Douglas MacGowan lives on the San Francisco peninsula with his wife, a dog, and far too many cats. He has published eight books in the genre of historic true crime. You can check out his book on the mysterious disappearance of the Sodder children case here.
Searching for bird nests was a common pastime for British children during the 1940s. Sometimes the children searched in public places and sometimes they snuck onto private property.
On April 18, 1943, several young boys went searching for nests in a West Midlands area called Hagley Woods.
After some time searching, they saw a Wych Elm (aka Scots Elm or Scotch Elm) that looked hollowed out and a good place to search. One of the boys scrambled up the outside of the tree and peered into the darkness in the middle of the tree. After his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he spied what he believed to be an animal skull. Reaching out for the skull with a stick, he stopped short as he realized that the skull was not from an animal, but from a human. The skull was intact with teeth and patches of hair. He quickly dropped the skull back into the tree and told his companions what he saw. Some of the boys wanted to report the find to the authorities, but others wanted to keep the discovery private, as they had been trespassing when they found the skull. They eventually decided to keep the find a secret and quickly left the area.
One of the boys, however, could not get the incident out of his mind and finally told his parents, who contacted the authorities.
The police quickly investigated and removed the skull from the tree. Clearing away the leaves and dirt from the hollow of the tree, they eventually discovered the full skeleton, minus one hand. They also found a shoe, a ring, and a piece of taffeta cloth in the skull’s mouth. They eventually found the missing hand buried near the tree.
The human remains were sent to a forensic authority, Professor James Webster, who stated that the skeleton belonged to a woman approximately 35 years old and that she had died at least 18 months earlier. He also made the grisly statement that the woman had probably been stuffed into the hollow of the tree while still alive or very soon after death. The cloth in her mouth seemed to indicate death by asphyxiation.
The police were up against a slim chance that the body could be identified. Due to the war going on, there were many people going through the area and the chances of finding one specific unknown woman were small.
One theory at the time was she had been doing secret work for the enemy. This would indicate the woman’s death was a covert murder of an accused spy. But she could have been someone from the local area. The best the authorities could do, however, was to try to find a name to go with the skeleton and to develop theories of how she got there in the first place – and their best bet was to try to match the skull’s teeth to dental records. Unfortunately, that turned out to be a dead end.
The police then went back to the possibility that the woman was involved in some kind of covert operation for the Germans. Had someone killed her for some reason because she was a spy? Or had she been someone from the general population who had discovered secret activities and needed to be silenced? Some of the locals believed there was a supernatural aspect to the crime. Some occultists believe in the presence of a “Hand of Glory,” a severed hand that is an occult artefact believed to have magical powers. Could this be the reason that the one hand was found apart from the rest of the body?
In the months that followed, the police came no closer to an identity of the skeleton. Then, December of 1943, someone wrote the cryptic phrase “Who Put Luebbella Down The Wych Elm?” on a monument near the tree. Was the dead woman named “Luebbella?” The police were excited – that was a very unusual name and so it might be easy to track down a woman of that name in official reports or by talking to residents of the area. But they could not find anyone with that name. They did discover that there was a prostitute named Bella who had vanished from Birmingham in 1941, but a definitive connection could not be made. As time went on, further graffiti, now asking “Who Put Bella In The Wych Elm?”, would occasionally and mysteriously appear in the area. One of the latest appearances was in June of 2016 on a piece of cardboard with the question clearly written.
Time went by and the case got cold. Over time fewer and fewer investigations into the crime moved forward. Also, unfortunately, the skull went missing from the police museum collection.
Over the years, various women were proposed as being “Bella,” including gypsies and local prostitutes. The candidate with the highest likelihood, many researchers believe, was a German actress and singer named Clara Bauerle. She was heavily suspected of being spy. She disappeared in 1941, which would just match Professor Webster’s guess as to the skeleton’s owner’s time of death.
Although the story of the woman in the tree faded from the minds of the general population, the story is still told by local residents – with very little hope, however, of ever solving the mystery.
The Independent, 22 March 2013 – “Is this the Bella in the wych elm? Unravelling the mystery of the skull found in a tree trunk”
Birmingham Mail, 25 February 2018 – “Revealed after 75 years: The face of Bella in the Wych Elm”
News.com.au, 23-October 2016 -Does graffiti hold the answer to this 73-year-old murder mystery?”
Wolverhampton Express & Star, 15 June 2014, “Punt PI investigates Midlands riddle”