Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Who Put Bella In the Wych Elm?

Sir George Lyttleton was born in January 1709, he spent many years and a fortune developing Hagley Hall and the surrounding park side. There are many strange landmarks in the park, The Temple of Theseus--which looks like a Greek Doric temple, and an old hill fort and the Wychbury Obelisk.

The Wychbury Obelisk was built in 1758 and can be seen for miles around. The obelisk is standing, nearly collapsed and badly damaged. The obelisk is famous for not only being a weird tribute to a forgotten person but for also asking the question: "Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?"

On April 14, 1943, four teenage boys from nearby Stourbridge--Robert Hart, Thomas Willetts, Bob Farmer and Fred Payne--were in nearby Hagley Woods poaching. They came upon an old hollow wych-hazel and decided it would be an ideal place to search for birds' nests. Farmer attempted to climb into the tree, but as he glanced down inside the hollow trunk he suddenly saw the empty eye-sockets of a whitened skull, staring up at him from among the twisted branches. Horrified at the discovery and knowing they were in the woods illegally, the boys decided not to tell anyone about it. They put the skull back in the tree and quickly made their way home.

Back at home, Willetts felt uncomfortable about keeping such a secret and decided to tell his father what they'd found. His father then told the Worcestershire County Police Force who went to the site the following morning. Inside and around the old tree they not only found the human skull, but an almost complete skeleton, a crêpe-soled shoe and some fragments of rotted clothing. During a careful search of the surrounding undergrowth, a severed hand from the body was also discovered buried nearby. Professor James Webster was assigned to examine the skeleton and ascertained that the woman was probably about 35 years old, five feet tall, with mousy brown hair and irregular teeth in the lower jaw. She had also given birth at least once. He also estimated that she had been dead for at least 18 months before she was found. That puts the time of death sometime in October 1941.

There were no marks of disease or violence on the body, but her mouth had been stuffed with taffeta. The coroner declared it murder by asphyxiation, and stated that the woman was probably murdered and then pushed into the hole while still warm, as the body would not have fitted into the hollow trunk after rigor mortis had set in. Among the items found with the body were a cheap rolled gold wedding ring, which had been worn for about four years, crepe shoes and various scraps of clothing. With these Professor Webster was able to reconstruct almost exactly what the woman had been wearing at the time of her murder, and it was then possible for the police to issue a description which must have been very close to the actual appearance of the mystery woman.

Surely it would only be a matter of time before the woman was identified but she didn't show up on any missing person register and uncertainies of war caused more women to go missing and frequently change addresses. But the most unusual detail was that despite exhaustive searches through dental records, no trace of the woman was found. Even after a description of the woman and the specific irregularities of her lower jaw were published in dentists' journals, and despite the fact that she'd had a tooth taken out from the right side of her lower jaw within a year of her death, there was no response. The only thing that the police were fairly certain of was that the woman was a stranger to the area, there were no local missing persons whose description matched that of the victim and only one clue came from anyone in vicinity of Hagley.

This clue was in the form of a report from the executive of an industrial company. In July 1941, he had been walking to his lodgings in Hagley Green, when he heard a woman's screams coming from Hagley Wood. A couple of minutes later he met a schoolteacher walking in the opposite direction who had also heard the screams. The men phoned the police who arrived and searched Hagley Wood, but found nothing. This incident was exactly 20 months before the body was discovered, and, considering the pathologist's estimate that the woman had been dead for at least 18 months before she was found, seemed extremely promising. However, as with many clues associated with this case, it was to lead nowhere.

If no real identity was found for the murdered woman then at least a nickname surfaced. Around Christmas 1943, graffiti began to appear on the walls of empty buildings in various parts of the West Midlands area. The first--"Who put Luebella down the wych–elm?"--was followed by many other slight variations, such as 'Hagley Wood Bella' found on a wall in Birmingham. As time passed the messages took on what was to be their settled form for years to come: 'Who put Bella in the wych–elm?'. It was thought that the original messages, carefully written in chalk in three-inch-deep capital letters, were probably written by the same hand, working at night. Though the graffiti seemed to be the work of a hoaxer, there was the slim possibility suggested by the slogans that somebody knew something about the crime. But appeals for the mysterious graffitist to contact the police proved futile, though the messages continued to appear. However, the immediate result at the beginning of 1944 was that the unknown woman was given a nickname that even the police adopted.

There have been many theories put forth on the identity and reason for death of "Bella" including a black magic murder and an animal killing the woman and dragging her into the tree. Another theory was that the woman killed was a go-between for a British officer and a trapeze-artist who would then relay the messages to the Germans. Somehow she had learned too much and was consequently killed by the officer and the trapeze-artist. The letters received mentioned the officer by name but it turned out the officer died in 1942. More down to earth theories include that Bella had gotten pregnant by a GI and was brought to Hagley Woods to be disposed of, that she was a gypsy--although gypsies rarely murder their own kind and her clothing were unlike what gypsies wore, and that she was a prostitute. The police offered a simpler theory that "Bella" had ran from an air raid on Birmingham--as many people did when the Germans bombed--and the murderer was there for the same reason. The killing had been spur of the moment--possibly during an attempted rape.

However, if Bella was a local woman sheltering herself from the blitz, then some clues should have turned up to her identity by now, either from relatives attempting to locate her or from relevant dental records, but nothing has ever been found, and it seems no one knew anything about her. The case is still ongoing...

Got a weird, mysterious or just plain strange story you want to see featured? Let me know and I will attempt to research it.