The mystery of the skeleton found inside a tree trunk deep in a West Midlands wood...
He was only a child. He couldn’t live with a secret like that. And so little Tommy Willetts told his dad.
It was Sunday 18 April 1943. That afternoon, Tommy and a gang of his mates had been out in nearby Hagley Woods nesting. They’d climb trees and pinch birds’ eggs to sell.
But it was while climbing a large, gnarled old Wych Elm deep in Hagley Woods that the boys had made a gruesome discovery – a human skull, smiling out from the Wych Elm’s twisted branches.
The boys had run home. And because nesting was illegal and they were scared of getting into trouble, they’d promised to keep their discovery a secret. But it had upset Tommy. He’d told his dad.
And the next morning, Tommy’s dad had told Warwickshire County Police.
Inside the hollowed-out trunk of the old tree, officers found the human skull along with an almost complete skeleton and the rotten remains of a shoe and clothing.
But there was a hand missing from the skeleton. That they found soon afterwards, severed and buried in the undergrowth nearby.
Tests revealed the skeleton to be that of a woman about 35-40 years old, with brown hair and a wedding ring on her finger. She’d had a malformed lower jaw, and she’d had a tooth taken out from the right side of her mouth no more than a year before she was killed.
The woman had been dead no more than 18 months.
Synthetic silk material had been stuffed down her throat until she’d chocked to death.
Chillingly, forensic tests showed the body had been shoved into the Wych Elm tree while it was still warm.
But who was she? Investigators could find no trace. There was nothing, no lead to go on. No one had gone missing in the area that matched her description.
And the police couldn’t find the dentist who’d removed the woman’s tooth, either.
The only thing the police felt certain of was the woman, whoever she was, couldn’t have been local. Over the next months, the police hit nothing but brick walls.
And then the messages started to appear. Large capital letters scrawled in chalk across the front of empty, derelict buildings near the woods…
WHO PUT BELLA IN THE WYCH ELM?
The mysterious graffiti messages continued to appear. Always in white chalk, always asking the same question.
After that, the body became known as Bella.
The messages struck terror into the local community. Some believed the wych-elm murder was a ritual killing, part of some dark, Satanic ceremony.
Bella’s missing hand was evidence of witchcraft, suggesting a Black Magic execution or sacrifice.
It was a practice that dated right back to before Christianity. The severed hand of a murder victim was said to possess powerful magic and would protect the keeper of the hand from evil spirits.
Another ancient tradition says that if the body of a dead witch was imprisoned in the hollow trunk of a tree, her spirit would be trapped inside the tree forever. Unable to walk the earth, unable to haunt those who’d killed her…
And now, with the murder unsolved, were members of the coven taunting police with the white graffiti on abandoned buildings?
Or, as this was a wartime death, could Bella have been a spy? Nobody knew.
Ten years after the body was discovered, a letter arrived at the offices of a Wolverhampton newspaper. It had been signed by someone named Anna.
No one knew who Anna was. And she’d not included any information about herself in the letter.
She claimed she knew who Bella was. She said Bella had been a Nazi spy who’d been parachuted into the area during the Second World War in 1941. There were many munitions factories around Stourbridge at that time.
She said the name of the spy was Clara Bauerle, which might have been confused by an English person as Clarabella, and so shortened to Bella.
Anna explained that Bella had been murdered by a ring involving a British officer, a Dutchman and a music hall artist.
She said they’d killed her and hidden her body in the tree.
Much about her letter made sense. The name, the timing – and it explained why the body could never be identified.
But if Bella had been killed in this way, why had her hand been cut off and hidden, buried separately from the rest of her body? Who was Anna? And who was writing the graffiti?
Seventy years have passed since Bella was discovered. The mystery is no closer to being solved. Was she a witch? Was she a spy?
The graffiti was last sprayed onto the side of a 200-year-old obelisk on 18 August 1999. So the question still remains – who put Bella in the Wych Elm?
Wych Elms, and other elm trees, have long been associated with death and dissolution. The wood from the elm tree is the wood traditionally used to make coffins. And in the West Midlands, not far from Hagley Woods, elm twigs and branches are traditionally paraded around churches on Ascension Day, the day Jesus’s body entered Heaven…