In April 1943, four boys made an unusual discovery that terrified and puzzled people for the next 70 years.
On that Sunday morning, the boys were in the Hagley Woods looking for birds nests near the town of Birmingham, England. They were looking in an old wych elm tree when they found a horrifying scene. A human skull sticking out of the tree.
15-year-old Bob Farmer was the one who actually found the human skull. The skull was a horrifying sight. It has some hair hanging from the forehead and two teeth sticking out of the front of the mouth. It frightened them so much they quickly left and ran from the woods.
They did not tell anyone what they found at first. The boys agreed they didn’t want to get in trouble for being in the private woods.
But one boy could not keep the secret to himself. He broke down and told his father, who soon called the police. When the police went to investigate the skull, they found much more than they expected.
Inside the tree trunk, they found the complete skeleton of a woman except for her hand. Taffeta fabric was inside her mouth, and scraps of clothes, shoes, and a golden ring were found inside the trunk as well.
The hand was soon found in pieces around the tree. The police were stumped.
James Webster, a pathologist, determined the time of death to be around 18 months before the discovery of the skeleton. The woman was about 35-years-old and approximately 5 feet tall. She had also given birth in the past.
However, he couldn’t determine how she died. He only guessed it had been due to the cloth stuffed in her throat.
Webster also concluded she has most likely been put in the tree soon after death. Rigor mortise hadn’t set in yet based on how she was placed in the tree. From the information provided, the police were able to complete a sketch of the woman, but no one came forward to name the victim.
The police searched through missing persons reports with no luck. They also searched for dental practices that recognized her as she had dental work done just before her death. This also drew a blank.
At the time the body was discovered, World War II was in its darkest times. The mystery of the woman in the tree was quickly forgotten due to the other horrors going on in the world. The press covered mainly just the war, and people weren’t concerned with one dead woman.
This changed towards the end of 1943. Graffiti began appearing throughout the West Midlands. Based on the style, it looked to be done by the same artist. The messages included, “Hagley Wood Bella” and “Who put Bella in the wych-elm?”
Someone knew something. But the graffiti artist was never found. Were they the one who killed Bella (as the police were now calling her)? Or did they know who did?
The rumors around the case began. Margaret Murray, a folklorist, theorized that Bella was killed in an occult ceremony because of the removal of her hand. This practice was typical in black magic. This was an extremely popular theory for a while, even with the police. But there was no evidence this was actually what happened.
In 1953, a journalist, Wilfred Byford-Jones, brought the old case back to life in the Wolverhampton Express and Star. This was how he received a solid lead on the case.
After he began writing about the case, he received a letter giving another theory about Bella. A mysterious “Anna” wrote Bella was in a Nazi spy ring, and this was why she was murdered. This theory seemed more realistic than the witchcraft theory.
Byford-Jones began writing back and forth with Anna. She eventually told him she was Una Mossop. She then told him the whole story.
Her husband, Jack, had a connection with a Nazi agent. One day, he met with this connection in a pub. He was arguing with a woman and eventually strangled her in his car. Jack was in fear of his own life. He then assisted the Nazi agent in burying the woman in the elm tree.
After this, Jack became so traumatized that he was institutionalized in 1941 and died soon after.
This story fits the timeline of the case, and the police got involved. However, they weren’t able to find the man who killed the woman or figure out who the woman was.
By this point, Bella’s remains were missing. There wasn’t another lead for 15 years when a book by Donald McCormick was published. ‘Murder by Witchcraft’ was a book built on the Nazi spy ring theory. McCormick had gotten records from German Military intelligence.
Based on this information, a Nazi agent was in the Midlands in 1941 and had a Dutch girlfriend by the name of Clarabella Dronkers. She was 30 years old at the time and had crooked teeth. Because she was foreign, it would explain why no one recognized her, and her dental records couldn’t be found.
It was known that Nazi agents were operating in the area during that time, even an operative matching Clara’s description.
However, there is no definitive proof that she is Bella of the Wych Elm. Because the remains are missing and many of the records related to this case are hard to find, this case will probably never be truly solved. There are many more theories out there surrounding the case, most of which have no supporting evidence.
A Digital Reconstruction Reveals the Face of Famed Murder Victim “Bella in the Wych Elm.” (2018, April 25). Retrieved April 25, 2020, from https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/541525/digital-reconstruction-reveals-face-murder-victim-bella-wych-elm
The Unredacted. (2018, March 10). The Hagley Woods Mystery: Bella in the Wych Elm. Retrieved April 25, 2020, from https://theunredacted.com/the-hagley-woods-mystery-bella-in-the-wych-elm/
Thompson, E. H. A. G. (2019, February 21). Who Put Bella In the Wych Elm? Retrieved April 25, 2020, from https://crimereads.com/who-put-bella-in-the-wych-elm/