The mystery of a woman’s remains found inside a hollow Wych Elm 75 years ago remains one of the UKs most infamous unsolved crimes.
This Sunday, we will be screening Bella in the Wych Elm – and giving away DVD copies kindly donated by director of the film Tom Lee Rutter, in the raffle at Glasgow Horror Festival: BITE SIZE. To celebrate, here are ten things everyone should know about the chilling historical case.
1. The body was initially discovered by young boys. The boys were searching for birds nests at Hagley Woods, a private estate near Birmingham in England’s Midlands. Climbing up an ancient old wych elm tree, 15-year-old Bob Farmer was the first person to catch sight of the woman’s remain.
2. When the boys finally told their parents what they had seen, the police recovered the body. In the tree, they removed the skeleton of a young woman, minus one of her hands. A piece of taffeta was stuffed in the skull’s mouth. Some scraps of clothes with the labels cut out, battered shoes and a gold ring were also found in the tree.
3. Pathologist Professor James Webster concluded that the remains belonged to a woman aged 35-40, who had been placed “while still warm” into the tree where she had remained hidden for at least 18 months. There were no marks of disease or injury on the body, and the coroner ruled it murder by asphyxiation.
4.Police could tell from items found with the body what the woman had looked like, but with so many people reported missing during WWII, records were too vast for a proper identification to take place. 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.
5. At the time of the discovery, the press referred to the crime as ‘The Tree Murder Riddle’. The more well known title of Bella in the Wych Elm only came about at Christmas 1943 when graffiti began to appear on the walls of empty buildings in various parts of the West Midlands area reading – ‘Who put Luebella down the wych–elm?’ and ‘Who put Bella down the Wych Elm – Hagley Wood.’
6. On a Radio 4 programme first broadcast in August 2014 Steve Punt suggested two possible victims. One possible victim was reported to the police in 1944 by a Birmingham prostitute. In the report she stated that another prostitute called Bella, who worked on the Hagley road had been reported missing prior to the body being uncovered.
7. There were and still are many theories as to the identity of ‘Bella’ and the mystery of her murder. But perhaps the most controversial was put forward at the time by Professor Margaret Murray, of University College, London – an expert in the occult and witchcraft.
8. It wasn’t until 1953, when journalist Wilfred Byford-Jones started to write about the old case in the Wolverhampton Express and Star, that interest was revived. Jones proposed that Bella was a Dutchwoman named Clarabella Dronkers, killed by a German spy ring.
9. There is an opera based on the mystery. Simon Holt’s ‘Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?’ opera is the ghost of Bella returning from the beyond to tell her story. Holt’s opera was actually based on allegedly paranormal and ghostly events which occurred at the Gypsy’s Tent pub (now the Badgers Sett) near Wychbury Hill, opposite Hagley Wood.
10. Bella has been referenced in popular culture many times. Some examples are the Casefile True Crime Podcast who covered the story in episode 4, the song “Nail House Music” by American post-punk band Self Defense Family references the mystery, with the lyrics repeatedly asking “I found you in the witch elm – who put you in the witch elm”, and songwriter Owen Tromans included a song called “Bella in the Witch Elm” on his EP For Haden.