Who Put Bella In The Wych Elm?
In the midland of England there is a place called Hagley Wood. An isolated spot that sits in the country, shadowed by the Clent Hills.
One day in 1943 four young boys from nearby Stourbridge set out to take advantage of the sunny day that April was offering them.
Boys of the era engaged in a variety of interesting pastimes, now long forgotten. The most common or popular manuals of the day included such inspired options, complete with detailed instructions for making kites, traps, guns, taxidermy and insect collection and decorative displays.
Today the boys set out to do some bird nesting so that they might expand their collections of preserved eggs and nests. Along the way the boys crossed over into Hagley Wood. There they happened upon a large hazel tree, mistaken for a wytch elm, an unusual but aptly named tree, for the sight of it’s twisted and gnarled branches, evoked something both sinister and mysterious.
The oldest of the boys, Bob, climbed up onto the tree to search for a nest in a deep hole. Bob looked into the hole which provided a view of the hollowed out trunk. Seeing something he suspects is an old animal skull he reaches within and pulls out instead a human skull.
There is still a small patch of of rotting flesh attached to the forehead…as well as some hair. The two front teeth are crooked.
Shocked and horrified at their discovery while trespassing on private land, the boys replace the skull in the tree and agree to tell no one.
However, as in all good fairy tales the youngest child always represents the conscience. Tommy Willetts cannot carry the burden of such a terrible secret for long and tells his father what they had fond.
Tommy’s father informs the Worchestershire County Police Force. When they arrive at the wych elm the following morning they find not only the skull but a nearly complete skeleton, fragments of clothing, a pair of crepe shoes and a gold wedding ring.
Another alarming discovery was made upon an extensive search of the area and surrounding undergrowth – a severed hand that had clearly been buried.
Professor James Webster, head of forensics at the home office forensic science lab in the west midlands, took over the task of examining the body and other evidence collected at the scene.
Webster’s examination suggested that the remains belonged to a woman, approximately 35 years old. She was mother to at least one child. She also had been dead for 18 months prior to the boys discovery – which would place the incident in the month of October of 1941.
The coroner officially declared the cause of death, murder by asphyxiation. You see, her mouth had been stuffed with taffeta – a fabric most commonly used for party dresses. She had been put in the hole while her body was still warm.
Then , there was still the unusual matter of the severed hand. What motive or intent would cause such an act? Speculation immediately turned to black magic and the possibility of the desire to create a hand of glory. Potter fans will remember Draco obtaining one of these from Bourgin and Burkes to help smuggle Death Eaters into Hogwats. But enough about my fandoms.
Bella, a popular name in Black Country, was being used by some to describe the unknown victim. The name stuck when Margaret Murray, a professor at University College in London pressed the idea that the severed hand was evidence of a black magic execution. The wych hazel tree, belladonna and even Hagley Wood itself were all rumored to be associated with witchcraft. Had Bella perhaps been executed for crimes against a coven – or even her own coven?
The forensics team was able to recreate a description for the evidence culled. An exhaustive search of missing persons files and dental records were fruitless. Then, in December the words began to appear.
First in nearby old hill, another in Birmingham, all seemingly written by the same hand asking “Who put Bella in the wych elm?"
The years went on with no new information on the case. The writing and the question persisted, however, there was the implication that maybe, just maybe the hand behind the writing knew…something. Pleas to the writer to contact the police went unanswered. Then, in 1953, Anna arrived on the scene, bringing with her a new theory.
The Wolverhamption Express and Star ran a piece about the case. The journalist responsible for the piece was contacted by someone calling themselves “Anna.”
Anna had claimed that Bella had been playing the role of the spy who knew too much and had been murdered for what she knew, about a pro Nazi spy ring that included a Dutchman, a British officer that had gone insane and died and a trapeze artist. The police investigated Anna’s claims, and some of them were verified, lending aid to the rumors that two German parachutists had landed and vanished in the surrounding area in 1941. They were supposedly helping to guide bombers to munitions factories in surrounding areas.
Things were beginning to look promising and then, came the news that Bella’s remains had suddenly gone missing from Birmingham Medical University School where they were housed. This prompted an onslaught of suspicion that information was being suppressed to protect persons of some importance. No one ever suggested who was being protected, or exactly why and the trails laid out by Anna seemed to lead…nowhere. No arrests were ever made.
Many subsequent theories have been put forth over the years but none of them seem likely. Perhaps Bella’s child had been fathered by a GI who wanted to get rid of her. But then, what happened to the child and why the wedding ring? Or, maybe Bella was a local woman who fled and hid in the woods during an air raid and fell victim to someone. If so, why would she not come up in a missing persons report, especially being married and having a child? Perhaps a prostitute that had been killed and dumped? This doesn’t quite make sense either.
To this day, the police will not allow anyone access to the case files, citing that Bella’s case is still open.
Locals claim Bella haunts the wood.
The sound of a woman crying and screaming is often heard and strange lights are seen.
In Wychbury Hill, located opposite Hagley Wood, there is a pub that used to be called The Gypsy’s Tent – so named for the Gypsies common to the area. As the legend goes, a number of Gypsies who were camping near Bella’s tree were brutally murdered there. The pub has been renamed The Badger’s Set. Both patrons and employees tell stories of doors opening of their own accord, cold spots and objects being moved. Some think it might be Bella. If it is, she might have some company.
An account from a Detective Constable Roger Ryder, ran in the Black Country Bugle in 2007. One summer night around 2 o’clock in the morning, Detective Ryder was driving past the pub. Out of the corner of his eye he sees that the Badger’s Set is all lit up and glowing brightly. As his car gets closer, the figure of a man emerges in the parking lot area. He is dressed like an old cavalier soldier - in boots, big hat, the red uniform and a sword. Logically, he assumed there is what the Brits call a “Fancy Dress Party” going down. The man runs right into the road and their eyes meet. At this point Ryder thinks to himself, “If this guy keeps running, I will never be able to stop the car in time.” Of course, the uniformed man does just that.
Ryder had been going sixty miles an hour but he slams on his breaks anyway, knowing it is too late. The car screeches to a halt, whilst spinning on it’s axis – a full 180. It finally came to a stop facing the opposite direction. He sits there, stunned. Knowing he has just killed a man. Ryder finally exists the car and goes to find the body. There is nothing there. He checks the nearby field, the hedges and under the car itself. There is no sign of the uniformed man nor that he has hit anything. He also notices that it is eerily quiet. Ryder looks over toward The Badger’s Set and finds it in total darkness.