Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?

Hey all let’s finish off the Hollywood Trilogy next week. For this week I was planning something more in keeping with Halloween. 

When I try to imagine the lives of Robert Hart, Thomas Willets, Bob Farmer and Fred Payne on, or around April 18th 1943, I get a picture in my mind’s eye of a particular type of literature. Four teenaged schoolboys from Stourbridge in the British Midlands, heading off on a boy’s own adventure into the woods. Rightly or wrongly, I want to imagine a scene out of Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me, or at a push, Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills – just a group of kids just being kids. Far too preoccupied with childhood politics, games and urban legend to think much on the backdrop of a world war. 

That weekend the Luftwaffe would, notably, bomb a church in Algiers – killing a group of nuns. Hitler would run into opposition from one of his own allies, Hungary’s Miklos Horthy, who refused to send 800,000 Hungarian Jews off to be killed in concentration camps. The Americans, acting on cracked Japanese codes, got wind of a plane carrying Japan’s Admiral Isoroka Yamamoto, flying over Bougainville Island, Papua New Guinea. Unsurprisingly, they took their revenge for Pearl Harbour on the Admiral – and shot him from the sky. 

Truthfully I don’t know what these kids were thinking on April 18th 1943. If they sang ‘Kiss Me Goodnight Sergeant Major’ or ‘Bless Em All’ as they rode into the woods. For that matter, If they were chased by an angry junkyard dog like Stephen King’s motley crew.  

I can tell you the four young lads were on a covert mission – to sneak into old Viscount Cobham’s land, Hagley woods – and steal themselves some birds eggs. 

The so- called Witch Elm

As they searched high and low for bird’s nests, the four boys came across the skeletal remains of an old Elm tree. Thinking a hollowed out tree just the place to find eggs, Bob Farmer clambered up, and peered over the edge. He found an old animal skull staring back up at him. Boys being boys, Farmer picked it up, to show the skull off to his friends. It was then that he noticed tufts of hair, a human mandible and the tiniest amount of human flesh still attached to the former noggin. In a mad panic, the boys took off for home. The gravity of their find dawned on them, but on the frantic trip home it also dawned on them they found the skull because they were illegally poaching on the lord of the manor’s land. A sound thrashing from angry parents is one thing, but a criminal record? The boys made a pact to keep their grisly find to themselves.  

But, as Shakespeare once wrote “Murder cannot be hid long… at length the truth will out”.  Tom Willets, the youngest of the boys, conscience got the better of him. He told his father of the skull. They went to the Worcestershire police, who entered Hagley woods the next day. Officers reached into the tree, and found more than just a skull. A near complete skeleton was stashed away in what would later become known as ‘The Witch Elm’. Her right hand was missing, but the bones would be found 13 paces away. A taffeta cloth had been shoved far down her throat. A cheap rolled gold wedding ring (where a thin strip of gold is bonded or fused to both sides of a base metal, usually brass or copper, to make inexpensive jewellery), some scraps of clothing, and a shoe. The victim’s remains were taken to Professor James Webster, a local pathologist of note. He noted our victim was a woman of between 35 and 40 years of age. She stood around five feet tall, had distinctively irregular lower teeth (also having had a tooth removed a year before her death) and had given birth at least once. She was placed in ‘the witch elm’ “While still warm”, was presumed to have died of asphyxiation – and had been in the tree since October 1941 or thereabouts. 

The police worked exhaustively to identify her. They tracked down the shoemakers in Northampton, and actually managed to track down all but six owners of that model of shoe. Six pairs sold at a market stall in Dudley, in the West Midlands, and the stall holders kept no records. They went through lists of missing persons but could not make a match. Her teeth were checked against dental records throughout the United Kingdom. All to no avail. They had a single record in the vicinity of Hagley wood 20 months before she was found, of a businessman and a school teacher calling in to report a woman screaming in the woods. Police were sent out at the time, but found nothing. That lead also led nowhere. 

Then, around Christmas 1943, several taunting notes appeared in the form of graffiti. First, ‘who put Luebella down the Wych- elm?’, then ‘Hagley wood Bella’ appeared on another wall, then the phrase ‘Who put Bella in the Wych-Elm?’ The graffiti was always done in chalk. Always in a similar hand, in letters around 3 inches high. The police presumed always at night, when there were no witnesses. Besides giving them a name to work with, it also shared more than had been released to the public about the murder. They re-ran their investigations looking for a Luebella, or Bella. They also looked into the graffiti, but – in an age without video surveillance – and when enforced blackouts until April 1945 gave the artist an inky blackness to work amongst – it shouldn’t be surprising they had no luck with either lead.

So who was Bella in the Wych Elm? We don’t know, and given her remains were lost, may never find out. Some fascinating theories have arisen over the years however. 


Margaret Murray was an Egyptologist and archeologist who taught at University College, London from 1894 till 1935. Because sexism saw more field work go to male counterparts, and then because the First World War broke out in 1914 – stopping field work altogether, Murray diversified – becoming an expert anthropologist and folklorist. Of note, she wrote a series of books on witchcraft, in the 1920s and 30s which later became codified into the modern Wicca movement. In 1945, she offered a possible explanation to the mystery. Was Bella murdered either by occultists, and/or was she a witch herself?

At risk of more digressions than plot here, the practice of cutting off a felon’s right hand goes back to ancient Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and Hammurabi’s Code. In what we’d recognise as a Talionic principle now (an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth – the punishment should somehow reflect the crime) taking away the hand used to rob someone seemed poetic the lawmaker. Throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, this practice grew into something far more macabre. If you were to cut the right hand from a criminal as they twisted on the gallows, you now had a ‘hand of glory’ in your possession. The hand of glory, once pickled to preserve it, was thought by some to have magical powers. If you were a thief yourself, you could use the hand to put sleeping occupants of a house into a deep sleep, while you rifled through their possessions. A hand of glory was also supposed to protect the possessor from evil spirits, and could even lead treasure hunters to long forgotten troves. That the hand was eventually discarded 13 paces from the body suggested an occult link to Murray – as did disposing of the body inside a tree. 

Some pre- Christian societies believed burying dead criminals inside trees trapped their spirits inside the tree – thus preventing their ghosts from seeking revenge. 

Her assertion was lent some weight in following years, by a murder 70 kilometres to the South East in Lower Quinton, on Valentines Day 1945. Charles Walton, a 74 year old local was murdered while out doing a day’s agricultural work. He was slashed and stabbed with his own scythe and pitch fork – the latter of which was used to pin him to the ground through his own cut throat. A lot of circumstantial evidence pointed towards his employer, Alfred Potter, being the killer – some suggesting Walton had loaned his boss money he couldn’t repay, as a motive. Others blamed Italian prisoners of war, kept in a facility of so minimum security, they were at ease to freely wander the town. 

In 1954, local papers reported on a killing in the town of Long Compton, 25 kilometres from Lower Quinton. This murder happened in 1875. The victim, an octogenarian woman named Ann Tennant. The papers reported she was suspected of witchcraft, and was similarly, ritualistically killed by being pinned to the ground by a pitchfork. 

Ann’s killer was a man named James Heywood, who is variously described as ‘simple-minded’ and a ‘village idiot’. Heywood spent the rest of his life in an asylum; a lone wolf who claimed he was intending to kill more witches if they ever let him out. This was overlooked by many in 1954, who branded both victims witches, and wondered aloud what kind of cabal of witch-hunters, Satanists or fellow witches were responsible for two executions, seven decades apart?

All this fed into the rumours of witchcraft, and occult rites surrounding Bella. Turbulent and uncertain times give birth to crazy beliefs, as people seek to find or invent a monster to hang their insecurity on – and this was no exception. On the witchcraft theory itself? Truthfully, while there is nothing to falsify this theory, there is absolutely no evidence for it either – and that which can be stated without evidence should be dismissed just as easily. 

Another possibility centres around a young man named Jack Mossop, and his enigmatic friend ‘Van Raalt’. 

Jack Mossop worked as a fitter, making plane parts – but had been a trainee RAF pilot, until a crash left him with serious head injuries. A troubled heavy drinker, who suffered debilitating headaches and regular nightmares, he’d grown distant from his wife Una. At 1am one morning, either in March or April 1941, Jack returned home in a terrible state. He was accompanied by drinking buddy, a Dutchman Una knew only as Van Raalt. Una had suspicions Van Raalt was a spy, as he never worked, but was always well off. Others stated he sold black market goods. 

On the night in question, both men were terribly shaken by something I suspect Una only ever hinted at to the police. 

They were drinking at the Lyttelton Arms, not far from Hagley wood with a woman only referred to as that ‘Dutch piece’. At some point in the night, Van Raalt and the Dutch piece got into an altercation, and the three left the pub – one presumes under duress from the publican. 

Jack allegedly told Una the three piled into Van Raalt’s rover. Van Raalt and Dutch piece in the back, Jack behind the wheel. The Dutch piece was out cold. Some way down the road Van Raalt told Jack to drive towards the woods. The two men then got out and carried Dutch piece to a hollowed out oak tree – placing her sleeping body inside the tree. 

At least this was the story she gave the police in 1953. 

She was long separated from Jack at this point. Furthermore, Jack was deceased. He became an even heavier drinker after after that night. His headaches and nightmares increased. He went to work less – but somehow seemed to have more money than ever in his pocket. Una was convinced he too must’ve been a spy. Emotionally distant, violent and moody – Jack increasingly turned to other women for comfort. Una left him in December 1941. 

After this, Jack Mossop’s behaviour became increasingly erratic – and in June 1942 he was committed to a mental health facility, where he died in August 1942, aged 29. His coroner’s report suggests he was suffering from something like the chronic traumatic encephalopathy punch drunk boxers and American football players often suffer from. 

A version of this Tale was leaked to the newspapers by a whistleblower in 1958. 

In this story however, the leaker – known in the papers as Quaestor – named Una ‘Anna’. Anna, allegedly spoke of a spy ring who were out to infiltrate the munitions factories dotted across the midlands. Bella was a Nazi spy and occultist named Clarabella. She’d parachuted in earlier in the year under the direction of Nazi intelligence, the Abwehr. Abwehr records released after the war suggest they did send a woman, code named ‘Clara’ into the West Midlands – but she failed to make contact and was presumed killed in action. 

If this were the case, ‘Clara’ would be far from the only Nazi spy to parachute into the United Kingdom in the war. Seventeen spies were caught entering the UK in 1941 alone. One worth brief consideration is Josef Jakobs. 

Josef Jakobs

Josef Jakobs was 43 years old at the time of his capture. Born in Luxembourg, he fought alongside the Germans in the First World War. When World War Two broke out, he was called up to fight, and served as an officer until it was discovered he’d spent four years in jail in Switzerland for selling fake gold. After this he was taken in by the Abwehr. 

On 31st January, Jakobs jumped from a German plane flying over Ramsey, Huntingdonshire – in the East of England. He broke his ankle when he landed, and was arrested the following day – hobbling along in his flying suit. Carrying £500, counterfeit ID, a radio transmitter and a German sausage. He’d brought attention to himself by firing his pistol in the air, as the pain of his ankle was too much for him to bear. The home guard arrested him, then handed him in to MI5.

Jakobs gave a voluntary statement to MI5, including an explanation of a photograph of a woman he had on him – a woman who was not his wife. The woman in the picture was his lover, a German cabaret singer and actress called Clara Bauerle. Bauerle was also a spy, and, according to Jakobs, was due to be dropped somewhere over the West Midlands, as she had worked there as a cabaret singer in the 1930s. Jakobs was court martialled as an enemy combatant, and executed by firing squad. He was the last man to be executed at the Tower of London. 

So that was it? Bella was a German cabaret singer and actress with occult leanings, sent in to help a German spy ring in an area heavy with munitions plants? For some as yet unexplained reason she had a falling out with her compatriots and was killed? For decades this was considered likely – but subsequently has come into disrepute. First, Clara was six feet tall. Second, her death certificate was unearthed in Germany in 2015. Clara died 16th December 1942, in a Berlin hospital from barbiturate poisoning.   

So where does this leave us? Currently with one lead. Although Bella’s skull has been lost over time, photos of it still exist. In 2018 Caroline Richardson, an artist who made a facial reconstruction of King Richard III took on Bella, creating an artist’s impression of her. There is always a possibility someone, at some time will be sorting through shoe boxes of old photos and put two and two together. Will the truth finally come out? Only time will tell. 

Quick sidebar for the New Zealanders: This Viscount Cobham, family name Lyttelton, had a son who became New Zealand’s 9th Governor General. As a member of the English cricket team he toured New Zealand in 1935. Charles Lyttelton served as Governor General from 1957 to 1962. His great grandfather George Lyttelton was head of the ‘Canterbury Association’ who planned the European settlement of Christchurch. There is a reason their name may ring a bell. Lyttelton Harbour and Hagley Park were both named in honour of Lord Cobham. 

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