On April 18, 1943, four boys searching for birds’ nests on private property in Wychbury, England discovered a corpse nestled in the trunk of a wych elm. Decades later, the identification of the individual is still not known. This is the story of “Bella”.
On this fateful day, the four boys – Robert Hart, Thomas Willetts, Bob Farmer, and Fred Payne – were poaching for birds’ nests on the private grounds of Hagley Wood, a part of the estate owned by Lord Cobham, heir to the Lyttleton family grounds first established in the 1700’s. Stumbling upon the wych elm, the four boys found the tree to be a prime location for birds’ nests, and Farmer climbed the limbs in search of their goal. As he looked down between the branches and into the hollow trunk, he saw what he at first took to be the skeleton of an animal. However, upon further inspection, he discovered teeth and the remains of human hair. Realizing what they had come across, the boys, terrified and knowing that they were trespassing on the land illegally, hurried home. Later that day, feeling guilty about the kept secret, Willetts confessed the boys’ findings to his parents.
Within the wych elm, authorities found an almost intact human skeleton wearing a shoe, a gold wedding ring, and tattered clothing. No damage had been caused to the skull, and the teeth were in decent condition for dental identification. A severed hand was found some distance from the tree. During the official autopsy, Professor James Webster was able to determine that the skeleton was that of a human female, and that she had been dead for approximately 18 months, making the date of her death October of 1941. Taffeta fabric found inside of her mouth indicated that death was due to suffocation. Based on measurements within the tree trunk, it was determined that she must have been placed inside while still warm and prior to rigor mortis setting in.
Several attempts were made by authorities to identify the dead woman. Dentists across the country were consulted to see if they could match the dental records, but to no avail. Missing persons reports in the region were combed for any similarities in known features. However, there were so many people reported missing during the war that it was impossible to narrow down the possibilities. Ultimately, the case went cold.
Then, in 1944 Birmingham, authorities got what they thought might be a lead in the case. Writing was found scrawled in chalk on the side of a building on Upper Dean Street that read “Who put Bella down the wych elm? – Hagley Wood”. Police scrambled to identify the author of the cryptic message, which appeared several more times throughout the area in similar handwriting. However, the culprit was never located. The name “Bella” was now put on the list of possible identifications for the woman, but the lead gained no traction.
Several theories have been floated over the decades as to the true identification of “Bella”. In 1945, anthropologist Margaret Murray suggested that the killing was the result of a local practice of gypsy witchcraft, citing the severed hand that had been located. Her theory revolved around a ritual known as the Hand of Glory, wherein the corpse hands of the guilty are used as candles or candle holders. In 1953, Una Mossop reported to police that her ex-husband, Jack, had confessed to the accidental killing of the woman in the wych elm. According to Mossop’s report, Jack had been out drinking with a friend, when they encountered a woman who had become very intoxicated. They had placed her in the trunk of the tree, hoping that she would wake up the next morning and find her way home. Conspiracy theorists held fast to explanations related to foreign German intelligence agencies, and surmised that “Bella” was in fact Clara Bauerle, a colleague of German spy Josef Jakobs who had been put to death in 1941. In 2014, Steve Punt, a radio journalist in England, suggested that the woman might be a missing prostitute from the time by the name of Luebella, otherwise known as Bella. However, mismatched physical attributes and inconsistent timelines have ruled out all of these.
In 2016, Andrew Sparke, a retired attorney and law enforcement agent, authored a book entitled Bella in the Wych Elm: In Search of a War Time Mystery, wherein he suggests the most logical and age-old explanation to date – that “Bella” was simply another victim of domestic violence.
The area of Hagley Wood is marred forever by the finding of “Bella’s” remains in 1943, and to this day, mysterious writing still appears around the town, stating the modernized clause “Who put Bella in the wych elm?”. “Bella’s” case still remains cold, and may remain so for the foreseeable future. But the townspeople will never forget, and the haunting phrase endlessly appearing on pub walls and historical structures may forever keep her spirit alive. Stay tuned for another entry of The K Files.