Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

"Who Put Bella In the Wych Elm?" is a question that's haunted Worcestershire for nearly 80 years

Ominous graffiti turned an unsolved murder into a legend

A wych elm, the species of tree in which the remains of an unidentified woman were discovered in the English village of Hagley in 1943
A wych elm, the species of tree in which the remains of an unidentified woman were discovered in the English village of Hagley in 1943
Photo: DEA/C.SAPPA/De Agostini via Getty Images

We explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 6,315,292-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

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This week’s entry: Who Put Bella In the Wych Elm?

What it’s about: An unsolved crime from the 1940s, in which the remains of an unidentified woman were found within a wych elm in Hagley, Worcestershire, England. The possible only clue to her identity was graffiti that appeared in nearby Birmingham a year later, asking “Who put Bella down the Wych Elm–Hagley Wood”

Biggest controversy: To this day, no one knows who put Bella in the wych elm, or whether or not her name was Bella. The message could have been left by the the killer, taunting the community and giving the name of their victim—or it could have been left by someone else, not wanting the murder to be forgotten, and assigning the name Bella to the victim arbitrarily. The large gaps in time between the murder (believed to have taken place in October of 1941 or earlier), the discovery of the body (April 1943) and the appearance of the graffiti (some time in 1944), makes it hard to connect any dots.

Strangest fact: The body might have remained undiscovered if not for some meddling kids. On April 18, 1943, Robert Hart, Thomas Willetts, Bob Farmer, and Fred Payne entered Hagley Wood. In the hopes of finding a bird’s nest, Farmer climbed an elm on the property. Instead, he found a skull. Since Farmer and his friends were trespassing, he returned the skull to its resting place and resolved not to tell anyone. But the youngest of the four boys, Willetts, had second thoughts and told his parents. They called the police, who found a full skeleton, as well as remains of a woman’s clothing and a gold wedding ring.

Thing we were happiest to learn: Forensic examination was surprisingly advanced in 1943. Nearly 60 years before CSI, medical examiner Professor James Webster was able to deduce that the woman had been dead for at least 18 months, believing she ha died of suffocation (there was a piece of taffeta in her mouth), and was placed in the tree soon after the time of death (the killer wouldn’t have been able to fit her in the trunk once rigor mortis had set in).

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: None of the conflicting theories are very helpful. Shortly after the graffiti appeared, a Birmingham sex worker said she had a former colleague named Bella, who had disappeared three years earlier. Nine years later, a woman named Una Mossop came forward and claimed her ex-husband Jack had confessed that he and a Dutch man named van Ralt had gone out for drinks with a young woman, and when she passed out from too much drink, they left her in a hollow tree, hoping—or so he claimed—she would be, “frightened into seeing the error of her ways.” Jack Mossop, who had recurring dreams about a woman in a tree, had been confined to a mental hospital, and died there before the body was found in Hagley Wood—that Una Mossop waited until 1953 to contact authorities has since called her story into question.

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Another theory surfaced in 1953, also involving the Dutch. Someone claimed the victim was a Dutch woman named Clarabella Dronkers, and she had been killed by a German spy ring—consisting of a British officer, a Dutchman, and a music hall artist—for “knowing too much.” Wikipedia tactfully asserts that, “available records and evidence were unable to support the story.”

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: That wasn’t the only theory involving German spies. Years after the murder, MI5 declassified their file on Josef Jakobs, the last man to be executed in the Tower of London. (Despite its reputation for brutality, only seven people were executed in the Tower between its construction in 1100 and the First World War, although over 100 executions were carried out on nearby Tower Hill.) Jakobs was a disgraced former officer of the Wehrmacht who had been recruited by the Abwehr, Nazi Germany’s army intelligence division. He parachuted into Britain, where he was meant to be joined by Clara Bauerle, a German singer and actress who had lived in England before the war and could speak with a flawless Birmingham accent. Instead, Jakobs broke his ankle during his parachute landing, was discovered by two farmers, and quickly turned over to the Home Guard. He was tried under the Treachery Act and executed by firing squad. It was theorized that Bauerle might’ve parachuted into England after Jakobs—and, if so, that she could’ve been the woman in the wych elm. It was decades later when it was discovered she had died in Berlin in 1942.

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Further Down the Wormhole: We’re afraid this particular wormhole has reached the end of the line. After eight years, we’re wrapping up Wiki Wormhole next week, only a few entries shy of our original 6,315,292-week goal. Thanks to The A.V Club for letting me keep this not-terribly-pop-culture-related feature going for so long, and thanks to all of you for reading and commenting all these years. There’ll be more time for good-byes on Wiki Wormhole’s series finale next week.