Who Put Bella In The Wych Elm?

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This question, which appears in the form of a graffiti on a towering brick obelisk in Hagley in Worcestershire, England, has been haunting the small village for more than seventy years.

The story begins one April afternoon in 1943. Four teenage boys from a neighboring village were out hunting for bird eggs in Hagley Wood when they came across a large wych elm. In the hollow trunk of the elm they discovered what first appeared to be an animal skull. But after seeing hair and teeth, the horrified boys realized that it was human. Knowing the boys were trespassing on another’s property, they quietly put the skull back into the hollow and made a pact to tell no one about the grisly find. But the weight of the secret was too much to bear for the youngest of the boys, Tommy Willetts, who told his parents, who in turn notified the police.

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Photo credit: David Buttery/Wikimedia

When the police checked the trunk of the tree they found not only the detached skull but an almost complete skeleton, with a shoe, a gold wedding ring, and some fragments of clothing. A severed hand from the body was also discovered buried nearby. Forensics determined that it was the skeleton of a woman, around 35 years of age, and she had been dead for at least 18 months. A fragment of taffeta in her mouth established the cause of death as suffocation. The coroner declared that the woman was murdered and her body pushed into the hole while she was still warm, as rigor mortis would have made it impossible to fit the body into the tight confines of the hollow trunk.

Despite exhaustive searches through dental records, the police could not identify the victim. The Second World War, which was in full swing at that time, also hampered investigation as a lot of men and women had gone to the war or relocated somewhere else and were reported missing. The trail eventually grew cold.

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The skull of "Wych Elm Bella," as retrieved 18 April 1943.

That Christmas mysterious graffiti began appearing around town asking the ominous question: “Who put Luebella down the wych elm?”, or the variation, “Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?”. The messages were written in chalk in three-inch-tall capital letters, probably by the same hand.

This was the first time the victim was called by a name, implicating that the artist knew who the victim was and possibly the murderer too. Or perhaps the mysterious graffiti artist was the killer himself (or herself), mocking and taunting the police with his messages. Whoever the artist was, the person never came forward, but the messages continued to appear, and have so, intermittently up until the present times.

Whether or not “Bella” was the victim’s real name became irrelevant. The name stuck and even the police began to use it. Initially, investigation tracked down a Birmingham-based prostitute named Bella, who reportedly went missing in 1941, but results were inconclusive.

Thanks to the persistent graffiti, the murder mystery refused to die and as the decades rolled by, new theories emerged. An anthropologist named Margaret Murray was certain the case was tied to witchcraft. Cutting off the hand and imprisoning the body in the hollow of a tree was an ancient tradition, she pointed out. Another theory identified the killed woman as a Dutch spy named Clarabella Dronkers (notice the “bella” in her name?) who was passing information to the Nazis and was executed by her fellow Dutchmen for treason.

Periodically, memories of the macabre murder would be revived by a fresh graffiti. Since at least the 1970s, this graffiti has adorned the walls of the 18th century Wychbury Obelisk in Hagley Park. Sometimes the paint on the graffiti would fade away but there was always someone in town who wanted to keep the mystery alive, and a new graffiti would appear.

Even the police haven’t lost hope. As of 1999, more than half a century after the body was discovered, the case file was still open and the West Mercia police still waiting for new leads. But with most of the witnesses dead, it’s unlikely that any new leads will be coming. The true identity of Bella will perhaps never be found.

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Photo credit: A Sibs Oddity/Flickr

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The Hagley Monument where the graffiti is painted. Photo credit: Tony Hisgett/Wikimedia

Sources: www.news.com.au / Brian Haughton / BBC / Wikipedia

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