On 18 April, 1943, four teenage boys from nearby Stourbridge, Robert Hart, Thomas Willetts, Bob Farmer and Fred Payne, were in the woods poaching. It was a chilly spring day in the rural Midlands area of England. They came upon an old hollow elm tree and decided it would be an ideal place to search for birds’ nests. Bob Farmer attempted to clamber up into the tree, but as he glanced down inside the hollow trunk he suddenly saw the empty eye-sockets of a whitened skull, staring up at him from among the twisted branches.
At first he didn’t realise what he was looking at and thought it must belong to an animal, possibly a oppossum. But as he pulled the skull out from the gnarled branches and saw a small patch of rotting flesh on the forehead, the remains of some hair, and metal fillings in the teeth he realized what he’d found. The boys panicked…they were on the land illegally, after all, and were afraid of being punished for trespassing. They vowed to forget their grisly find and tell no one.
After hours of hand-wringing the youngest boy, Tommy Willetts, felt uncomfortable about keeping such a secret and decided to tell his father what they’d found. Naturally his father then told the Worcestershire County Police, who went to the site the following morning. Inside and around the old tree they found not only the human skull, but an almost complete skeleton, a crêpe-soled shoe and some fragments of rotted clothing. During a careful search of the surrounding undergrowth a severed hand from the body was also discovered buried nearby.
The task of examining the body fell to Prof James Webster, then head of the Home Office Forensic Science Laboratory in the West Midlands. After a detailed examination at the lab at Birmingham, Professor Webster ascertained that the woman was probably about 35 years old and five feet tall. She had mousy brown hair and a malformed lower jaw. There was a cheap gold wedding ring, no more than four years old, and she had given birth at least once. He estimated that she had been dead for at least 18 months before she was found.
There were no marks of disease or violence on the body, but her mouth had been stuffed with taffeta and one hand had been severed and buried at the foot of the tree. The coroner declared cause of death asphyxiation and estimated the time of death to be around October of 1941, a year and a half before her body’s discovery. He stated that the woman was probably murdered and then pushed into the hole while still warm, as the body would not have fitted into the hollow trunk after rigor mortis had set in.
Professor Webster was able to reconstruct almost exactly what the woman had been wearing at the time of her murder, and it was then possible for the police to issue a description which must have been very close to the actual appearance of the mystery woman.
Most of the investigators thought it would only be a matter of time before she was identified. But the most unusual detail was that despite exhaustive searches through dental records, no trace of the woman was found. Even after a description of the woman and the specific irregularities of her lower jaw were published in dentists’ journals, and despite the fact that she’d had a tooth taken out from the right side of her lower jaw within a year of her death, there was no response. The only thing that the police were fairly certain of was that the woman was a stranger to the area. There were no local missing persons whose description matched that of the victim. As well, only one clue came from anyone in vicinity of Hagley.
This clue was in the form of a report from the executive of an industrial company. In July, 1941, he had been walking to his lodgings in Hagley Green, when he heard a woman’s screams coming from Hagley Wood. A couple of minutes later he met a schoolteacher walking in the opposite direction who had also heard the screams. The men phoned the police who arrived and searched Hagley Wood, but nothing was found. This incident was exactly 20 months before the body was discovered, and, considering the pathologist’s estimate that the woman had been dead for at least 18 months before she was found, seemed extremely promising. However, as with many clues in what the press were now calling the “Tree Murder Riddle, it was to lead nowhere.
Around Christmas 1943, graffiti began to appear on the walls of empty buildings in various parts of the West Midlands area.
The first message, written in large blocky letters in white chalk, said WHO PUT LUEBELLA DOWN THE WYCH-ELM? In the following weeks, the graffiti changed into WHO PUT BELLA IN THE WYCH ELM?…and so it has remained for over six decades.
Though the graffiti seemed to be the work of a hoaxer, there was the slim possibility suggested by the slogans that somebody knew something about the crime. Appeals for the mysterious graffitist to contact the police proved futile, though the messages continued to appear, and have so, intermittently up until the present time. However, the immediate result at the beginning of 1944 was that the unknown woman was given a nickname that even the police adopted.
There were and still are many theories as to the identity of ‘Bella’ and the mystery of her murder. But perhaps the most controversial was put forward at the time by Professor Margaret Murray, of University College, London. She was a respected anthropologist, archaeologist and Egyptologist, but her theories on the origins and organization of witchcraft, with her suggestion that it pre-dated Christianity, were controversial, and not taken seriously by many of her colleagues. Today some of her books have become cult titles including The Witch-cult in Western Europe: A Study in Anthropology(1921), The God of the Witches(1933) and the The Divine King in England(1954).
Professor Murray drew attention to the fact that the hand was missing from the skeleton when found, and suggested it was the sign of a black magic execution. She linked it with ‘The Hand of Glory’, traditionally obtained at the dead of night when it would be cut from the body of an executed criminal hanging from the gibbet or gallows. The hand was supposed to possess powerful magic, and was used to protect its owner from evil spirits, to reveal where treasure was buried or even to put people to sleep. She also drew attention to the ‘ancient tradition’ that the spirit of a dead witch could be prevented from causing any more harm by being imprisoned in the hollow of a tree. Inevitably no evidence was ever found to back this up and some people believed that an animal could have been responsible for removing the hand from the skeleton.
Another major theory, somewhat less extreme than the witchcraft explanation, and with a little more evidence to support it, emerged ten years after the discovery of the body and came in the form of a letter to the Midlands newspaper The Wolverhampton Express and Star. The letter was sent to the columnist Lt. Col. Wilfred Byford-Jones, who in November, 1953, had written a series of articles on the Hagley Wood murder. The mysterious person who sent the letter claimed to have information about the murder and signed herself ‘ANNA, Claverley’. According to this “Anna”, Bella was actually a foreign spy who had been part of a ring scouting out munitions factories in the area and reporting back to the Luftwaffe. The murder victim, ‘Anna’ claimed, was a Dutch woman who had arrived in England illegally about 1941 and had become involved in these activities. She had accidentally learned too much about a British officer who was a mole involved in the spy ring. In order to guarantee her silence, the officer and another spy killed Bella before dumping her body in the woods. The letter named the British officer involved, but he was discovered to have died insane in 1942.
Eventually when Byford-Jones and the police met ‘Anna’ they learned that the officer involved had been a close relative connected to a spy-ring selling secrets to Germany. According to Byford–Jones, some of Anna’s facts were subsequently verified, and apparently both MI5 and the police investigated her claims. Richard Deacon in his book, Murder by witchcraft: A study of the Lower Quinton and Hagley Wood murders mentions that there was contact with an ex-Nazi called Herr Franz Rathgeb, who had spent time in the English Midlands during the war, and knew a German agent named Lehrer who had a girlfriend also working a German spy. She was a Dutchwoman possibly called Clarabella Dronkers, who had lived in Birmingham, was about 30, and had irregular teeth. It is a known fact that a Dutchman named Johannes Marinus Dronkers was executed for spying by the British in December 1942, but whether there was ever a Clarabella Dronkers has never been proven.
Rumors that two German parachutists had landed and vanished in the Hagley area early in 1941 seemed to add more weight to the ‘spy’ theory. It all sounded somewhat promising when all of this came to light. The public became convinced that Bella had either been a spy or mixed up with spies. And when it emerged that her skeleton had disappeared from the Birmingham University Medical School, an outcry of conspiracy and cover-up began…though no prove was ever presented. Certainly if she was discovered spying for Germany by the British she would have been arrested and questioned and not executed and stuffed in a tree.
There were other theories, of course…that Bella was a prostitute who had picked up the wrong ‘john’ – that she had been a refugee fleeing the Blitz and had met a rapist in the woods – that she was a gypsy murdered by her tribe for some horrible misdeed. But for the people around Hagley Woods, the first two theories still held the most weight.
However, if Bella was a local woman sheltering from the blitz, then some clues should have turned up to her identity by now, either from relatives attempting to locate her or from relevant dental records, but nothing has ever been found, and it seems no-one knew anything about her.
The case is still open, though it has long since gone cold. With the body missing and over six decades between the murder and today, the only thing that is clear is that the chances of anyone uncovering Bella’s true identity and that of her murderer are so slim as to be impossible. Just as we may never be sure of Jack the Ripper’s identity, so too will Bella become a figure of myth and folklore.
But the mystery of Bella will not rest so lightly it seems. On August 18, 1999, a 200 year-old stone obelisk on the Hagley Hall estate was found one morning covered in graffiti in tall white letters, ‘WHO PUT BELLA IN THE WITCH ELM?’
mysteriouspeople.com BBC – Murder mystery returns to haunt village