During WWII in the Midlands of Great Britain in an area called Hagley Woods, some teenage boys (named Thomas Willetts, Frederick Payne, Robert Farmer, and Robert Hart) were looking for bird’s eggs and rabbits to poach when Hart found a skull stuck down inside a Witch Hazel tree, along with a green bottle and some blue women’s shoes. The boys went and found Fred’s older brother Donald to show their dead body off to, and that night they all told their parents what happened. Only one parent, Thomas’s father, phoned the police to report the corpse stuffed in a tree in the back forty of Lord Cobham’s country estate.
The nearly full skeleton was exhumed from the tight space, all but a hand (or part of a hand), and through forensics it was found to be a middle aged woman wearing a worn gold colored wedding band, who had given birth at some point, and had been dead for at least 18 months. Her missing hand was subsequently found buried near the tree. Another account says that it wasn’t the entire hand missing, but a few fingers that had been severed and a “shine” (‘Shin’? Tibia?) bone found on or in the ground nearby in some tree roots. The victim had some fabric stuck in her mouth, suggesting suffocation as a possible cause of death. No other traumatic injuries, aside from the hand injury, were noted. The location and size of the opening in the tree suggested that she was stuffed in prior to the onset of rigor mortis, although there of course is the possibility that she could have been put there after putrefaction had begun, when the body eventually relaxes from it’s stiff state during the decay process.
One site suggests that the location and size of the hollow in the log was prohibitive for such a task, and it would have been easier to dig a hole (if one, I suppose, had a shovel handy). It seemed the only obvious fact was that she very likely was not from the area. A paucity of attention was given to the investigation by some accounts, likely because of stressors secondary to the war on local law enforcement, and the case grew cold.
In the many years since, locals have not let the case go. Ever since 1943, messages in white chalk, often times written in the same distinctive hand, have been appearing around Hagley Woods in Halesowen and Blackheath, first saying “Who put Luebella down the wych–elm”, then evolving into “Who put Bella in the witch elm – Hagley Woods”.
The romance and mystery surrounding the case have brought out countless armchair detectives, and several theories to the identity of “Bella” abound.
The missing hand has led some to believe that she was a victim of a “black magic execution”. A leading professor of anthropology from the early 20th century named Margaret Murray put forth the idea that the buried hand signaled the use of the old custom of “The Hand of Glory”. Many past cultures have cut the hand from executed people, sometimes making a candle using the fat from the same corpse, and used the dried or pickled hand and candle as a charm for finding lost treasure or putting a sleeping spell on people. This theory loses some credibility if it was indeed only a few fingers missing. Murray added that the most important detail relating to the occult, is that it is an old custom to put women thought to be witches in hollow logs after death, to insure they cannot rise from the dead to inflict harm on the living. Lastly, the scholar thought the nature of this murder made a connection to the subsequent 1945 death of an elderly Warwickshire farmer who was found with a pitchfork and a sickle both shoved gruesomely through his neck.
Local church officials, when challenged with the idea that witchcraft was taking place in their parish, countered with the possibility that the unfortunate woman was a Romany (gypsy) who had somehow offended her clan and met with a fiendish end by her own band of Travellers.
Another intriguing explanation is that the woman was a spy from the Netherlands. A letter sent to The Wolverhampton Express and Star 10 years after the war ended claimed that the woman in the tree was part of a Nazi spy ring that involved a British officer and a “foreign” trapeze artist who performed nearby. After the Dutch woman became a threat in some way, the other two, the letter explained, murdered her and stuffed her in the tree. No one has mentioned this yet in any of the sources I saw, but it certainly seems to me that if you were a double agent and wanted to get some information from a reluctant informant, you might well cut off some fingers to meet your end goal. Also, rumors were circulating in the rural area that German parachutes had been located in the Hagley Woods around this time. Parachutes might not have been reported to the military at the time due to the simple fact the locals may have wanted to keep the fabric for themselves. At the time the letter was received by a local columnist, the officer (whose name I cannot ascertain from any source as of yet) had committed suicide years before, after a bout with mental illness. When Midland police and MI5 met with the informant, who was only identified as “Anna”, she gave details about the British officer that proved to be true, and was a relative to the man. The trapeze artist part of the story could not be verified. When Bella’s corpse went mysteriously missing from Birmingham University Medical School, it fanned the flames of government conspiracy to those who followed the case.
Along this same line of thought, author Donald McCormick claimed in his book Murder By Witchcraft that he received information from a former Nazi with connections in the Midlands that a Dutch spy named Johannes Marinus Dronkers, who was captured and executed for espionage in 1942, had a conveniently named wife called “Clarabella”, who was also spying for Germany and accurately fit the description of the Jane Doe in question.
More mundane explanations have been posed, including that she was just trying to seek protection from the blitz and got stuck, or that she had angered a lover who murdered her and hid her remains. Locals from Black Country seem to agree that, if she was murdered at all, “Bella” was likely put in the tree by someone with an extensive knowledge of the woods, likely a local person. The phantom sign writer – the man or woman who gave “Bella” her infamous name – is still writing on walls what looks to be the same 3 inch high, uppercase scrawl. Perhaps this person, who must be very advanced in years by now, has been laughing and taunting the police all along.
White Trash Peg is a big fan of The Fortean Times, has been to the UK a time or two and enjoys beans and black sausage with her breakfast. Although not a big fan of hot tea or Prince Charles, she thinks that little ginger headed prince sure is a hot tamale.