This isn’t the beginning of an airport novel. This actually happened in April 1943 in Hagley Wood in the English Midlands. The story twists and turns as much as any fictional mystery, but leaves all the loose ends untied. It’s not known whose skull it was, let alone how it got into the tree.
I first heard about this through a podcast as part of the Punt PI series, which takes a light-hearted look at a number of 20th century mysteries. My summary and speculations are mostly drawn from the half hour podcast and an article in the Independent by Alison Vale, though the two sources contradict each other in places. There’s also a brief summary on Wikipedia.
The known facts
The little that is known about the case is bizarre enough to open the door to more speculation than conclusion. The skull belonged to a woman of about 35, who had been dead for around 18 months when she was found. The tree had a hollow trunk into which the woman had either climbed or been placed feet first. She could not have been placed once rigor mortis set in, so she was either alive or recently dead. Getting the body out of the tree proved sufficiently difficult that the tree was cut down, so her positioning could not have been accidental. Her hand was not with the rest of the body, but was found near the tree. Some descriptions say it was buried, others say the finger bones were scattered around the tree.
Then it gets really strange. A year and a half after she was found, graffiti started to appear in Birmingham asking ‘who put Bella in the wych elm?’, or sometimes the ‘witch elm’. The graffiti continued to appear in the Midlands until the 1990s, with a particular target being the Wychbury Obelisk, near Hagley Wood.
The skeleton was donated to Birmingham University while the pathology reports presumably went in the police file. In a final twist, both the skeleton and the pathology reports subsequently disappeared.
The facts throw up enough questions to leave Sherlock Holmes without a clue. Inevitably, I’m considering them with the fanciful mind of a fiction writer rather than the sober and unimaginative mind of a police detective.
A straightforward murder seems unlikely because it’s such an over-complicated way to dispose of a body. It would be an eccentric murderer who drags a body through a forest on the off chance of finding the ideal tree to hide it in. It’s possible that ‘Bella’ was hidden by someone who already knew about the wych elm, and may even have hoped the tree would grow around her and fully conceal the body. Nothing in any of the material I’ve found gives a clue as to how well known the tree was.
Three other possibilities have been raised:
Could Bella have been part of an occult ritual, which either involved her sacrifice or simply went wrong? Punt interviewed an expert who recognised no ritual significance, but there’s no reason to assume everyone who performs a ritual follows the text book. Occult groups were active in Britain at the time, many regarding themselves as participants in the war effort. The podcast refers to Operation Cone of Power, a naked ritual performed by the New Forest Coven to prevent a German invasion. It probably didn’t bother the Wehrmacht, but two members of the coven died of pneumonia.
One piece of evidence that supports the occult theory is her detached hand. The dead hand has significance in English folklore. In the days of public execution, people would bribe the hangman to be allowed to touch the hand of a dead criminal, believing it to cure everything from rheumatism to infertility. The podcast refers to the ‘hand of glory’, suggesting that a dead hand may still have had some significance to some occultists.
Other accounts suggest that rather than being buried, her finger bones were scattered around the tree, which has been described variously as suggestive of a ritual or that they were scattered by animals. The latter explanation still begs the question of how ‘Bella’s’ hand came to be detached in the first place.
The occult theory gained some momentum a few years after ‘Bella’ was found, when a local man by the name of Charles Walton was found murdered and pinned to the ground with a pitchfork. Two strange murders within a few years sparked a few imaginations, but there was never any evidence to connect the two and it was never even certain that ‘Bella’ was murdered.
‘Bella’ died in the dark days of late 1941, when rumours abounded of German paratroopers disguised as nuns and dens of Gestapo saboteurs in disused London Underground stations. The police made extensive efforts to relate Bella to missing persons records but had no success, which suggests she was a foreigner. If she was a German spy, stuffing her inside a tree is an unlikely way to dispose of her. Spies were routinely handed over to MI5 and given the choice of turning double agent or execution. There was no reason to hide bodies. It might be possible to conceive a James Bond scenario in which a British agent operating undercover had to disappear a German agent in a hurry, but surely British intelligence operating on home ground could have come up with something more straightforward than a strangely pollarded tree.
That doesn’t rule out espionage completely. She may have stumbled on a German spy who needed somewhere to dispose of her, but then we return to the same objections that apply to anyone else who might have murdered her. We’d still have a murderer who dragged a body through a private forest on the off chance of finding the right tree to put it in.
The possibility of a cloak and dagger explanation has received a boost recently, as declassified documents led to speculation that ‘Bella’ was in fact a German spy called Clara Bauerle. Tempting as it appears at first glance, there is more evidence against the possibility than for it.
In January 1941, a Gestapo agent called Josef Jakobs was arrested in Cambridgeshire. Before he earned the dubious distinction of being the last man executed in the Tower of London, he was questioned about a photograph of a woman he was carrying. He identified her as his lover, Clara Bauerle, who he said was to be parachuted into the Midlands once he made radio contact. Bauerle was a 35-year old cabaret artist who had performed in Britain for two years and spoke English with a Birmingham accent. She was the right age and was scheduled to arrive at about the time of ‘Bella’s’ death. Vale’s Independent article states there were no gramophone recordings from her after early 1941, implying that something happened to her around that time, and suggests that an English audience may have heard ‘Bauerle’ as ‘Bella’.
The timing is suggestive but hardly conclusive, and there are several pieces of evidence against Clara Bauerle being ‘Bella’. Much of the evidence against is assembled on the excellently researched blog of Giselle Jakobs, granddaughter of Joesf Jakobs. Ms Jakobs lists Bauerle’s recordings well into 1942, contradicting Vale. A site run by the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich states that she died in Berlin in December 1942, which would rule out any possibility that she was ‘Bella’. Under interrogation, Jakobs said that as he had been captured before making radio contact with his handlers, Bauerle’s mission was likely to be cancelled.
Even if we were to invent a convoluted enough conspiracy theory to dismiss the evidence that Bauerle was alive and in Germany through most of 1942, the story connecting Bauerle to ‘Bella’ still has more gaps than links. Whatever Jakobs told his interrogators, he would have to have been a spectacularly incompetent spy to carry a photograph of his accomplice, so it’s more likely that Bauerle’s mission was an invention of Jakobs’s. The conflation of ‘Bauerle’ with ‘Bella’ assumes she was in England under her real name, which hardly seems likely given that Clara Bauerle had been on stage under that name, and would not have wanted to catch the attention of anyone who might remember she was German.
In 1953, a local newspaper received a letter signed ‘Anna of Claverley’, stating that Bella was a Dutch woman and that the man responsible for her death had died in a mental hospital. Anna of Claverley has been identified Una Mossop, wife of an apparent black marketeer called Jack Mossop. Mossop was commonly well dressed and occasionally wore a Royal Air Force uniform, although he was a civilian. Una told the police that her husband had confessed to getting drunk with a Dutchman by the name of van Ralt and a ‘Dutch piece’ who was not named. The woman passed out and Jack and van Ralt put her in the tree to sleep it off. The woman’s death drove Mossop into the breakdown that led to his being institutionalised.
Supporting the story is the account of a Home Guardsman who stopped a car near Hagley Wood that night. The driver produced an RAF identification card. The passenger was covered by a coat but otherwise undressed, so the guardsmen were too embarrassed to question her. Was the driver Jack Mossop and the passenger ‘Bella’?
Applying Ockham’s razor, alcohol-fuelled stupidity makes for a much simpler explanation than anything involving covens of witches or Gestapo spies, which makes it attractive. However, a lot of gaps in the narrative remain unfilled. People do strange things on boozy binges, but dragging an unconscious woman through a forest and putting her up a tree is very strange indeed. I don’t know how far it was from the pub where Mossop started his session to the wych elm where ‘Bella’ ended up, but the implication is that she must have been very drunk indeed to have stayed unconscious through what must have been a lengthy and not particularly gentle process. That said, the more drunk she was, the more likely she is to have succumbed to hypothermia. Nor is it clear how well Mossop knew Hagley Wood, and whether it was a coincidence that he happened on the ideal tree to put her in.
I can find no explanation of how Mossop found out ‘Bella’ was dead. The obvious explanation is that he went back to check on her the following day, found her dead and then panicked. The pathologist said she couldn’t have been put into the tree with rigor mortis, so either she climbed in herself or possibly Mossop found her when she had only just died, panicked and hid the body.
A more chilling possibility arises from the fact that people with advanced hypothermia may have such a weak pulse and shallow breathing as to be undetectable, at least by a man with no medical training and a blazing hangover. Mossop may have assumed ‘Bella’ was dead when she was actually still alive, and hidden her body when he could have saved her life.
The final doubt over the theory is the question of why Una Mossop waited ten years before writing her anonymous letter, given that Jack was dead before the body was even found? We can suggest plausible reasons, but it casts some doubt on her veracity.
Who was ‘Bella’?
Whatever the circumstances of her death, ‘Bella’s’ identity remains a mystery. The evidence suggesting she was Clara Bauerle is less than conclusive.
Another candidate is a Dutch woman called Bella who worked as a prostitute in Birmingham, and disappeared at about the right time. If Bella from Birmingham was the body in the Wych Elm, it would be consistent with Mossop’s description of a ‘Dutch piece’. Whoever started the ‘who put Bella in the Wych Elm?’ graffiti apparently believed it.
With the country awash with refugees and in the middle of the Blitz, people often disappeared either because bombs left no identifiable remains or simply left people homeless. It would be a leap beyond the evidence to assume the woman who vanished in Birmingham was the same woman who appeared in the Wych Elm. She could have been someone nobody even missed.
Where is the evidence?If Bella from Birmingham was Jack Mossop’s ‘Dutch piece’ who ended up in the Wych Elm, it would provide a neat explanation but still leaves a number of loose ends. Why was her hand detached? What happened to the skeleton and the pathology records? One or the other might have been simply mislaid, but the disappearance of both suggests someone was trying to cover something up. Did the pathologists miss something that someone was afraid a follow up investigation might notice?
A suggestion that occurs to my tortuous mind is that someone took the corpse’s identity. When the corpse turned out not to have been disposed of as thoroughly as they thought, someone may have wanted to remove any evidence connecting ‘Bella’ to someone who was apparently alive and well. If so, someone got at a police file which suggests either a heavy bribe or that we’re back in the realm of espionage.
The answer to every question ‘Bella’ poses begs another question, and a definitive answer is unlikely to be forthcoming more than 70 years after her death.
Speculation is irresistible.