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unidentified: who put bella in the wych elm?

On April 18, 1943, in a quiet and isolated spot in Hagley Wood near Wychbury Hill in Worcestershire England, four boys found a large wych elm tree in a part of the Hagley estate belonging to Lord Cobham. At the time the boys were poaching and decided that the tree would be a perfect place to find birds nests. When one of the boys began climbing, he spotted something white in the trunk of the tree. The boys found a branch nearby, wrapped a piece of cloth they found inside the trunk around the branch and used it to retrieve the item in the tree. At first, they believed it was from an animal, however, after seeing the human hair and teeth, they realised they had come across a human skull.  As they were on the land illegally, they simply returned the skull and all agreed not to mention what they had found to their families.

After returning home, the youngest boy felt uneasy regarding what they had found and made the decision to tell his parents the whole story. The police, along with other organisations such as local scouts were contacted and went to investigate the claim. When the police investigated, they found an almost complete skeleton alongside a shoe, a gold wedding ring and some parts of clothing. After some further investigation, a hand of which was missing from the skeleton was recovered some distance from the tree.

The body was sent for forensic examination, carried out by Professor James Webster, who established that the remains were female of whom was around 35 years old. Due to the lack of limbs and flesh, he concluded that the body must have been found by scavengers and subsequently concluded that the woman had been dead for at least 18 months, placing her death in or before October 1941. Webster also discovered a section of taffeta in her mouth, which suggests the woman died from asphyxiation, although it is possible that this is the piece of cloth that the boys wrapped around the branch, it is said to be unlikely, and instead was in there before the boys found the skull. From the measurements of the trunk in which the body was discovered, he deduced that she must have been placed in there whilst her body was still warm, due to the fact she would not have been able to fit once the rigor mortis had taken place. As the body was placed very far into the tree, and the place she was found was extremely isolated, police came to the conclusion that the female had been murdered, and her body had been disposed of in a place of which the killer knew, and thought no one else would find.

At the time of the discovery, the country was very involved in World War II, so identifying victims was overwhelmingly difficult. Police were able to tell what the woman looked like, as the tests showed the pieces of fragile hair was natural and the clothes were of a poor quality, but with so many people reported missing during the war, they were unable to find anyone matching the ladies descriptions in the vast records they had.

A local belief emerged that there was the involvement of witchcraft, as covens often met in woods near where the victim was discovered. Recently an expert has said that he can see nothing of great significance that supports this theory as the body was not arranged in a certain pattern, she was discovered with no unusual items and there were no markings on the body that was out of the ordinary. A widely believed local belief was connected to the Hand of Glory, a ritual where the hand of a felon was cut off and pickled, believed to have a magical power which allowed the owner to put people to sleep.

After the discovery of the woman, a local newspaper ran a series of articles regarding the case. They received a letter from a woman who claimed her name was Anna and reported that the mystery would never be discovered as the person who committed the crime was insane, and the lady was foreign. Steve Punt, a Radio 4 host interviewed a woman in 2014 who claims she knows who that woman was. According to this lady, the story was a family legend and the lady that wrote to the paper was called Una Mossop, who was married to her father's cousin, Jack Mossop. Jack was a well-dressed man, which was unusual for the time, and often visited the town of which the body was found in to visit his grandmother. As Jack was working in munitions at the time, his family presumed the Dutchman he took with him was someone he was passing on information to. According to Una, her husband confused to her and his grandmother that he believed he may have been responsible for the death of a woman. In 1953, Una made a statement telling of how her husband told her that he went to a local pub with the Dutchman, who also brought a woman of the same nationality with him. The woman got extremely drunk and later passed out when they were driving home, so the men decided to place her into a tree in order for her to come to her senses, and realise the error of her ways when she woke up. He claimed that when he left, the woman was still alive, however, he began to experience nightmares were a woman was staring at him out of a tree. Due to this, and other factors, Jack was placed in a mental hospital and died a year before the woman's remains were discovered. The police searched for the Dutchman that Jack claimed he was with, but the police could not locate him or the woman. The police doubted the reliability of Una, due to the fact there was no evidence, and she had waited twelve years after his confession to make a statement.

A separate woman reports that her father, a policeman at the time, saw a car near the woods where the body was found, around the suspected time of death. The man noticed that there was a coat in the back of the car, of which was covering a person who was very still. The policeman assumed it may have been a naked lady, so was too embarrassed to ask for ID. Instead, he saw the ID of the man, who was a member of the RAF and was not local to the area. The policeman thought nothing of it at the time, however later wondered whether or not it may have been related due to the fact he was near the woods, which was isolated when he was not a local citizen and the body in the back was exceptionally still.

Steve Punt also interviewed another man, who spoke of how his father was the policeman that was given the job of watching over the woman's remains. A few men, believed to be members of the RAF, told the policeman that they had seen a file regarding a lady involved in espionage of whom had a high education and also had distinctive teeth, said to be similar to those of the victim. The British dental records came back blank as a form of identification, so it is possible that the lady could have been from a foreign country. There were female spies in England at the time, and it would have been an area where these spies would want to be active, however, the MI5 were confident that they had recovered every spy. There was no evidence of the remains or ever found that connected her to espionage, and it is seemingly a strange way for her body to be disposed of if she was killed by the government, or someone else who was hunting spies. The man in the interview spoke of how his father told him the story, but later retracted it and refused to speak about it ever again, which seems odd due to the fact he did not hesitate when speaking about any other parts of the war.


The lady was given the name Bella after writing was found on the walls of nearby towns saying Who put Bella in the Wych Elm. The police believed that this was a sign that there was a person out there who was aware of her identity, but their search for a Bella and their investigation into who wrote the graffiti came to a dead end. As well as this, Punt discovered a statement from a policeman made in 1999 who told of how a prostitute from Birmingham had told him in 1944 that another prostitute who worked on Hagley road and went by the name of Bella had disappeared three years earlier however it is unknown if this statement is correct, and they never located this supposedly missing woman.

There are no current leads associated with the case, and it is almost certain that the identity and the person who murdered his lady will ever be found. Partially due to the lack of evidence and the time that has passed, but also due to the fact the University of Birmingham of which was holding her remains and the records have been unable to locate them, and no one knows where her body has disappeared to.


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