The True Story that Inspired Darkness Stirring
Each of the novels in the Troubled Spirits Series are inspired by true crimes. Darkness Stirring (which launched today – woohoo!) was inspired by the story often called ‘Bella in the Wych Elm.’ Read on to find out about the disturbing unsolved murder.
Or if you’d prefer to listen to the case that inspired Darkness Stirring, I covered it on my True Crime podcast, Bitter Endings. You can listen to the episode here: Episode 29: The Body in the Wych Elm
The Woman in the Wych Elm
It was a spring Sunday on April 18th, 1943 when four boys decided to wander into Hagley Wood in Worcestershire, England. They had no idea they were about to stumble upon a crime scene that would mystify the world for decades to come.
Worcestershire, England is located in the Midlands area approximately 133 miles to the northeast of London. Rolling hills and farmlands dominate the area. Hagley Wood is nestled within Worcestershire between Hagley and Halesowen.
In 1943, Hagley Wood was known as Bluebell Wood and was a popular spot for families taking picnics or lovers sneaking off for privacy. Though it was private property owned by the Lyttleton family, they generally allowed people in the woods.
That day, seventeen-year-old Tommy Willets, fifteen-year-old Bob Farmer and Robert Hart, and fourteen-year-old Fred Payne were hoping to find rabbits to add to their wartime dinner rations. As they walked along Hagley Wood Lane, Bob saw a bird take flight from a tree and decided to check for a nest. He discovered eggs and the boys decided to look for additional eggs in nearby trees. On a side note, poaching eggs was apparently against the law.
Robert Hart climbed into a wych elm tree. This tree was strange in appearance (see photo) which was not the result of natural growth but instead the practice of coppicing, which involves cutting away at the tree stump. This creates new shoots and helped give the wych elm its rather sinister appearance.
As Robert stared into tree, he discovered a hollow within the branches. Rather than a nest of eggs, his eyes fell upon a skull. At first Robert assumed it was an animal skull.
The wych elm in Hagley Wood.
He called his friends over and they fished out the skull using a stick. They quickly realized they were looking at a human skull and hurriedly returned it to the tree and left the forest.
Since the boys had been doing something they shouldn’t, they didn’t want to alert anyone to the discovery; however, they did tell one of the boys’ older brothers who they took back to the scene. Again, worried about getting in trouble for trespassing, they left the skull and went home.
Tommy Willets however was disturbed by the finding and told his father who went to the Lye Police Station and informed Sergeant Charles Chris Lambourne about the skull in the wych elm.
The following day investigators visited the tree and quickly confirmed that it was in fact a human skull. They contacted additional law enforcement who travelled from surrounding areas.
Two days after the initial finding of the skeleton, on Tuesday April 11th, Detective Inspector Williams, Sergeant Skerratt, Constable Pound, Detective Superintendent Sidney Inight along with the Director of the Birmingham Forensic laboratory Professor James Webster all met at the wych elm.
From within the hollow of the wych elm, investigators withdrew not only a skull, but a complete human skeleton clothed with some of its hair remaining. Additional bones were found strewn in the nearby woods likely discarded by animals that had pulled them from the tree.
The scene at the wych elm was photographed, including images taken outside the tree and surrounding area, photos of the hollow where the skeleton was found and photos of the skeleton, the clothing and other items within the tree.
The skeleton and other evidence was taken to the Birmingham Laboratory for forensic examination by Professor Webster. Webster concluded that the skeleton belonged to a woman. He estimated that she had been in the tree for anywhere from eighteen months to three years. He didn’t find any obvious damage to the skeleton that pointed to cause of death. Though the skeleton had been ravaged by animals over time. He did discover cloth shoved deep into the mouth and concluded that the person might have been murdered by asphyxiation.
He noted the following about her physical appearance: Irregularity in front teeth and lower jaw, about five feet tall, brown hair, dark blue and striped knitted woolen cardigan, light blue belt, cloth skirt with zip, mock wedding ring, peach colored taffeta under skirt, blue crepe soled shoes, brown hair.
He placed the victim’s age between 35-40 years old and noted that she had given birth to a child.
Webster had to consider whether the death of the person in the tree could have occurred as the result of an accident. Ultimately, he determined that the opening into the hollow of the tree was simply too narrow for a person to have crawled into and died. He concluded it was likely that the skeleton was put into the tree feet-first likely shortly after death before rigor mortis had occurred when her body was still pliable. This finding potentially supported the idea that the woman was killed relatively close to the tree because rigor mortis begins to set in within two hours and concludes within 6 to 8 hours. Though that’s a pretty substantial amount of time to move a body from a further location.
The placement of the body also implied the murderer was familiar with Hagley Wood as it’s rare that a tree would provide an adequate place to hide a body and surely the killer did not stumble upon it while trying to conceal the corpse. Instead, he likely set out for the tree knowing he could fit a body inside the hollow. As mentioned, Hagley wood was a popular place for people to visit and during this period in particular, as food was rationed during the war, more people entered the wood in search of berries, nuts and to poach eggs.
Investigators searched for the identity of the woman in the wych elm, but to no avail. They contacted area dentists hoping someone would recognize the abnormalities in the skeleton’s jaw. They also sifted through missing person’s reports, but found no one who matched the skeleton in the tree. They even traced the manufacturer of the shoes found with the woman, but discovered they were a popular shoe frequently bought in the area. It was another dead end.
On March 28th, 1944, Mr. Wilfred White reported strange graffiti that had been written on a brick wall that adjoined two streets. The graffiti, written in chalk, stated ‘Hagley Wood Bella.’ On an additional wall on Williamson’s Upper Dean Street, someone had written ‘Who put Bella down the wych elm – Hagley Wood.’ Two days later more graffiti was reported by Mr. James Rowley. He’d spotted it written on a cottage wall along Haden Hill ‘Luebeller in the wych elm.’
Investigators took photos of the graffiti and submitted it for forensic testing. It was concluded the same person had written all the messages. When newspapers reported the graffiti and its potential connection to the murder, a slew of similar graffiti began to appear, which investigators surmised were copycats of the original writer.
Despite a potential name for their victim, investigators were still unable to connect the woman in the elm with an actual person.
The case soon grew cold and as the years passed, many theories arose.
According to anthropologist Professor Margaret Murray, the crime scene appeared to be a ritualist ceremony known as the ‘Hand of Glory,’ which included the severing of the victim’s hand and the placement of the hand 13 paces from the skeleton, apparently a custom that occurred when a witch was executed. The presence of the cloth in the victim’s mouth was also indicative of this ceremony. The wych elm itself also gave credence to the ritualistic sacrifice theory as apparently this tree was associated with the black arts.
Another popular theory implied that the woman was a spy for the Third Reich.
This is theory originated in 1953 when two England newspapers, The Wolverhampton Express and the Star, received letters from a woman claiming she knew the identity of Bella. The woman who identified herself as Anna of Claverly. She told reporters that her husband, who was an RAF pilot, witnessed Bella’s murder. He told his wife (later identified as Una Mossop) that he’d become involved in a spy ring and a dutchman who was also in the ring strangled Bella because she was a German spy.
Apparently, this link garnered more attention at a later time after MI5 files were declassified and revealed information about a German spy named Josef Jakobs who was captured after he parachuted into Cambridgeshire in 1941. Jakobs claimed that he’d had a lover who’d also been recruited as a spy by the Third Reich. Her name was Clara Bauerle. Clara was a German actress and cabaret singer. Before the war, Clara had worked in West Midlands Music Halls and had mastered a Brummie accent. Clara was recruited by the Gestapo and assigned the task of creating a spy cell.
According to Jakobs, Clara parachuted into the west Midlands in 1941 and disappeared. Jakobs was never able to make contact with her and all evidence of Clara Bauerle seemed to end after 1941, two years before the body was found in the wych elm. Over the years no further questions could be put to Josef Jakobs as he was executed by firing squad on August 15, 1941.
Issues with this theory popped up when it was discovered that Clara Bauerle had died in a Berlin hospital in December of 1942.
This doesn’t rule out the possibility that the woman in the wych elm had spy connections, but it does eliminate Clara as the woman in the tree.
Others have theorized that the woman in the wych elm was a prostitute who worked the streets around Hagley Road. Still others have said she was a gypsy murdered by her own people and shoved into the tree. A final theory claims she was a barmaid murdered by an American GI.
Today, the mystery remains. Not only of what happened to the woman discovered in the wych elm, but who was she?
Facial reconstruction based on the skull found in the witch elm. Created by Professor Caroline Wilkinson and Sarah Shrimpton from Face Lab at Liverpool John Moores University. Picture source: Pete Merrill / APS Books
Who Put Bella In The Wych Elm?: Volume 1: The Crime Scene Revisited (The Body In The Tree Mystery) by Alex Merrill and Pete Merrill.
Crimereads: Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?
Birmingham Live: Revealed After 75 Years: The Face of Bella in the Wych Elm.