WHO PUT BELLA IN THE WYCH ELM?
In April 1943 four teenage boys found the skeleton of an unidentified woman hidden in a tree in the West Midlands. As CATHI UNSWORTH explains, this was just the start of a wartime murder mystery involving puzzling graffiti, black magic rituals and Nazi sp
In 1943, four teenage boys found the skeleton of an unknown woman in a tree in the West Midlands. As CATHI UNSWORTH explains, this was just the start of a wartime murder mystery involving puzzling graffiti messages, black magic and Nazi spies.
I t would be difficult to conceive of a more perfect setting for a mystery novel than the Hagley Hall estate. The ancestral home ofViscount Cobham lies on the Worcestershire borders close to Stourbridge, tucked away from the industrial West Midlands by the swells and dips of the Clent Hills and swathes of woodlands, landscaped in the middle of the 18th century by George Lyttleton, 1 who dotted the estate with follies fashioned from the local red sandstone – a Doric temple here, a ruined castle there and, marking the highest point of the land, at the summit of Wychbury Hill, an 84ft (26m) obelisk. On their completion, Hagley Hall’s fashionable picturesque-style grounds were considered the most beautiful in all of England.
But it is not for their æsthetic merit that the grounds have achieved legend. Instead, it is for a deed carried out in the blackout of the Second World War, amid the carnage of the Birmingham Blitz, and only uncovered some 18 months later, when a bunch of schoolboys went out illicitly foraging in Hagley Woods in April 1943. The grim discovery they made and the mysterious sequence of events that that followed on from their find – and continues to this day – have all the hallmarks of a fairytale.
DEEP IN THE WOODS
Teenagers Robert Hart, Thomas Willetts, Bob Farmer and Fred Payne had been playing football on Sunday 18 April 1943, when they decided to take a walk from the village of Woolscote up to Hagley Woods. Contemporaneous press clippings about what happened next paint a conflicting picture, some stating it was early in the morning, others that it was twilight. To add
He saw the empty eye sockets of a skull staring back up at him from the hollow trunk
to the confusion, these reports variously say that there were between two and four boys in the party. Local paranormal researcher Jayne Harris, who has spent the last three years putting together a film about the case (see panel) found a local man, Tom Hart (no relation to Robert), who had joined in the game of football, and placed it in the afternoon. The reason that the four had been bold enough to trespass onto Lord Cobham’s
LEFT: Graffitti on the obelisk on Wychbury Hill in 2016. The obelisk is close to the Iron Age hillfort of Wychbury Ring, which is dotted with hollow elm trees and reputed to be used for witchcraft ceremonies to this day. OPPOSITE: The Wych Elm that accompanied Quaestor’s articles in the Wolverhampton Express and Star in November 1953. Though similar in appearance to the tree in which the body was found, it is not the same one recorded in police crime scene photos. estate was to search for some game for the pot.
It was a warm, sunny day and the bluebells were out in the stretch of woodland they walked into, parallel to and only 630 yards (about a third of a mile) away from the Kidderminster to Birmingham Road. The cry of a fleeing blackbird drew their attention towards a massive witch hazel tree, known locally as the Wych Elm because of its nightmarish appearance: it had been so heavily coppiced that its thick, gnarled bole was surrounded by a crown of whiplash-thin branches that resembled the hair of a hag. As the then 15-year-old Bob Farmer moved towards it, he caught a glint of white amid the dense foliage and thought he had found a bird’s nest. But as he closed in, he saw the empty eye sockets of a skull staring back up at him from the hollow trunk.
At first, he thought it might be an animal’s skull, though logically he knew it was too large to belong to any natural inhabitant of West Midlands woodland. When he lifted it out of its hiding place, 2 he saw there was a small patch of skin from which a few strands of reddish-brown hair protruded. A jawbone with a set of prominent front teeth, the front left incisor crossed over the right, cemented the realisation that what he held in his
hands had once been a human head.
Terrified by what they had discovered – and by the fact that they might be caught by the gamekeeper and punished for trespassing or worse – the lads agreed to put it back where they had found it and tell no one what they’d seen. This resolve lasted only until bedtime for the youngest of their number, 13-year-old Tommy Willetts. Unable to face the terrors of the night, he broke down and confessed to his parents, who in turn alerted the Worcestershire County Police.
At first light the next morning, Superintendent JJ Hollyhead and Detective Inspector T Williams of the Worcestershire police, together with Detective Superintendent F Richardson from the Birmingham force, met at the site described by their witness with Professor James Webster, Head of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology from Birmingham University. 3 Inside the hollow tree, they found the remains of a woman, a crêpe-soled shoe and the decomposed clothing she had been wearing at the time of her death. The skeleton was not entirely complete. A further search of the surrounding woodland uncovered the bones of her right hand buried nearby, as well as the matching shoe to the one in the tree 100 yards away.
A further search uncovered the bones of her right hand buried nearby
Prof Webster took the remains back to his laboratory to compile a forensic report, issued on 23 April 1943. Following the publication of his findings, the Coroner’s Inquest in Stourbridge on 28 April returned a verdict of “Murder by some person or persons unknown”.
DRESSED FOR DEATH
Five days later, at the first regional police conference following the exhumation, Prof Webster elucidated his findings to the assembled Birmingham police. What they had discovered, he said, was the body of a woman about 35 years of age, who was 5ft (1.5m) tall and had a “curious upper molar” and “some definite over-lapping of the incisors and the upper front teeth tended to project more than normal”. He estimated she had been in the tree for between 18 months and three years.
The hollow had an upper aperture of 24in (60cm) and a lower aperture of 17in (43cm), therefore: “I cannot imagine a woman accidentally slipping in there, neither do I think it reasonable for a woman to crawl into that place to commit suicide. It was an excellent place for the concealment of a murder and I think it indicates local knowledge.”
From the position of the bones the woman
was in a semi-reclining position. “She must have been put in before rigor mortis or after it passed off… She would either be killed close to the spot or was murdered in the near vicinity so that it was possible to convey her to the spot before rigor mortis set in.” 4 Prior to this meeting, Police Reports circulated advice to investigating officers that: “The district where the skeleton was found was visited nightly by a large number of people from Birmingham, West Bromwich and Smethwick about 18 months to two years ago, during enemy raids on those districts. The district is also much frequented by pleasure seekers and courting couples.” 5 This, alongside Prof Webster’s conclusion about the manner of death, indicates that the police believed they were investigating a crime of passion. Among the remains of the victim’s clothes, there had been recovered a faceted, rolled gold wedding ring, of an estimated value of 2s 6d. 6
A nationwide search followed, with police first checking 3,000 missing persons’ files from the surrounding 1,000 square miles (2,590km2). Prof Webster drew up a detailed picture of the woman and what she had been wearing at the time of her death. A fawn-coloured, homemade slip, “probably cut from coat lining” or perhaps, a nightie that she had hurriedly thrown her clothes on top of during an air raid – a portion of which was the same material recovered from the woman’s throat and which, the Professor considered, had caused her death by asphyxiation. A wrap-around corsolet (“rather than a corset”) and blue cotton locknit (“a very cheap type of”) knickers but no stockings. A ribbed, striped cardigan in navy and mustard with cloth-covered buttons in a paler shade of blue and a mustard wool skirt. There was no coat; Prof Webster opined that the lightness of her dress indicated that the victim had taken her last walk in the woods in the summer. Her black, size 5½ crêpe-soled shoes had been made by the Waterfoot Company, Lancashire, 7 and the batch to which they belonged was traced by detectives to a market stall in Dudley.
Photographs of her teeth were also widely circulated around dental practices, and published in medical journals. But curiously, despite their distinctive appearance and the fact that she had had a recent extraction from her lower right jaw, these elicited no response.
The only lead these bulletins garnered was the re-examination of a report from July 1941, made by a local businessman who had heard screams coming from Hagley Woods one night as he walked back to his lodgings in Hagley Green. Along the way, he met a schoolteacher coming from the opposite direction who had heard the same noises. But when police were summoned to search the area they found nothing. The report fitted the timescale of the murder, and Prof Webster’s theory that it was likely to have happened in summer, but ultimately led nowhere.
It seemed that nobody knew who the dead woman was… until a message was received in the night, just before the Christmas of 1943.
THE WRITING ON THE WALL
It had been written in chalk, in capital letters three inches deep, on the side of a house in Hayden Hill Road, Old Hill, about a 15-minute walk from Hagley Road. WHO PUT LUBELLA DOWN THE WYCH ELM? it read. A few days later, another graffito in the same hand appeared in Upper Dean Street, Birmingham, asking: WHO PUT BELLA DOWN THE WYCH ELM HAGLEY WOOD? This was followed by two more, high up on the same block of buildings in the fruit market area of the city, stating simply: HAGLEY WOOD BELLA. 8 Picking up on the links to the Hagley Woods skeleton, and noting that the communiqués appeared to have all been penned by the same hand, local press asked in return: Do you know Bella?
No one replied. But the skeleton in the tree now had a name that everyone, including the police, started using. And still the markings refused to go away. Similar words reappeared, scrawled on a five-bar gate at Hawne, Halesowen, and on a wall in Wolverhampton in August 1944. Both read: HAGLEY WOOD LUBELLA WAS OPPOSITE ROSE AND CROWN, HASBURY. Hasbury is a small village in the Halesowen district, close to where the initial message
appeared. This appeared to be the work of the same person. Yet police could find no trace of any woman, missing or otherwise, who went by this name. 9 Neither did the anonymous correspondent come forward. But another voice was about to be added to the deepening mystery, one that would cast the murder in a still darker hue.
THE DEVIL RIDES OUT
Professor Margaret Murray had an academic career few women of her generation could rival. She had assisted the celebrated Egyptologist Flinders Petrie on his historic digs in Abydos as well as conducting her own excavations in Malta, Menorca and Palestine, pioneering archæological work for which she received an honorary doctorate from University College London in 1931. 10
Murray developed a concurrent interest in folklore and feminism just before World War I and published her first paper on a developing theory about an ancient witch cult in Europe in the journal Folklore in 1917. She had the revelation that: “the so-called Devil was simply a disguised man” 11 and “witches” were adherents of an old native religion that had been persecuted by the usurping Christians.
She went on to publish books expounding this theory – The Witch Cult in Western Europe (1921) and The God of Witches (1933) – that served to harm her reputation as a trustworthy researcher even as they attracted enthusiastic support from such occultists as Dion Fortune and Ralph Shirley and authors Aldous Huxley and Robert Graves.
Now Murray weighed into the Bella debate by drawing attention to the corpse’s missing right hand. 12 This detail, overlooked by previous commentators, signified to her that the murder bore the hallmarks of a black magic ritual. A ‘Hand of Glory’ was a totem once obtained by cutting said limb from the corpse of a murderer that had been left to hang on a gibbet. Wrapped in black cloth along with various herbs and then buried close to the body from which it had been taken, it was supposed to stop the evil spirit of the murderer from wandering. 13 Murray said that it was another arcane tradition to imprison the spirit of a dead witch by putting her inside a hollow tree, adding to the potency of the murder’s setting and the area’s links to the ancient world: Wychbury Hill is also the site of Wychbury Ring, an Iron Age hill fort around which a circle of hollow elm trees cluster, although the name is actually unrelated, being derived from the Saxon Mercian sub-kingdom of Hwicce.
This was a theory that seized the public’s imagination and continues to haunt the case to this day. However, it is worth remembering that Prof Webster’s original report attached no importance to the missing hand. He merely stated that: “In such cases you have depredations caused not only by the weather but by vermin”. In other words, it was more likely that an animal had carried it away. Contemporary author and archæologist Brian Haughton raises an eyebrow on his blog:
“…if so, it would have had to have climbed five feet up into the tree and ventured down into the hole, sorting through the various bones until it found the hand, which was under the rest of the skeleton towards the bottom of the hole. Not typical animal behaviour one would think, yet not proof of a black magic murder either.” 14
Yet Professor Murray would have further cause to warn of black magic rites being practised in the Midlands. Two years later, on Valentine’s Day 1945, 74-year-old hedger and ditcher Charles Walton, a widower who lived quietly in the Warwickshire village of Lower Quinton, was found sensationally murdered by the tools of his trade – pinned to the ground with his pitchfork, his trouncing hook embedded in his throat. A large cross was carved into his chest – a sign that indicated to Murray, and those who believed in witchcraft, that he was murdered by someone he had himself placed under a spell. Like Bella, Walton was found on a site loaded with significance: Meon Hill, where the Devil was once supposed to have kicked a boulder at Evesham Abbey and a ghostly hound reputedly still roams. Despite calling on the celebrated skills of Chief Inspector Robert Fabian of the Yard, the Walton case was never solved either. 15 It would again be twinned with the Hagley Woods mystery in Donald McCormick’s sensational 1968 tome Murder by
Witchcraft, a book that continues to throw out red herrings. But if Bella wasn’t part of a coven, could she be linked instead to another, corporeal type of spook?
THE CLAVERLEY CONNECTION
A decade passed without any developments. Then, in November 1953, the Wolverhampton Express and Star columnist Lt Col Wilfred Byford-Jones received an unsolicited letter. Under the name ‘Quaestor’, he had been running a series of atmospheric articles about the unsolved murder, returning to Hagley Woods at night on the 10th anniversary of the crime and mulling over Margaret Murray’s theories, the possible links to the Walton case and the involvement of gypsies, a theory enthusiastically supported by the church warden. 16 “How could anyone but an inhabitant with an intimate knowledge of that forsaken place be able to distinguish in the dark which wych elm was the perfectly hollow one?” Quaestor asked his readers.
In response, he appeared to have drawn a sleeping source out of the shadows.
“Finish your articles re: the wych elm crime by all means,” his correspondent began. “They are interesting to your readers but you will never solve the mystery. The one person who could give you an answer is now beyond the jurisdiction of Earthly courts. The affair is closed and involves no witches, black magic or Moon night rites. Much as I hate having to use a nom-de-plume I think you would appreciate it if you knew me. The only clues I can give you are that the person responsible for the crime died insane in 1942 and the victim was Dutch and arrived illegally in England in 1941. I have not wish to recall any more.”
She signed herself “Anna, Claverley”.
Byford-Jones passed the letter on to Worcestershire CID and met the mysterious Anna on 5 December 1954 at the Monks’ Room at the Dick Whittington Inn, Kinver. She told him a story about a spy ring passing on secrets to the Germans so that armaments factories in Birmingham could be targeted by the Luftwaffe. It involved a Dutchman, a male trapeze artist then appearing at the Birmingham Hippodrome and a former officer of the British armed forces who died insane in an asylum in 1942 after he had confessed to witnessing the killing of the Dutchwoman by the Dutchman in the back of his black Rover car and helping him to hide her body in Hagley Woods.
This all seemed very promising. Could the screams heard by the homecoming businessman in July 1941 have been from this crime being carried out? Anna herself was later revealed to be Una Mossop, whose husband Jack, a former RAF pilot, was working as an engineer at the Standard Aero Works when he told her he had sold information to a ‘Dutchman’ calledVan Ralt 17 who was really a Nazi agent. Quaestor later wrote that MI5 had been brought in to verify these details. 18 But crucially, did they identify the woman in the tree?
Police acting on Mossop’s information sought out a Dutchwoman called Laura Francis RyllisVan-Raalte, who was working as a schoolteacher in Great Malvern, Worcestershire, in 1940, when she was alleged to have been teaching her pupils to sing the German National Anthem. However, this possible Bella was found to be alive and well and living in Nottingham in 1954. 19 The aforementioned
Murder By Witchcraft made various attempts to identify the Dutchman with known Nazi spies that have morphed, via newspaper and Internet articles over the intervening years, into a phantom named Clarabella Dronkers. McCormick says that a woman called Clara was dropped into the Midlands by parachute in 1941. He goes on to link her not only to the actual Dutch spy Johannes Marius Dronkers, who was caught and executed in 1942, but also “a man called Lehrer”, whose true identity has never
been established. That parachute harnesses were recovered from Hagley Woods during the War lends a tenuous credence to this notion. 20
While nothing more concrete ever seems to have ever come from his informant, Quaestor’s comment about MI5 remains interesting; because subsequent to him making it, Bella’s remains, which were never buried, disappeared from Birmingham Medical School. Had she been spirited away by spooks after all?
THE SPY WHO FELL IN FROM THE COLD
Six years ago, a declassified MI5 file was released to the National Archives. It detailed the interrogation of a German agent named Josef Jakobs, arrested after breaking his ankle as he was parachuted into the snowy depths of the Huntingdonshire fens at Ramsay, near Peterborough, in January 1941. Jakobs had been supplied with fake identification papers, a longwave radio concealed inside an attaché case, a map with two nearby RAF stations ringed on it, and over £400 in cash. In the lining of his suit was a photograph of a glamorous woman, with a love message written on the back, in English, and signed: Your Clara.
She was, Jakobs told his interrogators, his lover – an actress and singer called Clara Bauerle, whom he had first met in Hamburg when she was singing with the Bernhard Ette Orchestra in the Café Dreyer. Clara was an influential woman, connected to senior Nazis, who worked as a secret agent. She had spent two years in the music halls of the West Midlands before the War and spoke English with a Birmingham accent, so had easily been able to establish an undercover identity for herself within this world. Clara had recruited Jakobs, a World War I veteran originally from Luxemburg, who had spent time in jail for forgery, to join her in a life of espionage. He told his interrogators that his brief had been to make radio contact with her as soon as he landed. Instead, he had been surrounded by farmers and captured.
Jakobs, who was in fragile physical and mental health during his interrogation, was not considered to be of any potential use to British Intelligence and so became the last man ever to be executed at the Tower of London. He was convicted under the Treachery Act of 1940 at a court-martial held in camera at the Duke of York’s HQ, Chelsea, on 4-5 August 1941, and dispatched by firing squad at 7.12am on 15 August at a miniature rifle range within the Tower. Because of his frail condition, Jakobs was placed in a chair with a target pinned to his chest before members of the Scots Guards performed their duty. 21
Reporting this story on 27 March 2013, AllisonVale in The Independent joined some dots between Clara Baurele, McCormick’s Nazi spy and occultist Clarabella 22 and the show business connections of Quaestor’s Anna and her trapeze artist. Reproducing the picture Jakobs had worn so close to his heart, the piece ran under the headline Is this Bella
in the wych elm? Concluding that all traces of Clara Bauerle’s existence appeared to have vanished after spring 1941, it was the most dramatic twist in the Bella tale yet.
And yet… Prof Webster’s autopsy clearly states that the woman in the tree was 5ft tall, while Clara Bauerele was reputedly almost
6ft. Though her trail of recordings and film appearances does indeed dry up around 1941, Jakobs’s granddaughter Giselle was able to furnish Jayne Harris with more compelling evidence: a death certificate stating that the actress Hedwig Klara Bauerle died on 16 December 1942 at the Konigin-Elisabeth Hospital in Berlin. 23
SHE WALKS THESE HILLS…
Still, none of this has effectively laid Bella to rest. Though a report in the Birmingham
Gazette from 28 November 1953 quotes Detective Superintendent Tom Williams as stating that he had tracked down and questioned the author of the original Bella graffiti and dismissed him as “a crank who had nothing to do with the case,” the writing keeps reappearing.
Forty years after the first batch, the question WHO PUT BELLA IN THE WYCH ELM? was posed again on a car park wall in Hagley in August 1984, and dismissed by West Mercia police as a teenage prank. On the morning of 18 August 1999, the sun rose over Wychbury Hill to reveal the same message written across the obelisk in tall white letters. When this writer visited the site on 1 October 2016 it remained – and various cardboard signs begging for the same information had been hung about Hagley Woods, close to where the original Wych Elm – the exact location of which has now also vanished into the ether, along with its grisly contents – was said to have been.
That is not to mention the inspiration Bella’s story has given to musicians, artists, filmmakers and writers down the years since the Wych Elm gave up one secret only to spawn a legion more. Perhaps the only conclusion that can be drawn from the entire mystery is that it is one destined never to be solved.
CATHI UNSWORTH is the author of six pop-cultural crime novels inspired by truelife forgotten histories and unexplained mysteries. Her latest, That Old Black Magic, based on the Hagley Woods mystery and the trial of medium Helen Duncan, the last woman to be prosecuted for witchcraft in Britain in 1944, is published by Serpent’s Tail on 8 March. For more, visit www.cathiunsworth.