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.

Conclusion
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.

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