Spooky Season, Round 2! This week, Emily kicks us off with a story of murder and mystery, witchcraft and German spies – the story of Bella and the Wych Tree. Then, Rachel talks about the Winchester Mystery House – a bizarre architectural wonder built by Sarah Winchester the widow of firearms magnate William Wirt Winchester. For 40 years she added on to the house to try to placate the ghosts that haunted her cursed family. Hopefully, you’re horrified.
Who Put Bella in the Wych Tree?
Today I am going to tell you a tale of mystery, murder, and intrigue… a story that involves possible German spies and, because it’s spooky season… a little black magic.
So, to kick off this spooky story, I have to ask… have you ever heard of the Hand of Glory? No, it isn’t the same as Blades of Glory, the Will Farrel movie. It’s not the same as a glory hole. It is perhaps even creepier than those things combined. You see, the Hand of Glory is a component of a Black Magic ritual.
According to Occult World, “The hand of glory is the severed hand of a hanged murderer, magically preserved, once was used as a Charm in black-magic spells and was believed to aid burglars in breaking into homes and buildings.
The hand of glory was the right hand of a murderer, ideally severed while the corpse still swung from the gallows, or cut during an eclipse of the moon. It was wrapped in a shroud, squeezed of blood and pickled for two weeks in an earthenware jar with salt, long peppers and saltpeter. It was then either dried in an oven with vervain, an herb believed to repel Demons, or laid out to dry in the sun, preferably during the dog days of August.
Once preserved, the hand was fitted with Candles between the fingers. The candles, called “dead man’s candles,” were made from the murderer’s fat, with the wick being made from his hair. In another method of curing, the hand of glory was bled, dried and dipped in wax, so that the fingers themselves could be lit as candles.
With candles or fingers burning, the hand of glory supposedly had the power to freeze people in their footsteps and render them speechless. Burglars lit hands of glory before breaking into a house, confident that the charm would keep the occupants in a deep sleep while they plundered the household. If the thumb refused to burn, it meant someone in the house was awake and could not be charmed. According to lore, once a hand of glory was lit, nothing but milk could extinguish it.
As a counter-charm, homeowners made ointments from the blood of screech owls, the fat of while hens and the bile of black Cats and smeared it on their thresholds.
Hands of glory were linked to witches during the witch-hunt centuries. In 1588 two German women, Nichel and Bessers, who were accused of witchcraft and the exhumation of corpses, admitted they poisoned helpless people after lighting hands of glory to immobilize them. John Fian, who was severely tortured in his witch trial in Scotland in 1590, confessed to using a hand of glory to break into a church, where he performed a service to the Devil.
I tell you about the Hand of Glory because it is one of the key theories accompanying the mystery of Bella and the Wych Tree.
The story begins in 1943. It was the height of World War II and the United Kingdom was in a bad way. They had declared war on Germany five years prior and since then had been enduring the bombing of their towns and cities, often being blitzed by bombs and rockets. Rationing of food began in January 1940 and clothes in June 1941. By 1943, virtually every household item was either in short supply and had to be queued for, or was unobtainable.
Consequently, young boys who weren’t old enough to fight in the war spent a lot of their time trying to help out their families by hunting and gathering. So on April 18, 1943 four young boys were out doing just that in a park in Worcestershire, England. The four boys—Bob Hart, Tom Willetts, Fred Payne, and Bob Farmer—were technically trespassing that day. They were on the grounds of the impressive Hagley Hall estate, which belonged to Lord Cobham – but they took the risk because they knew this was a great location to try to find small game, like rabbits, and eggs in trees.
After a while, Bob spotted a unique looking tree – a wych elm, and he thought there was a chance he’d find eggs in the strange branches of the tree. So, to help you visualize the tree and understand why he might have been drawn to that tree in particular, a wych elm is a big tree with many many branches that come off of the main trunk and the trunk is usually super low, so it’s like a squat little stump with lots and lots of branches stemming off of it, which gives it this broad, spreading crown effect. Essentially, there are lots of good hiding places and platforms for nests.
Bob slowly climbed up the tree and – jackpot! – he saw something white in the middle of the tree, an egg perhaps!? So he reached down and picked up the egg. Unfortunately, it was not an egg. It was a skull. A human skull, complete with clumps of human hair clinging to it and crooked teeth protruding from its mouth. Now, in my imagination, Bob screams a high pitched scream and throws the skull back into the tree, jumping down and running into the woods.
I picture it this way because none of the kids called the police at first. Luckily, one of the kids grew a conscience and told his parents what they had found.
The next day, police were swarming the park and the wych tree. What they found was disturbing. Inside the ominous-looking tree, they found the majority of a woman’s skeleton… and I say majority because her left hand was cut clean off and missing. Now, this woman was stuffed into a pretty small area – the hollow of the tree was only 24 inches wide at the top and 17 inches wide at the bottom. This caused the medical examiner to rule out suicide because, as he said, “I cannot imagine a woman accidentally slipping in there, neither do I think it reasonable for a woman to crawl into that place to commit suicide.” He also concluded that the woman had been placed inside the hollow trunk before rigor mortis had set in; otherwise the body would have been too stiff to fit inside the narrow tree trunk.
They also searched the area and found the bones of the left hand buried nearby. They also found a cheap, imitation-gold ring and size 5-and-a-half crepe-soled shoe a short distance away. Scraps of poor-quality clothing hung from the bones, and a piece of taffeta fabric was stuffed inside the mouth of the skull. That same medical examiner, whose name is James Webster, said that he believed that fabric in her mouth was the murder weapon and the COD was suffocation.
The body also told the basic tale of what this woman looked like… she was around 35 years old, had irregular teeth in her upper jaw, had light brown hair, and was just 5 feet tall. He also determined that the woman had given birth to one child in her lifetime, and estimated that she had been dead for around 18 months.
So, who killed this woman – likely close to that very spot in order to get her into the tree before Rigor Mortis – and cut off her hand, specifically, in the process? More importantly, who was this woman??
The first thing they did to try to identify the woman from the Wych tree was send pictures of her teeth to every dentist they could think of in the area. They had protruded strangely out of her mouth and everyone figured that whoever had worked on those smackers would remember them. Unfortunately, they came up empty. So, the investigators put on their thinking caps and did a deeper dive.
They dug through piles of missing persons reports to see if any of them matched the description of the deceased. Nothing. After that, they decided to look at the personal effects found at the scene. The crepe-soled shoes were traced to the Waterfoot Company and investigators were able to find the owners of all but six pairs, which had been sold from a market stall in Dudley, a town approximately 11 miles away.
Nothing. They couldn’t pin down who this woman was, and then – well – it was WWII and people got a little distracted from the case. You know, what with all the bombings and gassings going on. But then… 2 months later in December, right around Christmas time, a gift of sorts arrived for the homicide detectives.
Scrawled on the side of an old house, someone had written the words in chalk: “Who put Bella down the wych elm?” Now, no one had ever had a name associated with the unidentified woman before (as is usually the case with unidentified people). But, people still weren’t quite sure who “Luebella” was.
But whoever left that creepy hint on the side of the old house was not satisfied with the progress being made by police, because messages continued to pop up around town. “Who put Bella in the wych elm?” would be found all over town. On brick walls, bridges, even tombstones… but still no one knew what it meant or who was doing it. But they all seemed to imply that somebody knew who killed this “Bella” – yet the police couldn’t identify Bella OR find the artist. The messages stopped for a while and then in the late 1940s, new messages started to appear, asking the same question.
So whodunnit! Well, unfortunately, spoiler alert they never found out. BUT, there are quite a few theories – from German spies to black magic rituals. So, let’s talk about a few of them.
First, there was speculation that “Bella” may have been someone with a transient lifestyle—a person not easily traced in life and thus not particularly missed in death. In August 2014, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a program that suggested that the woman was a sex worker who worked the streets around Hagley Road. According to police files, there was a known sex worker that seemingly disappeared in 1941, which would fit the timeline of events, but they didn’t know her name, so whose to know if it was Bella.
Locals pointed out the fact that gypsies had camped out in the vicinity of Hagley Woods during 1941. Perhaps “Bella” was one of them and had been killed by a member of her own community.
One of the big theories was that Bella was a German Spy! May sound far-fetched, but during World War II, several German spies were captured in the UK. So, in 1953 when two local newspapers received letters from somebody who identified herself only as “Anna of Claverley.” She claimed to have information on the identity of “Bella” and was interviewed by journalist Wilfred Byford-Jones. According to “Anna,” “Bella” was a member of a spy ring seeking information about the location of local munitions factories that could then be targeted by the german air force.
“Anna” was later identified as Una Mossop, and she alleged that her Royal Air Force pilot husband, Jack Mossop, had witnessed “Bella”’s death. She said that he told her that he had become involved in a spy ring along with a “Dutchman called Van Ralt.” One evening, Van Ralt— accompanied by a woman Mossop believed to be “Bella”—had picked up Jack in his car. Shortly after, Van Ralt strangled the woman, allegedly because of her spy associations.
Another version of this story claims that Jack Mossop and Van Ralt had been drinking with “Bella” in a local pub when she became drunk and passed out. The two men then placed the woman in the tree to teach her a lesson. When she awoke, she was unable to climb out and perished. However, this theory doesn’t explain the discovery of the taffeta stuffed inside her mouth or the fact that one of her hands was cut off.
Unfortunately, we’ll never know if this theory is true because Jack Mossop died in St. George’s Hospital before “Bella”’s body was discovered. Allegedly, recurring nightmares of “Bella”’s skull stuffed inside the tree ultimately led to his mental breakdown. Van Ralt was never found, and investigators considered Una’s testimony to be nothing more than hearsay from an estranged wife, told 12 years after the discovery of “Bella.
Of course, as I alluded to at the beginning of my story, another notion that came up was the black magic theory.
According to anthropologist Professor Margaret Murray, the fact that “Bella”’s hand was severed from her arm bore similarities to the occult ceremony known as the “Hand of Glory.” It should also be noted that part of the theory of witchcraft was related to the name Bella. You see, the plant, belladonna—also known as deadly nightshade—and witch-hazel are both widely associated with the occult and, according to local legend, so is Hagley Woods. The fact that “Bella” was entombed inside a tree rather than being buried was also indicative of a ritualistic slaying, according to Professor Murray.
The theory that “Bella” was executed for some crime against a coven quickly gathered steam and remains a favorite theory even today. Investigators working on the case, however, dismissed the theory, declaring that the bones from “Bella”’s hand had simply been scattered by animal predation.
Ultimately, with no concrete evidence to support them, these various theories ultimately led nowhere. One straightforward—and perhaps most probable—hypothesis is that “Bella” was a homeless woman with no loved ones to report her missing. Quite simply, she may have been a woman who just fell through the cracks.
Winchester Mystery House
We are headed to the Winchester Mystery House.
Let’s start in 1839, when Sarah Lockwood Pardee was born in New Haven, Connecticut. I couldn’t find much about her childhood, so I’m assuming it was normal, or whatever normal looks like in Connecticut. In 1862, Sarah married the heir to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, William Winchester. They have a baby in 1866, Annie, but she died tragically at 5 weeks old, from marasmus, which is essentially malnutrition. Super super sad, and the couple doesn’t have any more kids. Then, in 1881, William Winchester dies at age 43 from tuberculosis. So Sarah inherits A SHIT TON of money. About $20 million in 1881 money, which would be about $536 million today. And she got 50% of the Winchester Repeating Arms stock too, and they were selling a lot of guns back in those days.
Sarah decides to start a new life in California in 1885. In 1886, she buys a cute two-story farmhouse near San Jose, and she starts remodeling. And let me just throw out there, she never stops. This farmhouse goes from being 8 rooms to being a HUGE mansion. And construction was ongoing until Sarah’s death in 1922.
But let’s jump back to the late 1800s. Sarah’s not alone in this giant house – her niece Daisy moves in with her, which is precious. Daisy lives with Sarah for 15 years, but she ends up getting married in the early 1900s, so it’s just Sarah and her many construction workers.
Now, let’s talk about this mansion. It is 24,000 square feet. It boasts 160 rooms, 47 stairways and fireplaces, 13 bathrooms, and 6 kitchens. WHY DO YOU NEED 6 KITCHENS?!?!
Obviously, if a house is under construction for that long, rumors are going to swirl about our girl Sarah. Maybe a psychic told her to build the house. Or she’s haunted by ghosts of people who died by the “gun that won the west,” which was the popular gun from the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Maybe she’s crazy, and that’s why she wants to live alone in a construction zone forever.
Well, I did some research into these rumors for you – from good old reliable Wikipedia. Allegedly, after William Winchester died, Sarah did visit with a psychic. The psychic channeled William, and told Sarah that she should leave New Haven and travel west. Then, she should build a home for herself, with enough room to house the spirits of those who had fallen victim to the guns that won the west.
Apparently, she thought there were some bad vibes attached to her money and her family. And honestly, I believe it. This woman lost her baby and her husband, and her money did come from guns, and this was the late 1800s in America, AKA the wild west. So a lot of people were dying by those guns.
So Sarah started building. The workers allegedly worked all hours in the day and night, and eventually, The Winchester Mystery House became a 7-story mansion. And Sarah did not use an architect. She just kept adding on rooms, so the house has a bunch of staircases to nowhere, windows that look from one room to another, etc.
But alas, 7 stories was too tall to survive the 1906 earthquake. The mansion went from 7 stories to 4 stories, and of course was repaired after the damage.
Sarah was allegedly so spooked by the ghosts living there that she only had one working toilet, and the other bathrooms were there to confuse the spirits. She also allegedly slept in a different room every night, so those ghosts couldn’t find her.
After Sarah died, the mansion was sold for only $135,000. Probably because it was not a functional house. However, it has been restored and is now a National Landmark. It’s had movies made about it and has been on the show “Most Haunted.” But I think the coolest fact about it is that Walt Disney designed his Haunted Mansion after the Winchester Mystery House. And so, for Happy Hour, I’m going to be telling you about some of the weird history of the Haunted Mansion at Disney World!
But, before we get to Happy Hour, I want to talk a little about the hauntings at the Winchester Mystery House. Their website does a great job of breaking down the different types of hauntings: Residual hauntings, Intelligent Hauntings, and Shadow Figures.
A bunch of employees, and a few visitors, have met a ghost named Clyde. He is basically a handyman. He has a mustache, and he has been seen pushing a wheelbarrow in the basement, or trying to repair a fireplace. Clyde is a residual haunting, which is essentially a moment from the past that cycles through loop.
A maintenance worker named Denny has said that he once heard footsteps in the water tower. He went upstairs to tell the person that the water tower isn’t open to guests, but as he followed the footsteps all the way up to the roof, he realized there was no one there. This one is an intelligent haunting. The spirits are trying to make connections with people.
People have also reported feeling their clothes tugged at while they are on tours. And of course, they’ve seen shadow figures, which is like a, what the hell was that? Is it a person? Do I need to blink the sleep out of my eyes sort-of-a-situation?
I also wonder if Sarah Winchester’s spirit may still be hanging out at the house. Remember how I told you that there was an earthquake in 1906 that took the house from 7 stories to 4 stories? Well, what I didn’t mention is that Sarah was inside the house… and she got trapped in a room. This freaked out the already very superstitious woman, so she had that room sealed. And it stayed sealed until like 2015. So now, you can tour that room… and people have stated they’ve heard loud sighing around that room, so maybe Sarah Winchester is annoyed by all housthe tourists.
And that’s the story of the Winchester Mystery House!