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Who Put Bella in the Witch Elm?

Murder in the Midlands

graffiti on the Wychbury obelisk

In the Spring of 1943, four young boys — Robert Hart, Thomas Willetts, Bob Farmer, and Fred Payne — found themselves picking through the shaded depths of Hagley Wood. The group had crept onto the Hagley Estate with the intent of poaching what birds or animals they could find, before stealing back to their homes in the nearby town. Unfortunately for the teens, they would come across something of a much darker nature than stolen fowl. 

It was Farmer, with a mind to suss out a bird's nest, who spotted the tree first. Clambering up the trunk in a flurry of lanky limbs, the boy stopped to steady himself and glanced into the hollow trunk — only to see the dull gleam of yellowed-bone in the blackness. Thinking it an animal skull, he scooped it from its resting place and plopped to the ground to show his friends. To the four boys' dismay, in the clearer light of  the woods, they could see the thing belonged to to no four legged beast. With shrunken patches of skin plastered tightly to its brow and tufts of dark hair still sticking in brittle clumps across its pitted surface, a clearly human head stared back at them. 

Frightened and disgusted by what they'd discovered, Farmer replaced the skull in the hollow trunk, and the boys fled back to their homes with promises not to speak of the body for fear of punishment. They had, after all, been poaching on Lord Cobham's land at the time, and had no wish for the police to discover their trespass. 

The youngest of the boys, however, Tommy Willets, couldn't keep the happening to himself. Ill at the thought of their discovery, he confessed the find to his parents, who quickly contacted local authorities. 

When police returned to Hagley Wood, they found an almost complete female skeleton stuffed into the bark prison, along with a cheap, rolled gold wedding ring (surmised to have been worn approximately four years), fragments of clothing, and a wad of taffeta in the skull's mouth. Some distance from the tree, they uncovered the remains of what they believed to be the skeleton's missing hand. 

Shortly after its removal, the body was sent for forensic examination by Professor James Webster. Webster was able to determine that the body was indeed that of a woman, and she had been dead for at least 18 months prior to her discovery. Further investigation revealed she would have been about 35 at the time of her death, five feet tall with mousy brown hair, and irregular lower teeth. From the set of her bones, he also surmised she had given birth at least once during her life. 

While there were no marks of disease or violence on the body, the taffeta found stuffed in her mouth suggested murder by asphyxiation, and the placement of the body in the tree led coroners to believe she was pushed into the hole "still warm," as the body wouldn't have fit in the hollow once rigor mortis had set in. 

Despite the details authorities were able to glean from the scene and autopsy, the identity of the woman remained a mystery. Dental records were combed exhaustively in an attempt to find some match to the unidentified female, but although a missing tooth revealed she'd had dental work done in the past, no matches were found.

Due to the fact that the country was at the time deep in the midst of World War II, the investigation was slow going. Police were able to make a fairly accurate assumption that the woman was foreign based on the items found alongside the body, but with multitudes of people reported missing during the war, records were too vast to make a proper ID, and the case quickly grew cold. 

However, fascination with case would only grow among the public in the years to come. Enamored by the romance and mystery of the unknown woman's story, papers overflowed with theories, ranging from black magic murders to German Spy ring executions gone awry. 

Credited with spurring on the explosion of interest in the case, is the graffiti that emerged in the years after the body's discovery. The first known vandalism, reading, "Who Put LueBella Down the Wych-Elm?" is thought to have inspired the slurry of slightly altered versions of the same question, all of which would eventually homogenize into the simple, yet eerie query written in white chalk, "Who Put Bella in the Witch Elm?"

While the true name of the woman in the tree is unknown, and the tree itself — although commonly believed to be a wych-elm or witch hazel tree because of the famed graffiti-was more likely a simple elm tree, the name was quickly adopted both by the public and police. 

As for the rumors of black magic that exploded for a time, and still litter accounts of the strange story today, you can thank Professor Margaret Murray, of University College London. A respected anthropologist, archaeologist, and researcher of the origins of Witchcraft, her suggestions that the practice of witchcraft predated Christianity were controversial, and largely dismissed by her colleagues, but many of her books would go on to become cult titles in modern times. (The Witch-Cult in Western Europe [1921], The God of the Witches [1933], and The Divine King in England [1954].)

She brought attention to the woman's missing hand, and its perhaps suspicious placement feet from the body, crediting its separation as a sign of a "black magic execution." Her theory was formed in connection with the idea of "Hands of Glory," trophies traditionally obtained in the dead of night, cut from the body of a recently executed criminal hanging from the gallows. The appendage was said to possess powerful magic, and was used by practitioners to protect themselves from evil spirits, reveal buried treasure, or to send people into a deep sleep. She also pointed to what she named the "ancient tradition" of placing a dead witch within the hollow of a tree to prevent her spirit from causing anymore harm to the living. 

No evidence was ever found to support Professor Murray's theory, and police believe it more likely the hand was removed by a scavenging animal than a vengeful witch coven, but this hasn't stopped hundreds of amateur investigators from labeling "Bella" a victim of black magic.

Another popular — and admittedly intriguing — theory, with perhaps more evidence to support it, credits involvement with a spy ring for Bella's unfortunate expiration. 

Ten years after the discovery of the woman's body, Midlands newspaper The Wolverton Express and Star received a mysterious letter. The correspondence was sent to then columnist Lt. Col. Wilfred Byford-Jones, who was writing under the pseudonym "Quaestor" at the time and had recently penned a series of articles about the Hagley Wood murder. The author of the letter, calling herself "ANNA, Claverly" claimed to have information about the crime. 

She wrote that in 1941, a spy ring had been operating deep undercover in the West Midlands, working to pass information to the Luftwaffe concerning the location of munitions factories in the area. According to her, the organization involved a British officer saddled with passing the information to a Dutch contact, who in turn gave it to a spy posing as a foreign trapeze artist at local theatres and acting as a channel to the Germans. No, you didn't misread that, and I didn't mistype. The final piece to this dark and nefarious espionage ring, was in fact, a carnival-esque trapeze artist. 

"Anna" also claimed that the victim, or "Bella," was a Dutch woman who had arrived in England illegally near 1941, and become embroiled in the ring's activities. She had discerned too much about the operation, and was killed for her knowledge by the Dutchman and aforementioned trapeze artist while driving through Halesowen, after which the two took her to Hagley Wood, where her body was hidden in the tree. While the letter named the British officer involved, he had supposedly died in 1942. 

Now, some of the facts provided by "Anna" were in fact verified. There was at the time some form of spy ring near the Midlands, and it was well known that a Dutchman named Johannes Marinus Dronkers was executed by the British for spying in December of 1942, but the other subsequent assumptions and theories springing from that information remain baseless. Many theorists give credit to author Donald McCormick's claim that he contacted an ex-Nazi, who he called "Herr Franz Rathgeb," and she had spent time in the English Midlands during the war. He wrote that she confided to him that she knew a German agent named Lehrer, whose girlfriend was also engaging in espionage. The girlfriend in question was, according to Rathgeb, a Dutchwoman called Clarabella Dronkers, who had had lived in Birmingham. Clarabella, she said, had been about 30, with irregular teeth, and unremarkable brown hair. 

Unfortunately for McCormick, the existence of his informant and her Dutchwoman have never been proven. 

There are a plethora of other smaller, less grandiose theories as to the identity of the woman, and experts on the case abound. Authorities, however, are still no closer to discovering the true identity of the woman, or the circumstances surrounding her death. 

The theory given the most credence by police is perhaps the simplest and the saddest. It is thought probable that the victim had been in the woods attempting to shelter from an air raid on Birmingham, as many nearby fled the city during the German bombings, and that her murderer was perhaps doing the same. They believe it likely that the murder was spur of the moment, perhaps the erroneous result of an attempted rape, and the body was hidden in the tree only moments afterward, where it remained until its discovery months later. There are still many detractors of this theory however, given that if "Bella" was a local woman sheltering during the blitz, clues as to her identity should have come to light in the years following. 

Regardless of which theory you choose to believe, it's safe to say "Bella's" story is far from being forgotten. Classical musician and writer, Simon Holt, an avid fan of the mystery who himself wrote an opera centering on the event, summed up the fascination with perfect brevity: "You can put your own angle on this story, it's so open ended — that's why everyone likes it." 

The unknown woman, found so many years ago curled in the belly of a dying tree, has managed to become an international sensation, bits of her story clinging to our culture and popping up in books, movies, and plays all over the globe.

Perhaps, years from now we'll know the truth, but until then, it's safe to say we have more than enough stories to keep us entertained. 

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Who Put Bella in the Witch Elm?
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