Murder and Mystery at the Witch Elm
There are few things that capture the imagination quite as much as a dark and mysterious unsolved murder. Throughout history we have seen such inexplicable deaths call out across the inexorable passage of time to taunt and befuddle those who would pick through the past for remaining clues and vestiges of evidence looking for answers. Yet there are invariably those cases that firmly and unwaveringly cloak themselves in the shadows to refuse to be solved, burrowing underneath enigmatic clues and strange circumstances to remain entrenched and hidden in mystery. One such infamous unsolved crime comes to us from the bloody days of World War II, an era that was no stranger to death. Here we have the sad saga of an unidentified woman seemingly from nowhere, whose lifeless form appeared within an eery, spidery tree ensconced within a dark, haunted wood, her dead corpse holding mysteries and questions we have yet to unravel. It is a murder mystery surrounded by talk of witchcraft, spies, and other weirdness that seems destined to forever be a cold case we will never approach a fuller understanding of.
It was in the midst of World War II, as bloody battles were being fought across faraway lands that four local boys in the English Midlands would stumble across a rather horrifying sight in the Hagley Wood, in Worcestershire near Birmingham, England. At around dusk on April 18, 1943, Robert Hart, Thomas Willetts, Bob Farmer and Fred Payne, were trespassing on the private estate for the purpose of hunting for rabbits and looking for bird nests. Already nervous because they were certainly not supposed to be there sneaking around and also because the wood has a particular dark, sinister quality to it perfect for seeding urban legends of wicked curses or hauntings, that all only got worse as night approached, they would soon make a discovery that would go on to become a shocking and profound mystery still debated to this day.
During their secret excursion, they came across a creepy looking elm tree with branches that twisted up into the canopy like skeletal arms reaching up almost as if in begging supplication to some dark god, and which was ominously called the Wych Elm, or Witch Elm, by locals. Undaunted by the tree’s creepy appearance in the encroaching gloom, one of the boys, 15-year-old Bob Farmer, climbed the tree to see if there were any nests to be found tucked away within the shadow laced branches. As he poked about, he came to a murky hollow in the tree, from which peered the empty-eyed visage of a skull. The startled boy at first believed it to be the skull of some animal, but when it was dislodged and pulled out from its resting area it became obvious that this was the skull of a human being, complete with unusually crooked human teeth and a wispy clump of hair that stubbornly clung to a rotting patch of flesh. The frightened boys quickly fled the scene, and made up their minds not to tell anyone of what they had found, to leave the dark secret buried within that secluded tree.
And so the discovery might have remained a secret forever, the skull rotting away there in the darkness as it always had, if it had not been for the youngest of the boys, Tommy Willetts. The experience of seeing that obviously human skull stuffed into that eery tree had touched a certain chord with the boy, and he did not feel comfortable about keeping the whole affair a dark secret, unable to sleep due to the nightmares and mysteries that followed it. After a while, he told his parents about what they had found out there in the secluded, private wood, and the authorities were notified. What they would uncover would do little to shed light on the mystery, and indeed would only serve to deepen it.
When police converged upon the scene, they found not only the skull exactly where the boys had claimed it had been, but also a more or less intact skeleton stuffed within the hollow. Upon the skeletal remains were worn out crêpe-soled shoes, as well as a gold wedding ring on the left hand, as well as some tatters of ragged, deteriorating clothing with the tags seemingly purposefully removed. Within the gaping mouth of the skull was lodged a piece of a type of woven cloth known as taffeta. Interestingly, the right hand of the body had been apparently completely sawed off, but it was soon found buried nearby. It was unknown why the hand had been removed and buried like that, but some ideas at the time were that it was perhaps indicative of some sort of ritualistic killing, or that some animal had gnawed it off and buried it.
The Wych Elm skull
The strange remains were sent in to the Home Office Forensic Science Laboratory for examination, where they were analyzed by a Prof. James Webster. He determined that they were from a woman who was probably around 35-years old, who had irregular teeth, had probably given birth to at least one child, and who had been dead for approximately 18 months. As there were no signs of any traumatic injuries on the body, the cause of death was thought to be asphyxiation from the piece of cloth that had been stuffed into her mouth. It was also surmised that the body had been placed within the elm tree shortly after death or as the woman had been dying, and that she had recently had dental work done. Other than that, there was little evidence or information to go on as to the mystery woman’s identity or who could have done such a thing to her. A detailed search of missing persons cases turned up no sign of who it could have been, and scouring the dental records similarly proved to be futile, despite the fact that the mysterious skull had teeth with a very unusual, distinctive crookedness to them that should have made them easy to identify. The mysterious Wych Elm woman seemed to have simply come from nowhere.
The only real clue forthcoming came in the form of a strange report from an unnamed executive of an industrial company. The man claimed that in 1941, about 20 months before the body had been found, he had been walking through Hagley Wood when he had come across the haunting sound of a woman screaming in the distance. The man soon passed another person who also claimed to have heard the eery screams. Police were called in but were unable to find any cause for the unexplained screams they had heard echoing through the murk.
The investigation was further flustered by the fact that World War II had brought with it an influx of missing persons which served to muddy the waters and made searching for answers difficult with the limited technology and resources available at the time. In the meantime, the media had picked up on the grim story and begun to splash out headline after headline on the “Tree Murder Riddle,” and there was talk of murder, shadowy cults, and black magic amongst the local populace. Indeed the wood had long held whispered rumors of black magic cults slinking through the trees here, and the murder caused talk of human sacrifice and evil forest rituals. Nevertheless, as sensational as the macabre news of the apparent murder was, the people at the time had bigger threats to worry about, such as being bombed during WWII, and so the tale of the Wych Elm soon was sort of forgotten and the case went quite cold.
In 1944, the case picked up some more attention and bizarreness when some graffiti written in white chalk appeared scrawled on a building in the West Midlands town of Old Hill, which read “Who put Luebella down the Wych Elm?” Similar spooky messages began to spring up over the area, saying things like “Hagley Wood Bella,” giving the same phrase, only sometimes spelling “Wych” as “Witch,” or calling the woman simply “Bella,” and they all seemed to be in the same block handwriting. It all only served to reinvigorate the whole mystery. No one knew who was writing the mysterious graffiti, for what purpose, or if they had any connection to the unsolved murder, but the name given in the messages stuck, and the woman became widely known as Bella. Interestingly, these messages have sporadically popped up right up into modern times, with well-known examples being graffiti asking “Who put Bella in the Witch Elm?” written upon the Wychbury Obelisk, and a cardboard placard placed in the Hagley Wood in 2016 saying the same thing.
As authorities searched for the culprits of the murder and the graffiti artist in vain, theories as to what had become of Bella began to swirl. One of the spookier ideas was put forth by Professor Margaret Murray, of University College, London, who was an eminent anthropologist and archeologist most well-known for her controversial theories on witchcraft, having written several books on the matter and concocting quite a few far out witch conspiracies along the way. Murray was convinced that Bella had been the victim of some form of black magic ritual, with one of her main pieces of evidence being that the removal of the hand was a hallmark of occult sacrifices, and that in such cases the removed hand was believed by the occultists to be a powerful magical artifact called a “Hand of Glory.”
Other evidence that she claimed to be indicative of a ritual cult killing was the supposed witch belief that vengeful spirits of the murdered could be contained by simply placing the corpse within the hollow of a tree. There were also suggestions from Murray that Bella’s death had a connection with another seemingly cultish murder, in which a farmer named Charles Walton was found stuck to the ground with a pitchfork in the nearby village of Lower Quinton. For awhile, the whole black magic and witchcraft angle of the killing once again caught on with the public imagination, but there was no really hard evidence for any of it.
Another theory that really took off in later years began with a letter sent to a journalist with the The Wolverhampton Express and Star named Wilfred Byford-Jones in 1953, from a woman who called herself “Anna Claverley.” The mysterious woman claimed in the letter to be privy to secret information concerning the Bella murder, namely that she had been caught up in a German spy ring that had been active in the Midlands in the 1940s due to the concentration of munitions factories located in the region during the war. Anna claimed that the spy ring was made up of a Dutchman, a foreign trapeze artist, and a British Army officer. According to Anna, Bella was in reality a Dutchwoman named Clarabella Dronkers, who had been either the girlfriend or wife of a German agent and was killed and stuffed into the tree after learning too much of the operation.
Police would eventually meet with the mysterious “Anna,” and learn that her real name was in fact Una Mossop and her cousin, Jack Mossop, was one of the members of the purported spy ring who had helped in the murder of the woman before stuffing her into the tree out in Hagley Wood. According to Una, her cousin Jack would forever be plagued by nightmares of a woman’s skull peering at him from the darkness of the tree hollow. Despite an investigation into these claims by both police and British Intelligence organization MI5, no evidence was ever found to conclusively show that a spy ring had been behind the murders and indeed no real evidence of a woman named Clarabella Dronkers could be turned up. Indeed, none of the alleged spies could be found, although it was not doubted that spies were active in the region. However, it is interesting to note that this Dronkers is said to have had irregularly crooked teeth, is said to have been killed within the right timeframe of events, and would have been around the same age of the victim at the time.
Other theories as to the mysterious murder also hinge on the spy idea. In 1941, a Czech agent of the Gestapo named Josef Jakobs was arrested after covertly parachuting into Cambridgeshire, England. Authorities found on his person a photograph of a German cabaret singer and movie star named Clara Bauerle. Under questioning, Jakobs would point to Bauerle as being a Gestapo secret agent as well, mostly recruited for her ability to speak with a Birmingham accent and blend into the crowd, and who was meant to parachute in and meet up with him later in the Midlands. Although she was fairly well-known, Clara Bauerle sort of dropped from the radar at about that time, leading to speculation that it was her who had ended up in the Wych Elm. Yet, if this was the case, it has never been satisfactorily explained how she would have ended up out in that tree in the private woodland of Hagley Wood or who could have been the one to kill her or why. Bauerle is also thought to have been too tall to have been Bella, and she is often listed as having dying in 1942, which does not fit in with the Wych Elm murder. We will probably never know for sure and Jakobs was put to death by firing squad on August 15, 1941, holding the distinction of being the last person ever put to death in the Tower of London. His secrets would go to the grave with him.
Other ideas as to the identity of the victim is that she was a murdered prostitute, a gypsy killed in some dark ritual, a barmaid who had been killed by a customer, or a woman who had simply been hiding out in the woods trying to take shelter from the relentless German bombings and had run into trouble, either in the form of a murderer or rapist, or wild animals. Yet none of these theories seems to really totally fit, no new evidence has really turned up, and over the years the case had gone as cold as ice. All any one can do is speculate.
Further hampering any potential investigation into the matter is the bizarre disappearance of the remains themselves. Shortly after the official investigation was closed in 2009, it was found that Bella’s remains had vanished. It was later found that Dr. Webster had passed on the remains after his examination to be put through more tests at Birmingham University Medical School, but that at some time during this process they had inexplicably just disappeared. This has caused various conspiracy theorists to claim that there is some form of cover-up being put into effect, but what that could possibly entail remains unclear. All that is known is that their absence makes any DNA testing with modern methods a frustrating impossibility, and provides further hurdles to ever getting to the bottom of the mystery. As of now, the remains remain missing.
The mysterious murder of “Bella” of the Wych Elm has remained one of the most enigmatic and impenetrable unsolved murders out there. We still do not know who she was, where she came from, or how she ended up in that tree. Since the remains are unaccounted for and that everyone who could have had any direct relation to the crime is dead, there is the very real possibility that this bizarre case will forever remain within the shadowy realm of speculation and imagination. We also have no idea who wrote the graffiti, why they did it, if they have any direct knowledge of what happened or if they are just pranksters keeping the spooky legend alive. As of now, the tree itself has long rotted away, the remains still vanished, and the details of what befell this poor woman lost to the tides of time. The only thing that remains is the scrawled writing upon that obelisk that asks a question that continues to taunt and remain unanswered: “Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?” We may never know the answer to that, and the indecipherable question hangs, lodging itself within the psyche of those who would try to approach it.