By M.P. Pellicer | Stranger Than Fiction Stories
It was April 1943, and World War II raged throughout Europe when four English teenagers were hunting for birds' nests in a private estate near Birmingham named Hagley Wood.
Bob Farmer climbed up an old Wych-elm tree, looked down the stunted top and made a gruesome discovery inside the hollowed out bole that has mystified police ever since. It was not a bird that stared back at him, but a human skull.
Bob brought the skull down, and the other boys, Fred Payne, Tommy Willetts and Robert Hart passed it among themselves. Flesh still clung to the forehead along with a few strands of hair. Crooked teeth poked through the front opening of the mouth.
It was a lonely place about 35 yards from a lane which was accessible to motor traffic and was used as a lovers' lane. Two or three years before it had been used as a gypsy camp.
Perhaps it was a mixture of fear of the implications of what this discovery might lead to, and the fact they were trespassing on the grounds of the Hagley Hall estate, which belonged to Lord Cobham that made them agree not speak of their discovery.
Perhaps if their secret would have been less disturbing they could have kept their word, but it was inevitable that one of them told a parent. Police were called, and taken to the tree where the skull had been found.
They retrieved the skull along with her skeleton, except it was missing a hand. Taffeta was inside the mouth and what was left of her clothing, which was of poor quality had the labels cut out. Inside the tree they found scuffed shoes size 5.5, and a gold-rolled ring. Next to the tree were the bones of her severed hand.
James Webster, the pathologist determined the woman had been in the tree for about a year and half, and she was in her 30s. She was a short woman measuring about 5-ft. tall, had brown hair and probably had given birth in the past.
There were no injuries to indicate what caused her death, and it was theorized the cloth stuffed into her throat suffocated her. Considering the space was so narrow inside the tree, he suspected she had been placed there shortly after dying, because if rigor mortis had set in she would not have fitted into the tight space. The aperture came down from 24 inches to 17 inches.
The estimated date of her death was October, 1941, and it was inevitable to conclude she was murdered. Professor Webster said, "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.”
He was right, a remote private property would seem an ideal place to stash a corpse.
The police reviewed over 3,000 reports of missing persons, using the pathologist's description, and none matched. The woman had dental work done within a year of her death, but she could not be traced to any dentist's office in the entire country. Her shoes were traced to the Waterfoot Company, and that particular pair was sold from a market stall in Dudley about 11 miles from Birmingham. Except for six pairs, the police were able to trace the owners of the shoes.
It did not help that due to the war, the population had shifted and strangers had come to the area, and others had left.
One of the few leads came from an executive of an industrial company. It was July, 1941 when he was walking through Hagley Green when he heard a woman screaming. A few minutes later he met with a schoolteacher walking in the opposite direction, who also heard the cries coming from the woods. Police responded to their call, and searched the area but found nothing. This coincided with the timeline the pathologist provided for her death. This lead unfortunately went nowhere.
The story soon faded from the headlines as the country was enduring the hardships of World War II. The people and the press might have forgotten about the murdered woman, but someone hadn't.
The year was ending when the graffiti started. The first read: "Who put Lubella down the wych-elm?" It was followed by "Hagley Wood Bella", but the one that stuck was "Who put Bella in the wych-elm?"
The artist was busy as the graffiti appeared throughout the West Midlands by what appeared to be the same hand. Was this someone who knew who she was, or what happened to her? Whether it was her name in life or not, Bella became her name in death. Her identity, and that of the person who asked that obvious question, remains unknown until this day.
Margaret Murray, an expert in folklore and witch cults suggested Bella may have been killed in an occult ceremony; the removal of the hand typical of a black magic execution. Leaving the body in the hollow of a tree was believed by occultist would prevent the spirit from causing harm, especially to the person who put them there.
She was quoted as saying, "The very act of placing a body in the hollow of a tree is associated with witchcraft. The cult of tree-worship is an ancient one and it is linked with sacrifice."
If this was true, then there was a coven of witches practicing black magic in Hagley Wood, however with no other information to steer the police towards a suspect, the case went cold.
Wilfred Byford-Jones wrote a news story about the case in 1953, stirring up interest in the cold case. Ten years had gone by since the discovery of Bella's bones, and the police received a letter signed by "Anna of Claverly", who wrote that Bella had fallen victim to a Nazi spy ring.
More people were willing to believe a spy ring put Bella in the wych-elm instead of witches, since hundreds of German spies were operating in England during the war.
Anna's note to Byford-Jones read:
Finish your articles re the Wych Elm crime by all means. They are interesting to your readers, but you will never solve the mystery. The one person who could give the answer is now beyond the jurisdiction of the earthly courts. The affair is closed and involves no witch, black magic or moonlight rites... "
The journalist continued to correspond with Anna, who seemed to have knowledge of who Bella was and what happened to her.
Eventually she gave her name as Una Mossop (Hainsworth). Jack, her husband, worked at a local munitions factory. He met a Dutchman named Van Ralt, and soon after he came into some money. He admitted to his wife the mysterious Dutchman was a Nazi, and he had been passing information to him about local industrial sites. A cabaret performer from a local theater, who was in reality another agent received the information from him.
The Luftwaffe had bombed the Midlands during the war, and this information would have aided Germany in their raids, by being able to target factories.
Jack's involvement with the spy ring was not a one time thing, and one day he met the Dutchman at the Lyttleton Arms close to Hagley Wood. His contact started to argue with a Dutchwoman. He told Jack to drive them to Clent Hills. In the interim, the argument turned violent, and he strangled the woman. Jack understood that as a witness to murder, he had no choice but to help the Dutchman carry the body into the nearby woods, and bury it in the hollow of an old elm tree.
Whether it was guilt or fear, Una's husband suffered a nervous breakdown, haunted by the knowledge of the murdered woman left in the tree. He was institutionalized in 1941, and died the following year at St. George’s Hospital in Stafford. This time table fitted with the date estimated by the pathologist of when Bella was killed.
Whereas an unfortunate woman killed in wartime did not garner much attention, a possible spy surely did. Enough of Una's story was verified by police and MI5, but none of the perpetrators were identified. Whether that was actually the truth is not certain, since this was only 8 years after the end of the war, and the information might have still been classified.
However the suspicion of a coverup gained credence when Bella's bones went missing, and no further forensic examination could be conducted on them.
Whether by design or accident the story once again faded into obscurity. The graffiti would appear occasionally, and no one else came forward with new information.
Fifteen years later, Donald McCormick a historian wrote Murder by Witchcraft (1968) which despite its title handled the mystery from the spy ring angle. He said he had obtained the Abwehr file, which were the records of German Military Intelligence.
... a man named Lehrer who had been one of the most active recruiters of persons for infiltrating Britain. That Lehrer himself was intended to do some infiltration is clearly shown in the Abwehr diaries: ‘an attempt is to be made to set down the agent Lehrer with a wireless operator on the coast of South Wales in order to establish better communications.’ (p. 111-112)
MI5 files that were once classified have been released in recent years, and some of the information relates to the spy ring story.
Authorities interrogated Josef Jakobs, a Czech-born Gestapo agent. In 1941, he was captured when he parachuted into Cambridgeshire and broke his ankle. He carried a photograph of a cabaret singer with the Bernhard Ette Orchestra and German movie star named Clara Bauerle. Jakobs said she worked as an agent for the Gestapo. Much of what he said checked out and the timing was also correct. Jakobs would be the last man executed at the Tower of London by firing squad.
However Clara could not be Bella. She died four months before the discovery in the Wych-elm on December 16, 1942, due to a lung infection brought on by Veronal poisoning. Veronal was a strong barbiturate, used as a sleeping aid that did not require a doctor's prescription. It could have been an accidental overdose, or suicide as well. The 37-year-old died at Berlin's Konigin Elisabeth Hospital.
Besides the conflict of dates, Clara Bauerle was known to be a tall woman, and Bella according to the pathologist was quite short.
However if Bella was a spy the reason for killing her would be numerous. It could have been due to what was perceived as a betrayal, or just simply knowing too much about the spy ring operating in the area.
Other theories about the identity of Bella are:
Supposedly in 1944, a prostitute came to the Birmingham police to report on the disappearance of another prostitute named Luebella. She had vanished in 1941. It was believed she had been lured and killed in Hagley Wood.
Locals of Hagley Wood said that gypsies camped in the woods during 1941. Bella might have been a gypsy herself, and was done away with by her own people.
Another possibility for the identity of Bella is that she fled into Hagey Wood during a bombing, and was attacked by criminals. She might have been killed accidently, or purposely so she could not accuse her attacker(s). The reason she was never identified is that she was probably not even British.
There were rumors that "Bella" was a barmaid who disappeared from a local pub in the early 1940s. The Gypsy's Tent Inn and Pub (now the Badgers Sett) near Wychbury Hill, opposite Hagley Wood have complained for decades of paranormal events. They have nicknamed the ghost "Bella".
THE HAND OF GLORY
Police theorized that Bella's hand was removed by animals, but according to Margaret Murray it was a recreation of a Hand of Glory.
Some believe the manner of death had the hallmarks of a Satanic ceremony.
The creation of a Hand of Glory was timed to occur on a lunar eclipse. The purpose was to immobilize or render motionless all persons to whom it was presented. According to the Petit Albert, an 18th-century cabalistic grimoire, the process is the following:
Take the right or left hand of a felon who is hanging from a gibbet beside a highway; wrap it in part of a funeral pall and so wrapped squeeze it well. Then put it into an earthenware vessel with zimat, nitre, salt and long peppers, the whole well powdered. Leave it in this vessel for a fortnight, then take it out and expose it to full sunlight during the dog-days until it becomes quite dry. If the sun is not strong enough put it in an oven with fern and vervain. Next make a kind of candle from the fat of a gibbeted felon, virgin wax, sesame, and ponie, and use the Hand of Glory as a candlestick to hold this candle when lighted, and then those in every place into which you go with this baneful instrument shall remain motionless.
In the ritual of a Hand of Glory one is to scatter the bones to the wind. One of Bella's arms was left 13 paces from the remains, which was an ancient ceremony when a witch was executed. The use of the Wych elm was not random, and also had a ritual significance.
The use of the name Bella, might refer to belladonna, the name for the poisonous nightshade plant, which also has a connection to the dark arts. Nightshade contains atropine, which is only one of several toxic and psychoactive ingredients, it is also one of the main ingredients listed for a witch's flying potion.
Without knowing the exact date of her death, if it did occur in October as estimated by the pathologist this is a significant month for ritual sacrifices performed by Druids, and pagans to mark the end of the year that goes back for thousands of years.
In Italian a beautiful lady; in English a deadly poison. A striking example of the essential identity of the two tongues.
The murder scene in Hagley Wood, was close to where Charles Walton was found stabbed by a pitchfork in 1945 at Meon Hill. His throat had been slashed deeply by his own trouncing hook, and a cross was carved into his chest. The locals were reticent about speaking about the motive to police, since there was fear of ties to a satanic circle practicing in the area. The crime has not be solved.
Some theorize that the occult stories tied to both murders are red herrings used in order to detract from more common reasons to kill another human being.
If there is any truth to found in this elusive case, is that someone got away with committing murder.
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