Posted on: June 7, 2015

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On Sunday 18 April 1943 four schoolboys – Robert Harts, Bob Farmer, Fred Payne, and Tommy Willetts – were doing a spot of poaching in Hagley Wood, near Wychbury Hill, in the West Midlands.  Hagley Wood was part of a 1000-acre estate, Hagley Hall Estate, belonging to Lord Cobham.  The boys came across a large wych elm, and thought it might be a good place to look for bird’s nests.  One of the lads, Bob Farmer, shinned up the tree and peered into the hollow trunk.  He got rather more than he bargained for.  Instead of bird’s nests, he saw a skull.  At first he thought it was that of an animal, but the presence of hair and teeth spoke of  human origin.

Shaken, the boys went home, and for a few hours were uncertain what to do.   They had made a pact that they would never tell a soul what they had seen, but the youngest of the four, Tommy Willetts, couldn’t get it out of his head.  He told his father, who in turn contacted the police.  Their macabre find turned out to be an entire clothed human skeleton, who came complete with a crepe soled shoe, also stuffed inside the tree.  A severed hand, bearing a cheap gold wedding-ring, was found on the ground near the tree.

On proper forensic examination, it was discovered that she had been a woman, aged between 35-40, about 5ft 5″ in height, with uneven teeth, and mousy brown hair.  It was also determined that she had been pregnant soon before her death.  Her estimated date of death was thought to be October 1941, and she had been unceremoniously stuffed into the tree whilst she had still been warm, as rigor mortis would have made such an action rather difficult.  It was thought that she had been killed by having a piece of taffeta material stuffed down her throat.

A policeman recalled that in July 1941 two local men had reported hearing a woman’s screams coming from Hagley Wood.  A cop had been sent to investigate, but had found nothing.  Being Wartime, police probably didn’t have the time and the resources to investigate the death of one woman, but they still canvassed every dentist in the UK, to see if they could come up with a match for the woman’s distinctive uneven teeth.  No results were forthcoming.  And so the case might have languished, another dark mystery of Wartime, if it wasn’t for random graffiti which appeared for decades afterwards.  It first appeared in 1944, with the message “WHO PUT LUEBELLA DOWN THE WYCH ELM”.  This appeared on the wall of an abandoned building in Upper Dean Street, Birmingham.  This message would appear again and again over the next few weeks, although the message was shortened to “WHO PUT BELLA IN THE WYCH ELM?” This message, often in the same handwriting, appeared for many years afterwards.  It was last sprayed on Wychbury Obelisk on 18 August 1999.

If the aim of the writer of this message was to keep the case alive in the public mind, then they succeeded.  Over the years there have been many suggestions and theories as to how she got there.  Professor Margaret Murray, an anthropologist with a special (and not to say controversial) interest in European witch folklore, posited the idea that it had been an Occult killing, and drew special significance from the severed hand, believing it to be “The Hand Of Glory”, usually the hand of a newly-executed person, which was said to be much prized amongst witches.  She concluded that the unfortunate woman may have met her death at the hands of a witches coven.  Professor Murray would also later be involved in the pitchfork killing of Charles Warren in Lower Quinton, Warwickshire, on Valentine’s Day 1945, which also had strong overtones of witchcraft to it.  Murray’s views have been largely discredited, and her absolute obsession with witchcraft has been seen as dubious (some have hinted that she practised the Black Arts herself).

After the war though people came forward with other ideas.  In 1953, an anonymous woman, known only to us as “Anna” contacted Wilfred Byford-Jones, who had written a 10th anniversary piece about the case for a Wolverhampton newspaper, claiming that Bella had been murdered by a Nazi spy ring.  This was followed in 1968 by a writer, Donald McCormack, who said that Bella had been a Nazi spy called Clarabella.  She had been parachuted into the West Midlands in 1941, but had failed to make radio contact with anyone.  In more recent times it has been argued that she had really been a cabaret performer-turned-spy called Clara Bauerle, or Clarabella Dronkers.   Clara had gone undercover in the spring of 1941, putting her showbusiness career on hold, to turn to espionage.   Clara was murdered when she threatened to blow the cover on the spy-ring.  Anna also gave Byford-Jones the name of a British officer involved with the spy-ring, but on investigation it was found that he had died a few years before in a lunatic asylum.  For many, this does seem to be the most appealing solution to the mystery.

But we’re not quite done with the Occult yet.  Locals were said to have been dismissive of any witchcraft associations in the area, but in an article for the Independent in August 1999, Richard Askwith wrote that there were reports of witches sabbats being held in the woods prior to World War 2.  A pub called The Gypsies Tent (no longer there) was said to have had Occult associations, and one local did come forward to say his mother had worked at the pub in the 1970s, and she had believed the place was haunted.  Doors would open by themselves, objects moved, and cold spots felt.  The staff had nicknamed their ghost “Bella”, and said that she had once been a barmaid there, but she had mysteriously disappeared in the spring of 1943.

In his book Murder Tales: Occult Murders H N Lloyd quotes the tale of a local man, Jack Mossop (aged 29), who was plagued by nightmares in 1941 – 2 years before the body was found – which usually featured a pair of eyes staring out at him from the hollow of a tree, and a hand trying to grab him in the dark.  The dreams began to obsess him so much that they drove him insane, and he had to be committed to a Staffordshire asylum.  Shortly before his death he confided to his cousin, Una Mossop, that he had been drinking in the Lyttleton Arms one evening in 1941, with a Dutch couple called Van Ralt.  The woman became so paralytic she passed out, and the two men decided to play a prank on her by putting her inside a hollowed out elm tree.  When they returned the next day, she had died.  The police never took this story seriously, and made no effort to contact Mr Van Ralt.

Bella’s remains were given to Professor James Webster.  When he died he left them to a colleague, who was said to have lost them, so no chance of any modern DNA testing.  Many of the original police records pertaining to the case have also disappeared from the archives.

Whoever Bella really was, her case continues to intrigue, and is occasionally resurrected in the British press.  Was she a Nazi spy? a prostitute finding herself at the mercy of a psychopathic client? a barmaid with a secret? an unfortunate drunk wife who became the stooge of a fatal practical joke? or a victim of an Occult ritual?  That her death occurred at the height of wartime only muddies the waters even further.  A fascinating case, nonetheless.



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