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

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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.


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”.


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.


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.


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?


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?


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


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.

Crime scene pho­to­graphs of the skull, with hair still at­tached, as it was taken out of the tree. Prof Web­ster’s re­con­struc­tion of the skelThe vic­tim’s shoes, one of which was in the tree and one in wood­land 100 yards away, were traced by po­lice to a batch sold at Dud­ley mar­ket.

TOP LEFT: Prof Web­ster’s re­con­struc­tion of what the mur­dered woman was wear­ing at the time of her death, along with a pho­to­graph of her teeth that was widely dis­trib­uted but to no avail. ABOVE: The graf­fiti that ap­peared in Up­per Dean Street, Birm­ing­ham, just be­fore Christ­mas 1943.

LEFT: Mar­garet Mur­ray, who of­fered up the the­ory that Bella had been killed in a Black Magic rit­ual. BE­LOW: Mur­ray sug­gested that Bella’s hand had been sev­ered in or­der to make a Hand of Glory, like the one on dis­play in Whitby Mu­seum. BOT­TOM: Don­ald McCormick’s in­fa­mous Mur­der By Witch­craft linked the Ha­gley Woods mur­der to the mur­der of Charles Wal­ton on Meon Hill, War­wick­shire, in 1945, which also ap­peared to be witch­craft-re­lated, and of­fered the the­ory that Bella was a Nazi spy and oc­cultist.

LEFT: The signed pho­to­graph of ac­tress and singer Clara Bauerle found in the lin­ing of Josef Jakobs’s suit. BE­LOW: Jakobs was cap­tured in the Hunt­ing­don­shire fens in Jan­uary 1941 and told MI5 that Bauerle was an ac­tive agent work­ing in the Mid­lands. FAC­ING PAGE: Ha­gley Woods in Septem­ber 2016. Lo­cal res­i­dents told the au­thor that these fresh signs had gone up in the pre­vi­ous two weeks.

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