical Directory has her listed as:
MARKHAM, Dorothy Edith, 25, Elgin Rd., Alexandra Park, N. 22 -- M.B., Ch.B. Birm. 1938; Res. Anæesth. Gen. Hosp. Birm.
Birmingham General Hospital - Steelehouse Lane
Birmingham General Hospital - Steelehouse Lane
From this, we can deduce that she had a Bachelor of Medicine as well as a Bachelor of Surgery. She had completed her degree in Birmingham in 1938 and served her residency at the General Hospital in Birmingham as an anæsthetist.

A bit more digging and the Medical and Dental Students List from 1933 notes that she received her Oxford School Certificate in December 1931. She began studying at the University of Birmingham in June 1933.

Finally, the 1939 National Register has her listed as a Medical Practitioner at the General Hospital in Birmingham. She was born 9 June 1913 and later changed her surname to Stumbles. That gives us enough to trace her birth and death. Dorothy was born 9 June 1913 in Tamworth, Staffordshire. In the first quarter of 1944, she married George Leslie Stumbles in Wolverhampton. Dorothy died on 12 January 2004 in Dorking, Surrey at the age of 91.

1942 UK Medical Directory entries for the Markham sisters
1942 UK Medical Directory entries for the Markham sisters
As an aside, in case Dorothy was not enough of an aside, she had a sister, Winifred Mary Markham, born 1910, who also became a doctor, albeit with slightly more impressive credentials. In the same 1942 UK Medical Directory, listed just below Dorothy, is Winifred Mary Markham. She received her Bachelor of Science in 1933 from Birmingham. She had attended University College London and W. London. By 1940, she belonged to the M.R.C.S. (Membership of the Royal Colleges of Surgeons - England) and to the L.R.C.P. (Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians - London). Born in 1903, Winifred Mary had a long and distinguished medical career. In the mid 1960s, she was Deputy Medical Officer of Health for the County Borough of Darlington (County Durham). At that point, she had also acquired a D.C.H. (Diploma in Child Health) and D.P.H. (Diploma in Public Health). Winifred Mary passed away in 1991 with an estate valued at over £200,000. But, I digress...

Origins of the ID Card Story
One can see how the story of the handbag might have been twisted a bit over the 25+ years before McCormick wrote his account. A handbag which had once contained an identity document (driving license).. a woman who was confronted with the found object. But beyond that, the similarities cease.

Given that there are some files missing from the police records of the Bella case, specifically the eye witness statements from the early days of the case... I suppose there is a small possibility that there was actually an identity card and a woman who denied all knowledge of how it ended up in Hagley Wood... But without any evidence... all we have is McCormick's book, which has already been shown to contain a number of fabricated stories. The story of the identity card is likely another one of them...

06 May 2020

Podcast Review - Unsolved Murders - Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm

I discovered a veritable treasure trove of podcasts the other week and quickly found a whole bunch related to Bella in the Wych Elm. I thought I would start with a trilogy from Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories, produced by Parcast.

The three part series starts with an overview of the murder and the various theories (gypsies, witchcraft, etc). The second episode looks at the Charles Walton murder in Lower Quinton and the third episode examines the espionage theories.

I was unable to find the exact publication date for these podcasts. Given the number of podcasts and the hosts' statement that the podcasts are published every Tuesday, counting backwards leads us to a likely air date of September 2019.

Cover Image - Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories
Episode 165 - Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm - Part 1 (50 minutes)
This episode starts with a dramatization of the boys finding the skull in the wych elm. It's an inventive way to start a podcast except the American accents take away from the reality of the dramatization. And British colloquialisms don't quite sound the same without the British accent.

The two hosts give a summary of the story of how the boys found the tree and the skull. They also give a quick etymological lesson into "wych elm" and suggest that the tree was not actually a wych elm but actually a common hazel. This is the same conclusion reached by Alex Merrill in his first volume on the Bella mystery.

There are a few inaccuracies that have crept in... for example, that Tommy Willetts slept on the discovery before revealing the information to his parents the following morning. This is not accurate - he told his father on the evening of the discovery.

During the recounting of the investigation, the hosts note that on the day that the police hacked open the tree, they found a woman's identity card on the forest floor. I'd have to do a bit more fact checking, but I don't remember the card being found on the first day (another blog post coming up).

Other than that, the hosts do a fair job of recounting the tale of Bella in the Wych Elm. Although, their dramatization of the Margaret Murray piece seems a bit far-fetched. They do spend a fair bit of time expanding on the witchcraft theory and the hand of glory. They end the episode with a reference to the Charles Walton murder and its echoes of witchcraft.

From The Mirror site
Episode 166 - Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm - Part 2 (54 minutes)
This episode begins with a description of the Charles Walton murder in Lower Quinton. Even here, the hosts manage a small dramatization with Walton engaging in one-sided conversations with the birds and, eventually, the anonymous murderer.

The hosts then narrate the discovery of the body. "Pinned to the earth by a pitchfork that had been stabbed through his face". I do believe the pitchfork prongs were stabbed into the ground on either side of Walton's neck, not in his face. Again, the dramatization lacks a bit of reality given the American accents.

The hosts spend a quite a bit of time recounting the history and bravery of Chief Inspector Robert Fabian during the Piccadilly Circus bombing in 1939. There follows an interwoven narration and dramatization of Fabian attempting to investigate the murder. We learn of the suspicions that Walton had dabbled in witchcraft and possessed the Evil Eye.

The hosts spend some time focusing on Fabian's suspicions of Alfred Potter, including the search for fingerprints on the murder weapons. As well, the episode touches on Walton's finances and then recounts the story of a young Charles Walton meeting a black dog (and a headless woman) on several nights. Finally, the hosts narrate the murder of Ann Tenant, a suspected witch, who had also been pinned to the ground by a pitchfork.

This episode concludes with the note that Fabian would also need to look at the case of Bella in the Wych Elm...

Episode 167 - Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm - Part 3 (58 minutes)
Oyyy... this episode opens with a rather hokey dramatization of "Bella" being dropped out of a German plane. No German accents here either. After some ads, the hosts review the Bella and Charles Walton cases. And then spend more time on the Charles Walton case as Robert Fabian meets with Professor Margaret Murray. We then learn that Fabian headed back to London with the Walton case unsolved. And... finally... we get to the espionage theories around Bella.

We hear about returning soldier, Warwick Plant, and the woman named Bella who used to play piano in his mother's pub. This Bella played at several other pubs but one day she stopped showing up. Apparently the police made no effort to follow up with Warwick Plant. We also hear about the Home Guard member who saw a car with an Air Force officer and a woman in the backseat.

Next up is Byford-Jones and the letters from Anna of Claverley. The dramatization of Jack Mossop and Van Raalte is a bit of a mish-mash of different aspects gleaned from Anna's letter, her police statement and Byford-Jones' newspaper articles.

Clara Bauerle
Clara Bauerle
At about the 36 minute mark, the hosts get to the espionage theories. They begin by talking about the Birmingham Blitz and mention that two Jewish refugees, Austrian Otto Frisch and German Rudolf Peierls, worked on atomic weapons plans in Birmingham. They suggest that Birmingham would have been of intense interest to the Germans.

We hear about Johannes Marinus Dronkers... who arrived in 1942. Naturally, this leads us to Donald McCormick and his theories about Clarabella Dronkers published in his book, Murder by Witchcraft. At least the hosts of the podcast have some up-to-date information and note that Dronkers wife was not named Clarabella and that she died in Amsterdam 1944.

Finally, we have the case of Josef Jakobs. Right off the bat, the hosts say MI5 declassified the files in 2009. They were actually declassified in 1999. The hosts also refer to Josef as a "Gestapo agent". This is thanks to Alison Vale and her 2013 article in which she referred to Josef as a Gestapo officer. Josef was not a member of the Gestapo, Nazi Germany's Secret State Police, and he most definitely was not an officer.

The hosts give a very brief summary of Josef's arrival, capture and execution. They add a dramatization of Josef's execution which includes a completely imaginary scene in which someone reads a statement to Josef: "Josef Jakobs you have been found guilty of espionage and have been sentenced to death by firing squad. Is there anything you wish to say now, before God and Man?" At which point Josef says "Shoot straight, Tommies". While Josef's words are accurate, the phrase spoken before that is fabricated.

We then hear of Clara Bauerle... except, the hosts manage to conflate several accounts and place Clara Bauerle in Warwickshire in the early 1930s as a singer. Not accurate. At least, they do note that the facts take Clara Bauerle out of the running based on (a) her height, 6 feet, (Bella was 5 feet) and (b) her death in Berlin in 1942. Although, they say "hospital records" from Berlin, when it was actually her death registration.

We hear briefly about the disappearance of Bella's skeleton... and a few summary statements on the Bella and Walton cases.

A moderately engaging podcast although the American accents are a bit jarring, particularly when they try to use British turns of phrase. There are several inaccuracies and some new ones that crop in during the dramatizations, which is a bit annoying. All that serves to do is muddy the waters.

On top of that, the podcast hosts make no mention of Alex Merrill's facial reconstruction of Bella based on the skull photographs.

Review Score
3/5 - given the highly researched information on Bella, it seems odd that there are still obvious inaccuracies lingering. The addition of new inaccuracies is annoying.