An April day in the Hagley Woods near Birmingham, England would result in a gruesome find by four young boys. Inside an ancient wych elm tree, was the skeletal remains of what investigations would reveal to be a young woman.
Today, over seven decades later, the identity of the woman is still a mystery. As are the circumstances surrounding her untimely death. For many years, partly due to the long history the area has in witchcraft, many believed the death to be a ritual killing. Then came claims of Nazi spy rings operating in the heart of England as the Second World War raged.
Before we look at the details of this grim mystery, check out the video below. It looks at the basics of the case.
A Most Disturbing Find
While poaching for bird’s nests in the Hagley Woods on 18th April 1943, four teenage boys, Robert Hart, Thomas Willetts, Bob Farmer, and Fred Payne, would make a grim discovery. As the fifteen-year-old Farmer climbed up a wych elm tree to reach a nest, his eyes explored the inside of the hollowed-out trunk. Inside, was a human skull. One piece of flesh yet to decompose remained with a tuft of hair attached to it.
All of the boys, frightened but fascinated, found other skeletal remains inside. They would agree to place the discovery back where they found it, and say nothing to their parents, or anyone else. After all, they were on the land without permission, they reasoned with each other. And furthermore, they would be in even more trouble for poaching.
Willetts, however, was unable to keep the secret to himself and would inform his parents of the find later that evening. Following their son’s disclosure, the Willetts’ informed the local police, who would investigate the site shortly after.
They would confirm the remains to be human and of a young woman who had likely been placed inside the tree shortly after her death before rigor mortis could stiffen the body. One of her hands had been removed and was found buried nearby. On her other hand, her gold wedding ring still rested. A piece of cloth was shoved into her mouth, and the remains of clothing (all with the labels removed) and a pair of shoes were also found.
The identity of the woman remains a mystery, but investigations into her death and indeed who she was, would continue.
The mystery woman died around eighteen months before her discovery. Further examinations showed her to be in her mid-thirties and had given birth at some stage in her life. There was also signs of dental work done within the last year of her life, but a search of dental practices did not yield a record of the procedure that matched her remains.
Interestingly, and again for reasons unknown, bizarre graffiti began appearing on walls around the town. It would read “WHO PUT BELLA IN WYCH ELM?” (“Wych” often reads “Witch”). This line would appear in various places and would continue to do so right up until the early 2000s. This would lead to the mystery women being referred to as “Bella”, even by investigators. Whether the person behind the initial graffiti sprees was also connected to the murder is unknown.
Due to the area and such details as the severing of the hand, investigators initially suspected a ritual murder. Perhaps one connected to the many local legends of witchcraft and black magic. Even the position of the body in the tree bore remarkable similarities to ancient Druid sacrifices. Perhaps the young woman was the victim of a secret coven of witches? Perhaps she was a witch herself?
No leads were forthcoming, however. That was until 1953, a decade later when journalist, Wilfred Byford-Jones began to write about the Bella case in the local Wolverhampton press. Shortly after, he received a letter from a source signed only as, Anna. According to the letter, Bella was not a witch, but her brutal end was most definitely murder. This was due to her involvement in a “Nazi spy ring” that was active throughout the entire Midlands area of England in the first years of the war.
The Midlands, England – A Place Of Interest For Nazi Spies
The location of this spy ring would make sense as the region was home to multiple munitions factories vital to the war effort. Whether her murder was intentionally made to play into the already dark legends of the area is unknown.
Although many details of spy rings and operations were still classified after the war (mainly to protect Britain’s own intelligence operatives), had a German spy been captured, they would have been tried and executed. What’s more, the public would be aware of this, and the spy certainly wouldn’t have been stuffed into an old tree in the middle of the wood.
Anna would eventually reveal herself to be Una Mossop. She would claim that her husband, Jack worked at one of the many munitions factories in the region. When she had questioned him about extra money he had been bringing home, he claimed to have met a Dutch man, who was a Nazi agent. He had passed information on to this agent in return for the money. Interestingly, as we will look at shortly, Jack also claimed the involvement of a local cabaret singer working as a German spy who this agent passed his information to.
Further to this, during one meeting between Jack and his Nazi contact, a young woman was present. The lady was also Dutch, and Jack assumed she too was an agent. The two began arguing during a drive towards the Hagley Woods. The exchange was in Dutch, so Jack didn’t understand, but it would result in the contact strangling the woman to death. He then told Jack to help him take her body into the woods and help him bury it.
According to Una, Jack suffered a severe mental breakdown before his sudden death in 1941.
Revelations From German Intelligence
The rumors would die down again over the following decade. However, in the late-1960s, interest in them increased. Mainly due to information in Donald McCormick’s book, ‘Murder By Witchcraft’ in which he used information obtained in German intelligence files.
McCormick argued that a Nazi spy named Lehrer was operating in the Midlands area in late 1941. Furthermore, he had a girlfriend in Birmingham, a Dutch lady named Clarabella Dronkers. Further to that, she was a similar age to that estimated for Bella and she had slightly crooked teeth, much the same as the skull discovered in the wych elm tree.
These revelations are even more intriguing in light of revelations of a captured German spy in the Midlands in mid-1942 by the name of Johannes Marinus Dronkers. He would meet his end via the firing squad at Wandsworth Prison.
Might it be that Clarabella Dronkers was the wife of Johannes Dronkers? Had he murdered her for unknown reasons the previous year? Would this explain why there are no dental records of Bella anywhere in the country? Whether Clarabella Dronkers worked as a cabaret singer and was the other agent mentioned by Una’s husband Jack is unclear. However, another interesting detail is that of Gestapo agent, Josef Jakobs.
Upon his capture interrogators discovered a photograph among his items of a young German cabaret singer named Clara Bauerle. Jakobs would inform his captors that Bauerle was a fellow agent of the Gestapo. Even more spine-tingling perhaps is the fact that Clara Bauerle was indeed a star of sorts in Germany, including acting in movies. She had also worked in Birmingham in the Midlands for several years until a sudden end in 1941.
Clara Bauerle? Clarabella? Bella?
Was Clara Bauerle the same person as Clarabella? The Bella in Wych Elm?
It is easy to imagine that these people could actually be the same person. In a world where technology was nowhere near what we enjoy today, with even different towns cut off from each other, not to mention the strict conditions imposed due to the war, information and accounts become blurred.
If the spy theory is correct, and it appears to be highly likely to have at least some partial truth in it, then what is the connection to the wych elm and apparent witchcraft? It seems unlikely that if the story told by Una is true, that the two men would have gone so deep into the woods and made such efforts to bury the body following a murder on the spur of the moment. Was it pure luck that they happened upon an already hollowed-out tree?
And why the severed hand? The hand that remained was the one that contained the wedding rings. With this in mind, it is unlikely to be an attempt to hide the identification. If it was an attempt to make investigators believe it was a ritual killing connected to witchcraft, that would suggest more planning than the story Una told.
Might the connections to witchcraft actually be through the Nazi regime’s high-ranks’ interest in the Occult and ancient knowledge? While it is unlikely, in a case that remains unsolved almost eighty years later, perhaps all possibilities remain open. In military and intelligence environments the issuing of orders, for example, without explanation for why.
Check out the video below. It looks a little further at the connections between the Nazis and the Occult.
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