Hagley wood: Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?
In 1943, four young boys, out poaching in Hagley Wood Came across a large Wych Elm. One of the boys begun climbing the tree to look for birds eggs. He looked down to find the tree was hollow. Inside the blackness of the broad trunk there was no trace of any nests, instead he saw a human skull staring blankly back at him.
Josefjakobs.info – A lifelong project into researching the life of Josef Jakobs by his Granddaughter. This blog has numerous posts concerning Bella in the Wych Elm and has some absolute gems of information and a ton of fascinating resources. She also straightens out many misconceptions and repeated falsehoods, often through discoveries unearthed by her own research. Wikipedia – Always a good starting point to nail down many facts of the case. Amazon – Murder by Witchcraft – Not a great book all told but it’s one of the few. The writer addresses both Bella in the Wych Elm and Charles Walton, but unfortunately, is not known for his historical accuracy. Even I know that many of his ‘facts’ concerning Charles Walton are pure bullshit. However, it’s one of the few books on the case if you like to have books.
Who put Bella in the Wych Elm
In 1943, four young boys, out poaching in Hagley Wood came across a large Wych Elm, a broad, spiderlike tree. One of the boys begun climbing the tree to look for birds eggs and upon reaching the topmost branches, looked down to find the tree was curiously hollow. Inside the inky blackness of the broad trunk there was no trace of any bird nests, instead, he saw a human skull staring blankly back at him. This is Dark histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
Hagley wood, 18th April 1943
On the 18th of April, 1943, four young boys from the local town of Stourbridge, Robert Hart, Thomas Willetts, Bob Farmer and Fred Payne were poaching in Hagley wood, part of the Hagley estate owned by Lord Cobham, deep in the west midlands county of Worcestershire. It was wartime Britain and as such, food was heavily rationed, it was not uncommon for people to stretch the boundaries of the law for a good meal. They approached a large Wych Elm and thinking it a good place to find birds nests for eggs, Bob Farmer scaled the branches and peered down inside the hollow trunk of the tree. Spotting bleached white bone and thinking it to be the skull of an animal, he reached in and pulled it out. Devoid of any flesh, aside from one small patch above the left temple, which also left a matted patch of hair draped across the skull, Farmer was horrified as it became apparent that the skull was that of a human. He took a piece of material that was in the branches of the tree, wrapped it on a branch, wedged it into the skull’s mouth and pushed the skull back down into the hollow. The four boys were now in a difficult position. They had discovered the remains of a human, a disturbing discovery that should be reported to the authorities, however, they were poaching and illegally trespassing on the land. In fear of reprisals, the boys decided to keep quiet about the skull and keep it amongst themselves. It was a plan that was doomed to fail and the thought of the remains quickly became too much for the youngest of the group, Thomas Willets, to keep to himself. He told his father of their grim secret shortly after returning home.
An identity of sorts
After hearing his sons story, the next morning, Willetts father contacted the police and the site of the Elm was visited by the Worcestershire County Police Force. The Police quickly found the skull but also found that any remains that were in the tree were so tightly wedged inside the hollow trunk, that they saw necessary to enlist the heavy-handed help of a lumberjack who cut down the macabre tomb so that the police could gain access. Once the job was done, they found they had unearthed not only the skull but an almost complete skeleton. They found some small scraps of rotten clothing in the nearby surrounding area and a single shoe along with the bones of a severed hand which was curiously missing from the rest of the remains inside the tree. The remains were transported to the West Midlands forensic science laboratory at the university of Birmingham, arriving on the 20th April. Professor James Webster, head of the Home Office forensic science laboratory in the West Midlands made a detailed inspection of the bones along with Doctor John Lund. Webster concluded that the remains were that of a woman, around 35 years of age, 5 feet tall with mousy brown hair. She had died 18 months prior to the discovery of her body, placing her death around October of 1941. Although the evidence was not conclusive, it was found probable that she had given birth at least once in her life, an eye-watering assumption that can be made by examining the pelvic bones for any changes resulting from childbirth. She also had an irregularity in the pattern of her teeth, which crossed over in the from on her lower jaw. There were no signs of any disease, nor was there any trauma to the bones, however, due to a wad of Taffeta material wedged into the skull’s mouth, Webster concluded that she had died of asphyxiation. Furthermore, Webster was able to confidently conclude that the body had been placed inside the tree feet first, either whilst she was still alive, or very soon after death, as Rigor Mortis would not have allowed her to have been manoeuvred so tightly into the cramped space of the trunk. Once Dr Lund was supplied with the taffeta cloth from the skull’s mouth, he was able to ascertain a complete image of her dress, the clothing being of poor quality and consisted of a brown skirt, peach petticoat, Brown knitted cardigan and cheap wedding ring. Her hair had not been artificially coloured or permed at all. All this gave us an image of a rather modest woman who would not have been uncommon in any street of Britain during wartime. This series of conclusions were remarkably detailed, however, they do present us with the cases first problem. Webster reported that the cause of death had been asphyxiation due to the wad of taffeta in her mouth, however, the young boys had stated earlier that they had wrapped material around a stick and wedged it into the skull mouth to lower it back into the Elm. If this is indeed the case and the cloth is assumed to be that which was used by the boys, how exactly did the woman die, if, in fact, she was even dead at the time she was placed inside the Wych Elm at all.
Despite the meticulous description that the forensic laboratory was able to provide of the woman, the police were no closer to ascertaining her identity. They drew up a sketch of the clothing and an artists impression of the victim, which they used to issue publicly. The UK dental records were thoroughly searched and her description alongside the details of her lower jaw irregularities was published in dentists journals, all to no avail. Hampered by the difficulties of undertaking such an investigation during wartime, the only thing the police felt they had any certainty of was that she was not a local woman, as there had been no reports of any missing persons in the area matching the description supplied by Webster. The case seemed to be in danger of grinding to a halt when a clue emerged almost six months later in the form of a somewhat cryptic message. Scrawled with chalk on a wall in large capital letters. It read:
“Who put Luebella down the wych-elm? – Hagley Wood” The discovery of the message was followed by several more messages, all variations of the same theme and found throughout the Birmingham and West Midlands area. The messages morphed slightly each time before seemingly settling into the repeated phrase “Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?”.
Whilst some presumed it was the work of a hoaxer, or someone with a twisted sense of humour, the woman’s remains finally had a name and both the press and the police, starved of information, adopted it immediately. The Police promptly appealed for the graffiti writer to come forward for questioning, but unsurprisingly, no one materialised and the case once again fell cold.
At the time, there were many theories about Bellas identity, some were rather more typical in wartime Britain, that of her being a Nazi spy, for example, were openly put forward. Others were caught in whispers and were slightly more strange. One theory that continues to come up, again and again, revels in a world of black magic and folklore. The theory that Bella was a witch, or that she had fallen victim to a Witch Coven, shadows the case until this day.
As controversial now as it ever was, the theory of black magic being involved in Bellas death was nevertheless a popular story back in 1942. Originally posited by Professor Margaret Murray and circulated by rumours, under the hanging horseshoes and tankards of gloomy pubs throughout the West Midlands, it quickly morphed into the many tales we have today. Murray was a renowned Egyptologist, anthropologist, archaeologist and historian. Formerly a lecturer at University College London, she was a respected figure of the time and had published several works in egyptology. The First World War, however, had hampered her further academic work in Egypt and so she turned her attention to witchcraft and would become a heavy influence on the founding of today’s religious movement of Wicca. Murray was interested in one particular aspect of the case, that of the amputated hand. At the time and indeed, still today, it is an area of the case which has never been sufficiently explained. She theorised that the hand was a sign of occult murder and linked it with an artefact called “The hand of glory”. Creation of the hand of Glory was a practice carried out by an occultist, whereby the hand of a malefactor, hanged for their crimes is severed from the body and the fat used to produce a candle. The candle would then be placed in the hand and would burn for the maker forever, though for no one else. It would also opens locks and render people motionless or put them to sleep. The process of making the hand of glory is written in a publication from 1722, named petit Albert and it reads as such:
“Take the right or left hand of a felon who is hanging from a gibbet beside a highway; wrap it in part of a funeral pall and so wrapped squeeze it well. Then put it into an earthenware vessel with zimat, nitre, salt and long peppers, the whole well powdered. Leave it in this vessel for a fortnight, then take it out and expose it to full sunlight during the dog-days until it becomes quite dry. If the sun is not strong enough put it in an oven with fern and vervain. Next make a kind of candle from the fat of a gibbeted felon, virgin wax, sesame, and ponie, and use the Hand of Glory as a candlestick to hold this candle when lighted, and then those in every place into which you go with this baneful instrument shall remain motionless”
Outside of magical candles, Murray also cited her research into witchcraft and Covens. One legend told that the spirit of a dead witch could be prevented from causing harm in the afterlife by having their body imprisoned inside a hollow tree. These theories bought the police no closer to finding the identity of Bella and whilst popular at the time, Murrays work in witchcraft has been academically discredited since her death. There was no evidence of the occult operating in the area, nor that the woman in the tree was any “malefactor” or witch. There were also no patterns, symbols or other iconography usually associated with ritual anywhere at the scene. Furthermore, the hand being left behind rather reduces the strength of any hand of glory theories, since it would have been needed if it were to be used in any such manner. The question remains however of why the hand was removed. Some have suggested that an animal could have scavenged it away from the other remains, dragging it into the undergrowth. This sounds plausible until it’s considered that any animal doing so would have had to not only scale the tree, ignore several other bones and then remove just the hand from a space that was so tight that it needed the tree to be chopped down to remove the remains entirely. This would have been a very particular scavenger and one would assume, not the standard behaviour of such a creature that would normally take whichever it can get. Further stories of occult worship and witch covens during World War II have sprung up throughout the years, with varying degrees of evidence and it is on the back of this that the theory has remained, casting its dark shadow over the Hagley woods mystery.
War time Britain was a time that saw ordinary life disturbed by a constant undercurrent of paranoia. The British government released leaflets, posters and news bulletins with slogans such as “title tattle lost the battle”, “Loose lips might sink ships” and the ominous “talk less – You never know”. Invariably, it wasn’t long before rumours of espionage and Nazi spy rings were to be involved with the case and though followed up by police, none would harbour any solid leads at the time. Peter Douglas Osbourne, a Councillor for Birmingham city, tells a story originally told to him by his father when he was a boy one day when they were walking through Hagley wood. Upon seeing a large, blackened burnt down tree, his father told Peter that he was home on leave at the time the remains in Hagley wood were discovered and through his work as a special constable before the war, was the man that was given the grim task of standing watch over the scene on the night the police had uncovered the bones. After the war, Peters father was travelling home from Italy when he met with a pair of RAF pilots. They shared stories to pass the journey and he told them of Bella and his night watching over her remains. Curiously, the men had seen a file during their duty which they believed was linked to the body. The pilot’s story gleaned from this file was that of a woman who had been involved with espionage whilst working as part of Goering’s inner circle, though she was executed during the war. She had been educated at either Oxford or Cambridge and had very distinctive teeth, the front teeth, just like the remains of Bella, were crossed. He was told that dental records had been matched, but the police reports for the Hagley wood case had stated that although dental records were searched thoroughly, no matches were found and no dentists had come forward with information. It could be possible from this story that Bellas records were not held in Britain but her country of birth, or that any matches found were covered up by the intelligence agency. When Peter asked his father about the story years later, as an adult, his father had, for reasons unknown to him, taken a sharp turn. His father told him that he had nothing to do with it and that he didn’t want to discuss it. Peter suggests that something had an effect on his father, leading him to clam up and not wish to discuss the case, though he is careful to not allude too heavily towards and intelligence service conspiracy. A further theory involving espionage that had a little more evidence in its support surfaced in 1953 when a local West Midlands newspaper named the Express and Star ran a serialised report on the case. The writer, lieutenant colonel Wilfred Byford-Jones had been writing a series of articles concerning Bella and the Hagley woods case, when he received a letter signed by a woman using the pseudonym of Anna, from Claverley, a town 15 miles from Hagley woods. The woman wrote:
“Finish your articles regarding the Wych Elm crime by all means, they are interesting to the readers, but you’ll never solve the mystery. One person who could give the answers is now beyond the juroisdiction of earthly courts. Much as I hate having to use a nom-de plume, I think you would appreciate it if you knew me. The only clues that I can give you are that the person responsible for the crime, died insane in 1942, and the victim was dutch and alive illegally in England about 1941. I have no wish to recall anymore. Anna, from Claverly.”
The police followed up the letter from “Anna” and found that her real name was Yuna Mossop. Yuna was married to a man named Jack Mossop, who in 1941 was working in an ammunition depot in Coventry. He was good looking and well dressed and appeared affluent despite living under the hardships of war. He apparently spent time walking around in an RAF uniform, despite never having been in the RAF and would visit Claverley often to visit his grandmother, always with a Dutchman, though his grandmother never knew who the mysterious foreigner was. Jacks family were nevertheless quite sure that something suspicious was going on between him and the Dutchman. According to Yunas story, it turned out that Jack had used his position in ammunitions to pass on information to this Dutchman, named La Rait and who was in fact a Nazi contact working as a go-between and selling Jacks information to a spy ring operating in the West Midlands, gathering information about ammunition locations for the Luftwaffe. As her original letter mentioned, Bella was a dutch woman, who arrived in England in 1941 and subsequently became involved, though to what capacity is unknown, with the spy ring. Yuna told of how all of these details were part of a confession from Jack to her and his grandmother, perhaps unwilling or simply unable to shoulder the guilt anymore, he then continued on and confessed to not only his activities with the German spy ring, but also to his role in the murder of a Dutch woman, her statement read:
“March or April 1941, said he had been to the Littleton arms with Van Rait and the Dutch piece and she had gotten awkward and passed out. They went to a wood and stuck her in a hollow tree. Van Rait said she would come to her senses the following morning.”
According to Jacks story, the woman was still alive when he left her. He told Yuna that he had recurring nightmares where he saw the woman in the tree leering up at him. Less than a year later, he died, aged 29 in a mental hospital in Stafford. The police and MI5 both followed up and verified several of the details from Yunas account, but none of the men involved were found. During research for his 1969 book, “Murder by witchcraft”, Donald McCormick purportedly contacted an ex-Nazi called Herr Franz Rathgeb, who had spent time in the English Midlands during the war. Rathgeb knew a German agent named Lehrer who had a girlfriend who also worked as a German spy. She was a Dutchwoman named Clarabella Dronkers, who had lived in Birmingham. In 1942. The details from Yunas testimony lend a strong if somewhat circumstantial narrative to the case. She told of how “Bella” arrived in England illegally in 1941, and at that time, there were in fact, well-known rumours that two German parachutists had landed in the Hagley area and vanished. It’s also known that a Dutchman named Johannes Marinus Dronkers was executed for spying by the British in December 1942. Finally, Rathgeb also stated that Clarabella was aged about 30, and sure as day, had irregular teeth. so was Clarabella really the “Bella” from the graffiti, whose remains were a mystery for so many years? No details of a Clarabella Dronkers existing have ever been proven and McCormick’s book is littered with what we would call today “Alternative facts”. Despite the compelling statement made by Yuna to the police and the testimony of Herr Franz Rathgeb, we are still left with scant evidence for any of the persons involved. After the police had taken Yunas statement and despite their follow up and confirmation of many aspects of it, the case fell cold again and eventually closed. Finally marked as officially unsolved.
A final theory
In a modern BBC documentary concerning the Hagley Woods murder case, a statement given to police dated 7th April 1944 was unearthed from the depths of the police files. The short message was from Detective Sergeant Renshaw and addressed to his inspector. It stated that “whilst speaking to a Birmingham prostitute, she had told him that a woman named Bella who used to frequent the Hagley road had been missing for about three years.” This was presumably also followed up and lead nowhere as there are no more details of the prostitute named Bella. We are as close today to finding out who Bella of the Wych Elm was, if indeed that was her real name at all and not just a creation of a dark sense of humour, as the police were in 1943. Stories of witches and German spy rings aside, the remains of the woman in Hagley wood could just as easily have been an unfortunate woman from any number of backgrounds. Who was the graffiti writer? and Van Rait? Where are they now? Was the hand removed as part of an occult ritual? Or simply scavenged by an awkward scavenger? We could perhaps find answers to many questions through analysing the remains with modern DNA techniques. A case so wrapped in mystery, however, could not possibly have such a simple ending. The remains of Bella have been missing from their last known location at the university laboratory for over 50 years, no one knows where or when they were removed, nor are there, in fact, any records left of the remains ever having been there in the first place. Predictably, all forensic evidence and records have also vanished. The Hagley Woods murder case is a mystery upon a mystery and we are no closer to answering the 60-year-old question – who put Bella in the Wych Elm? Thanks for listening, please like subscribe and… sleep tight.