On the 18th of April 1943, Robert Hart, Thomas Willetts, Bob Farmer and Fred Payne, four boys from Stourbridge were poaching in Hagley Woods near to Wychbury Hill. They came across a large wych elm tree. Believing it a good place to hunt birds’ nests, Bob attempted to climb the tree to investigate. As he climbed, he glanced down into the hollow trunk and to his surprise, discovered a skull. At first he believed it to be from an animal. As he scanned it with his eyes he started to breath heavily, seeing human hair and teeth, and to his sheer terror, he realised that he had found a human skull.
Hagley Wood is part of the Hagley Hall estate belonging to Lord Cobham and as they were on the land illegally, not knowing what to do and slightly panicked, Bob put the skull back and all four boys returned home without mentioning their discovery to anybody.
The youngest boy, Tommy Willetts felt uneasy about what him and his friends had discovered and decided to confess to his parents and tell them what they had found in Hagley Woods. Tommy’s parents immediately reported the incident to the police and officers were dispatched to the location. When police checked the trunk of the elm tree they found an almost complete human skeleton with a few other items including a shoe, a gold wedding ring, and some fragments of clothing. After further investigation around the tree, a severed hand was found buried in the ground near by.
The body was sent for forensic examination by Prof. James Webster. He quickly established that the skeleton was that of a female aged 35-40, who had been dead for at least 18 months, placing time of death in or before October 1941; Webster also discovered a section of taffeta in her mouth, suggesting that she had died from asphyxiation. From the measurement of the trunk in which the body had been discovered, he also deduced that she must have been placed there “still warm” after the killing, as she could not have fit once rigor mortis had taken hold.
Since the woman’s murder was during the midst of World War II, identification was near impossible. Police could tell from items found with the body what the woman had looked like, but with so many people reported missing during the war, records were too vast for a proper identification to take place.
Police contacted every dentist in the country, hoping to identify the victim by her distinctive teeth. They also painstakingly eliminated all missing persons from the area.
In 1944 a message related to the crime mysteriously appeared on a wall in Upper Dean Street, Birmingham, in the form of graffiti, which read: Who put Bella down the Wych Elm – Hagley Wood. After six months, with police no closer to identifying the victim or her killer, the appearance of graffiti across the region, asking “Who put Bella down the wych elm?” suggested that someone knew more than they were letting on. At least the police now had the name of the victim.
Police honed their search to identify the graffiti artist and followed the trail of anyone from the area known as “Bella”. Neither line of enquiry was successful. The search of national dental records also proved fruitless; the woman in the wych elm had apparently come from nowhere and was missed by no one.
Two years passed. The case attracted the attention of the anthropologist Professor Margaret Murray, who clouded the investigation by citing a disturbing occult ceremony known as the “Hand of Glory”, theorising that the scattered hand bones indicated a ritualistic murder.
The press feasted on this latest detail, particularly when the body of local man Charles Walton was found in the nearby village of Lower Quinton, pinned to the ground with a pitchfork. Murray connected both cases and Scotland Yard appeared to take the theory seriously, to the further delight of the press.
By the early 1950s talk of witchcraft had taken hold of the popular imagination. Then in 1953, a woman calling herself “Anna” contacted the Wolverhampton Express and Star claiming to have known Bella’s killers. She met police in secret but details of her story were drip-fed to the public by a local columnist writing as “Quaestor”.
Anna sent the case in a new direction: espionage. She claimed Bella had been murdered by a German spy ring involving a British officer, a Dutchman and a music hall artist. It was highly plausible: the region’s many munitions factories had made it a prime target for Nazi intelligence-gathering designed to choreograph the Birmingham blitz.
The public embraced the link between the Hagley Woods murder and espionage with relish; after all, this was the Cold War and James Bond had already made his debut in Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale. Police soon dismissed talk of the occult and concluded that the finger bones had been scattered by animals, not by a satanic coven. Despite Anna’s leads, the investigation began to gather dust.
In January 1941, a Gestapo agent called Josef Jakobs was arrested in Cambridgeshire. Before he earned the dubious distinction of being the last man executed in the Tower of London, he was questioned about a photograph of a woman he was carrying. He identified her as his lover, Clara Bauerle, who he said was to be parachuted into the Midlands once he made radio contact. Bauerle was a 35-year old cabaret artist who had performed in Britain for two years and spoke English with a Birmingham accent. She was the right age and was scheduled to arrive at about the time of ‘Bella’s’ death. Vale’s Independent article states there were no gramophone recordings from her after early 1941, implying that something happened to her around that time, and suggests that an English audience may have heard ‘Bauerle’ as ‘Bella’.
Almost ten years later, in 1953, a statement was made to the police by a cousin of Jack Mossop, Una Mossop. Una reported in her statement that Jack had confessed to family members that he and a Dutchman called van Ralt had put the woman in the tree. Mossop and van Ralt had met for a drink at the Lyttelton Arms in Hagley.
Accompanying van Ralt was a Dutchwoman. Later that night, Mossop had said the woman became drunk, and passed out while they were driving. The men decided they would punish her by putting her in a hollow tree in the woods in the hope that in the morning she would wake up and be frightened into seeing the error of her ways.
It is reported that Jack Mossop was confined in a Stafford mental hospital, because he had reoccurring dreams of a woman staring out at him from a tree. He died in the hospital before the body in the Wych Elm was found. Because Una Mossop did not report this information to the police until more than ten years after Jack Mossop’s death adds doubt to the possibility of this being the correct conclusion to the case.
A second possible victim was reported to the police in 1944 by a Birmingham prostitute. In the report she stated that another prostitute called Bella, who worked on the Hagley road, had disappeared about three years previously.
The graffiti was last painted onto the side of a 200-year-old obelisk on 18 August 1999, in white paint. The obelisk known as Wychbury Obelisk is on Wychbury Hill, Hagley near Stourbridge.
The case remains unsolved and a complete mystery. As an extra twist both the current location of her skeleton and the autopsy report is unknown and so police are unable to use DNA to help with the case.