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The Story of "Who Put Bella in The Wych Elm"

The haunting and mysterious story of an unknown woman's remains that were discovered in England at the height of World War II. The lack of evidence and the strange location the body was found in has caused law enforcement and arm chair sleuths to speculate who this woman was and how her body came to be in the middle of a "Wych Elm."

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The Discovery:

On April 18, 1943 a group of teen boys were exploring the Hagley Woods in search of some game to bring home to their families for meat, due to the heavy rationing going on in the midst of World War II. One of the boys spotted a Wych Elm (a tree that is said to have nonpliable wood, specifically for witches) and decided to climb it, in hopes of finding a birds nest inside. Upon looking inside, one of the boys saw a white object sitting in what looked like a nest, and was able to pull it out of the tree. Instead of a birds egg, the boy had found a human skull. 

After the discovery of the skull, the police were alerted. Upon further investigation, the rest of the skeleton was located, including one of the hands which was buried separately from the rest of the body. After the bones were examined, it was determined that the remains belonged to a woman who had given birth to at least one child and had died approximately eighteen months prior. 

Along with the remains, some clothing, a shoe, and costume jewelry was discovered. A piece of taffeta fabric was also found and it was discovered that it must have been lodged in the victim’s mouth at the time of death. Because of this, and her hand being buried separately the possibility of her taking her own life was ruled out.  

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The medical examiner discovered distinct markings on the skeleton's jaw as well as very unique teeth, which led investigators to believe it would be easy to determine the identity of the remains. The police department contacted dentists in the surrounding area, but to no avail. None of the dentist offices reported having a dental match. 

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Forensic Anthropologist Findings

According to Margaret Murray, a well known forensic anthropologist  at the time, the murder had marks of a dark magic ritual. The victim's hand being buried separately and the bones being scattered pointed to it being a an occult ceremony called "The Hand of Glory." This is a ritual where a person being found guilty of a murder or that of a hanged man. They would often cut off the left hand, or if the person was found guilty of murder, the hand that "did the deed" was cut off.   In addition, Professor Margaret Murray concluded that witchcraft was also involved and the fact that the body was put inside of a tree as opposed to being buried also alluded to this fact. 



A few weeks after the discovery of the body and the mass newspaper publication account of the mysterious findings had caused a nationwide stir. The fact that the identity of the found woman was unknown only added to the creepy and mysterious story. According to Diabolique Magazine, eight months later on Christmas night, 1943,  "WHO PUT LUBELLA DOWN THE WYCH ELM? was chalked in capital letters three-inches deep, on the side of a house in Old Hill, about a 15-minute walk from Hagley Road. A few days later, another appeared in Upper Dean Street, Birmingham, asking: WHO PUT BELLA DOWN THE WYCH ELM HAGLEY WOOD? This was followed by two more, high up on the same block of buildings in the fruit market area of the city, stating simply: HAGLEY WOOD BELLA."[6]


One theory is that Bella was a singer and actress from  Germany named Clara Bäuerle. A German parachuter landed in field in Cambridgshire and broke his ankle upon landing. He was a suspected spy and MI5 was called in to handle the case. He was found to have a picture of a woman he identified as Clara Bäuerle, and said she was a spy. However, according to Curious Archive, he was not considered a reliable source[2]. 

A theory from law enforcement at the time proposed that "Bella" could have been running for cover during an air raid and in the process, was attacked, accidently killed and then stuffed into the tree. However, the theory does not explain how the woman became dismembered and how the hand was buried separately. 

The third theory is articulated in[4], states that a BBC program alluded to the theory that "Bella" could have been a sex worker that was traveling with gypsies and could have been killed by someone in the community.


One of the biggest issues with cold cases is that the longer it takes to solve them, the colder the case gets. This case is 81 years old and the process for gathering evidence and documentation was not nearly as regimented in the 1940's. One also has to consider that World War II was raging and England was being air raided constantly. This case, unfortunately, was at a great disadvantage for being solved because there was no way that the police could devote the time needed to solve the mystery.


Another factor that is hindering the case being solved is that Professor James Webster was a forensic scientist who examined "Bella's" remains and sent the bones off to a friend at the University of Birmingham, however, the bones have never been accounted for since, which eliminates the possibility of possibly doing DNA and genetic genealogy tests in order to determine the identity of the remains. 

We can only hope that one day someone will discover the remains, find out the woman's identity, and link them to this case. Until then, the tale of "Who Put Bella in The Wych Elm" will both fascinate and puzzle people for decades to come. 

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