Grisly Handiwork

Who put Bella down the Wych Elm?
Hand of Glory
Illustration by Sierra Thomas

Here’s a tale for the season of falling leaves, lengthening nights with pumpkin-hued moons, when dark reflections arise to haunt the human psyche.

On April 18, 1943, four English school boys in Worcestershire were poaching bird’s nests in Hagley Wood. Coming to an ancient Wych Elm, they climbed the tree and discovered a human skeleton in its hollow trunk. Police forensics determined that the remains were those of a woman and were complete except for a missing hand. The cops estimated that she had been stuffed into the tree around October 1941.

In those chaotic war years, investigations into the murder produced little. The overworked police developed two theories. One, based on local gossip, held that the skeleton was that of a prostitute named Bella, last seen being delivered home in an alcoholic stupor by acquaintances. Investigators speculated that she had been put into the tree to scare her into seeing the error of her ways — a motive that would seem questionable, considering the missing hand.

A second theory speculated that the skeleton was from a German actress thought to have been parachuted into England as a spy. Then, in 1944, a curious graffiti appeared on a wall in Birmingham — “Who put Bella down the Wych Elm?” Given that strange coincidence, the spy theory was adjusted slightly. Now, the actress was said to be a Dutch woman by the name of Clarabelle, who had been killed for “knowing too much.” Still, there was proffered no explanation for the missing hand.

In 1945, anthropologist Margaret Murray of London’s University College proposed a radical theory based on her knowledge of an occult charm called the Hand of Glory.

The process of arriving at such hands begins with the archetypal task of visiting a gibbeted criminal at midnight and chopping off an offending hand.

According to The Petit Albert, the amputated hand must be marinated in a mixture of herbs, nitre or horse manure (a natural source of nitre) for three days. Other grimoires specify marinating for weeks. The exuding fluids, of course, must be squeezed out daily, with incantations recited over the Hand until it becomes a mummified and incorruptible blue-black.

The Hand of Glory has always been highly regarded by thieves for its ability to freeze all those in the thief’s presence, or to make its wielder invisible. By some reports, simply knocking on a house door with a Hand of Glory can unlock it and either freeze all within or put them to sleep — a virtue that even Santa on Christmas Eve might appreciate!

In other reports, the fingers were lit in the way of a candelabra. Casting a subtle glow, the digits made the bearer invisible. Note: If the thumb won’t stay lit, it means that someone in the house isn’t asleep. Other Hand creators styled their charm in a fist shape to serve as a holder for a candle made from human fat, often from the original corpse, but baby fat is efficacious, too.

As self-congratulatory progeny of the Enlightenment, we might imagine a superstition like the Hand of Glory to be the preoccupation of scholars like Margaret Murray. Yet, in 1797, someone attempted to rob the Spital Inn in North Stainmore in the county of Cumbria, while employing a Hand of Glory. In 1935, fully 10 years before folklorist Murray proposed her witch-cult theory, a bonafide Hand was found in the wall of an old English cottage. Today it’s on display at the Whitby Museum.

Today, the Hand of Glory tradition is widespread in the Americas in such venues as the magic emporiums of New Orleans, while allusions to it — often strangely overlooked — can be found in Harry Potter novels and the Hellboy films.

As for the skeleton in the Wych Elm, perhaps there’s something to the spy theory advanced by Worcestershire police. After all, with a proper Hand of Glory, how easy would access to the CIA be?

Categories: History