‘Who Put Bella in the Witch Elm’ – Mysterious Wartime Disappearance, Was She a German Spy?

In the 1970s, graffiti appeared on an old obelisk near Stourbridge in England with the inscription: “WHO PUT BELLA IN THE WITCH ELM?”

This inscription was made in reference to a mysterious, unsolved murder of a woman in England during World War II. It went undetected until several boys accidentally found a human skull. Police officers who arrived at the crime scene discovered that an old elm tree hid a terrible secret.

On April 18, 1943, four teenagers (Robert Hart, Thomas Willetts, Bob Farmer, and Fred Payne) went to the Hagley Wood, which at that time belonged to the Cobham family. This place was notorious and there were many secrets and mysteries around it.

Graffiti on the Wychbury Obelisk
Graffiti on the Wychbury Obelisk

In particular, people talked about the ominous “Witch Elm.” Apparently, the sprawled tree had an eerie appearance and caused unpleasant feelings.

The boys hoped to find something interesting or edible in the woods. However, they did not expect their poaching to end with a gloomy find. Bob Farmer saw a bird’s nest in the elm and thought that he might find eggs there.

Climbing to the top of the tree trunk, to his surprise the boy discovered a skull. At first, he assumed that the bones belonged to some animal. However, taking the skull in his hands, Bob found on it the remains of hair and human teeth.

The Lyttelton Arms, Hagley Photo by Geoff Gartside CC BY SA 2.0
The Lyttelton Arms, Hagley Photo by Geoff Gartside CC BY SA 2.0

Quickly putting the skull back, he came down from the tree and told his friends about his terrible discovery. The frightened boys fled to their homes.

At first, none of the boys intended to share what they saw with their parents. The main reason for this was that they had been trespassing. However, the youngest of them, Tommy, could not stand keeping the secret. He told his parents what had happened, and they in turn went to the police.

Upon arrival, the police searched the tree trunk. They were able to recover almost the entire skeleton of the deceased, along with shoes, a wedding ring, and some parts of clothing. After further searches under the tree, the remains of a hand were found. The most valuable evidence was the skull, since it had most of its teeth and some tufts of hair.

Wych Elm
Wych Elm

Fragments of the body were taken for forensic examination, during which Professor James Webster determined that it was a woman who had been killed about 18 months previously. The approximate timeframe of death was supposedly October 1941.

Finding a piece of taffeta in the skull’s oral cavity, Webster suggested that the woman had died of suffocation. In addition, he pointed out that the woman’s body must have been placed in the tree before the rigor mortis began–that is, immediately after the murder, when the body was still warm. It would not have otherwise fit in the space where it was found.

The ongoing war particularly complicated identification of the body. During the war so many people disappeared, the number of missing persons reports was higher than would have been typical in peacetime.

Children in the East End of London, made homeless by the Blitz.Photo: Sue Wallace CC BY-SA 2.0
Children in the East End of London, made homeless by the Blitz.Photo: Sue Wallace CC BY-SA 2.0

The police did check the reports of missing persons throughout the region, but could not find a match. The investigation had reached a dead end, but the mysterious story of the deceased woman was not over.

In 1944, a graffiti message appeared on a wall in Upper Dean Street, Birmingham: “Who put Bella down the Wych Elm.” This led to several new theories regarding who “Bella” might have been, but still nothing was conclusively proved.

Since the 1970s, graffiti with the slightly altered inscription “Who put Bella down the Witch Elm” has appeared sporadically on the Hagley obelisk, near the place where the woman’s body was found.

Steve Punt (right) performing The Now Show at the 2005 Radio Festival Photo by  Dan Taylor – Flickr CC BY 2.0
Steve Punt (right) performing The Now Show at the 2005 Radio Festival Photo by  Dan Taylor – Flickr CC BY 2.0

In a Radio 4 program first broadcast in August 2014, Steve Punt suggested two possible victims. One was a Birmingham prostitute named Bella who worked on Hagley Road and had disappeared in 1941. This theory assumes that the graffiti artist who wrote the victim’s name as Bella, possibly short for Luebella, knew the identity of either the killer or the victim.

The second theory hinges on a story from 1953, when Una Mossop told the police that her ex-husband Jack Mossop had once admitted that he and a Dutchman named van Ralt had planted a drunken woman on a tree for fun. Mossop and Van Ralt, she claimed, had been drinking in the pub at Lyttelton Arms.

Accompanying Ralt was an unidentified young woman from Holland who drank too much and lost consciousness in the car after they left the pub. For the sake of amusement, the men planted the drunken woman in a tree in the forest, sure that she would wake up in the morning.

Who put Bella in the Witch-Elm? Photo by Stephen McKay CC BY 2.0
Who put Bella in the Witch-Elm? Photo by Stephen McKay CC BY 2.0

Surprisingly, soon afterward, Jack Mossop was forcibly taken to Stafford Mental Hospital. The reason was that he had disturbing dreams about a woman looking at him from a tree. He died before the boys found the body of the woman in the elm tree, so he could not be questioned further.

However, the veracity of this story is questioned because Una Mossop had long been silent about the information. Since there is no concrete evidence of her husband’s involvement in the crime, some people believe that she herself invented it.

In 1945, Margaret Murray, an archaeologist and anthropologist at University College London, suggested that “Bella” was killed during an occult ritual. She believed that the severed hand testified to the Gypsy sorcery ritual called the Hand of Glory.

Margaret Murray
Margaret Murray

These statements caused many doubts and excited the local press. After that, the puzzled investigators drew a link to a ritual murder of a man, Charles Walton, in Lower Quinton. But they still couldn’t solve the case of “Bella.”

There is yet another theory about how the mysterious woman ended up in the elm tree. It stems from the now declassified dossier about the last man who was put to death on August 15, 1941 at the Tower of London: a German spy named Josef Jakobs.

As an agent of the Abwehr, in 1941 Jakobs landed via parachute in Cambridgeshire. However, something went wrong and upon landing, Jakobs broke his ankle and was captured by the British Home Guard.

Chair in which Josef Jakobs sat when he was executed by firing squat August 15, 1941 at the Tower of London. The chair is at the Tower. Photo by Hu Nhu
Chair in which Josef Jakobs sat when he was executed by firing squat August 15, 1941 at the Tower of London. The chair is at the Tower. Photo by Hu Nhu

When he was searched, a photograph of a German cabaret singer and actress named Clara Bauerle was found on him. Presumably, this woman was his lover and was a spy who was to be sent to England after Jacobs. Because Bauerle disappeared without a trace during the war, people suggested that she may have indeed ended up in England–and the elm tree.

Although this was a popular theory for many years, there was no hard evidence for it. Several witnesses claimed that the real Clara Bauerle was 6 feet tall, while “Bella” was 5 feet tall. Finally, in September 2016, it was established that Clara Bauerle had died in Berlin in December 1942.

Read another story from us: First Woman to Receive the George Cross Survived Torture by the Nazis

There is one more theory out there that dates from 1953 and has not been able to be proven one way or another. According to it, Bella was a Dutch woman named Clarabella Dronkers who was killed by a German spy ring because she knew too much secret information.

The people involved were supposedly a Dutchman, a British officer, and a music hall artist. However, this story, like some of the others, could not be proven due to a lack of evidence.

Was “Bella’s” fate directly linked to wartime activities? Unless new information comes to light, as happened when the theory of Clara Bauerle being the victim was recently disproven, we may never know.