We, as a society, seem to be obsessed with true crime and the morbidly horrifying. Pop culture is filled with shows, podcasts, and films about true crime and we can’t seem to get enough. The podcast Casefile True Crime has maintained a large audience over the last year; several shows and documentaries have come out about O.J. Simpson and his trial; Netflix recently released a documentary about Amanda Knox; and a mini series about JonBenet was released last year.
There is one case that remains open after 75 years and theories range from a Nazi spy ring to witch craft. The heart of the case comes down to a single question: who put Bella in the old wych elm?
In 1943, England and the rest of Europe was in the midst of the second world war. Rations were thin and so four boys near Birmingham went hunting for bird eggs in the Hagley Woods. In a hollow tree trunk of a wych elm, one of the boys found a skull but because they were trespassing on private property, the boys put the skull back and made a pact that they would keep quiet. The youngest of the group, though, had trouble dealing with the discovery and soon told his parents, who then told the police.
The police arrived at the elm and in addition to the skull, an almost complete skeleton, scraps of clothes, battered shoes, and a wedding ring were found inside the hollow trunk. Pieces of the right hand were soon found buried nearby. A pathologist named James Webster did a forensic examination on the body and established that it had been a woman who had died sometime around October 1941.
Webster also estimated that she died from suffocation, based on the fact that some fabric was found in her mouth. The woman had also given birth, was roughly five feet tall, around 35 years old, and based on how she was laying in the trunk, must have been placed in it shortly after death. There were still strands of hair left, which indicated that she was also a brunette. She also had two crooked front teeth.
Even with all this information, finding a positive identification was difficult. Police were stretched thin because of the war – many men had gone off to war, leaving local police forces and general resources limited. Still, a search through thousands of missing persons cases and through dental practices from around England proved unsuccessful. No one came forward and the case went cold for several months.
But in December 1943, graffiti started to appear. Phrases like “who put Luebella down the wych-elm?”, “Hagley wood Bella”, and “who put Bella in the wych-elm” appeared in chalk around town. While the graffiti gave the woman a nickname, the police were no further in the case and the person behind the writings was never apprehended.
- First theory: Witchcraft.
One folklorist, named Margaret Murray, thought that Bella’s death had been occult and witchcraft related. She based this theory on the fact that the right hand had been buried away from the rest of the body – an act that may have been a part of an occult ceremony known as the hand of glory. While this theory remained popular for quite some time, there was nothing else that been found to support it.
- Second theory: Nazi Spy Ring
The case died down a bit, with witchcraft still remaining the most popular public theory. But in 1953, an anonymous person wrote to a local journalist and explained that Bella died because she was involved in a Nazi spy ring. This theory was exceptionally more plausible than witchcraft because the area where Bella had been found had been home to munitions factories.
Eventually, ‘Anna’ came forward. Her real name was Una Mossop and she had been married to a factory worker named Jack during the war. Working at the factories was stable enough but soon after befriending a Dutchman, Jack started to come into money that wouldn’t be explained by his factory wages. However, Jack started to have a mental breakdown, which resulted in both a divorce between him and Una and was eventually institutionalized. At one point though, he admitted to Una that he had been a part of a Nazi spy ring and had been passing information along.
And it was during that time that he met with his contact at a local pub one night. His contact was already there, arguing with a woman and eventually the three left in Jack’s car. The argument between the man and woman grew violent and the man ended up killing the woman. Jack and the man then stuffed her body into the wych elm trunk.
While this theory seems exceptionally more plausible than witchcraft, it was impossible to truly verify. Jack had died while still institutionalized in 1942 and no one else related to the ring had been identified. But 15 years after Una Mossop came forward with this case, a historian published a book titled “Murder by Witchcraft’ that, despite its name, delved deeper into the Nazi spy ring.
Donald McCormick, the historian, had obtained some Germany Military intelligence files that pointed exactly to Jack’s contact and the real identity of Bella. The man went by the name Lehrer and the woman was Clarabella Dronkers. This theory gains further traction with the fact that an actual Nazi spy named Johannes Marines Dronkers had been captured in mid-1942.
- Third theory: Cabaret singer turned secret agent.
There’s another theory that’s centered around Bella being involved with Nazi spies. A Gestapo agent by the name of Josef Jakobs had been captured after parachuting into Cambridgeshire in 1941 and a photo of a young woman had been found on his person. The woman was Clara Bauerle, a cabaret singer and German movie star who had, according to Jakobs, been recruited by the Gestapo as an agent. Bauerle had even worked in Birmingham before the war and developed a convincing local accent in the process. Plus, Bauerle was never heard from after 1941, the same year Bella died.
Baurele was supposed to follow Jakobs into England; however, that was unlikely after his capture. And there are other flaws in this theory: Bella in the tree was roughly 5ft, while Baurele was known to quite tall.
There are so many other theories that attempt to explain who and what happened to Bella. She could have been a sex worker killed by an angry client or a barmaid killed by an American GI. While there have been many theories and many leads over the past few decades, a definitive answer to who Bella is exactly and what happened to her still remains a mystery.
And that is the still unexplained story of who put Bella in the old wych elm.
Sources and to learn more
- The Hagley Woods Mystery: Bella in the Wych Elm – The Unredacted
- Who Put Bella in the Witch Elm? – Meg Van Huygen, Atlas Obscura
- Is this the Bella in the wych elm? Unravelling the mystery of the skull found in a tree trunk – Allison Vale, Independent
- The Hagley Woods Murder – Stuff You Missed in History
- Whispers in the Trees (part one and part two) – Unexplained Podcast
- Who Put Bella in the ‘Witch’ Elm? – Casefile True Crime Podcast