The Bella In Wych Elm – A Witch? Or Nazi Spy?

By
Marcus Lowth
Published Date
February 23, 2018
Last Updated
September 28, 2021
Estimated Reading Time
12 min read
Posted in
Conspiracy Theory Analysis, Unsolved & Unexplained

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.

Graffiti referencing Bella with a Nazi flag superimposed over the top

Graffiti referencing Bella – was she a witch, or a Nazi spy?

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, [1] 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.

“Bella”

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?

The Connections To The “Witchcraft” Murder Of Charles Walton

We have briefly examined the murder of Charles Walton in February 1945 previously, as well as the alleged connections to witchcraft and the relatively short distance away from the discovery of Bella’s body two years earlier.

In the book Who Put Bella In Wych Elm, Volume 2: A Crime Shrouded In Mystery, Alex Merrill also examined the case, and asserted that it was the “principal source behind the witchcraft theories” of the Bella case. [2]

Merrill highlights a newspaper article that appeared in the Birmingham Gazette on the 2nd August 1950 which went under the headline “Midlands ‘Black Magic’ Murders…. Witchcraft Lives On!” In it, featured the thoughts of Dr. Margaret Murray who claimed that Bella was the result of a Satanic human sacrifice. Murray would state that she believed “she (Bella) was another victim of the devil worshippers. Like Walton, her body was found in an isolated place”. She would further go on that “many of these murder with peculiar twists” were the result of similar organizations or cults.

Of course, although the article in the Birmingham Gazette might have been the first public and official connection to witchcraft, it is perhaps less certain if these ideas were discussed idly and locally in the immediate months and years following the discovery of the body. Given that there were apparent concerns over the Walton murder, as well as the many local rumors and myths, it is perhaps unlikely that such ideas were not discussed by the local population.

A Long History Of Witchcraft And Tales Of The Devil

As we will examine in a moment, a much more popular, and perhaps more believable theory emerged several years later in another newspaper article in 1953. However, the idea that witchcraft – or the dark arts, in general – might be responsible for Bella’s death, and that many people, especially at the time, might have believed in them is more than understandable, even if we don’t accept them to be true ourselves.

Legends in both the immediate and wider areas of the region are rich, with many going back centuries. At some point during the late seventh and early eight centuries, for example, the Devil, according to legend, unleashed a “great clod of earth” at the recently built Abbey. The legend continues that Saint Egwin, but use of divine “powers” forced the earth out of the way of the building, creating what is known today as Meon Hill, which itself is awash with legends and claims of groups practicing witchcraft and other “dark arts”.

Even more alarming, perhaps, was a murder that occurred over half a century before the Bella discovery and murder of Charles Walton, that of Ann Turner in 1875. [3] She was killed by John Haywood, who not only took her life, but pinned her to the floor with a pitchfork before slashing a cross deep into her neck and down to her chest.

Haywood claimed that Turner had been a witch in his defense of her murder, however, he was quickly found guilty and sentenced to death. Of course, the claims that Turner was a witch are almost certainly not true. And perhaps to back that up we should recall the words of J. Harvey Bloom who described Haywood as a “weak-minded fool” in the book Folklore, Old Customs and Superstitions in Shakespeare Land. Perhaps not easy to see how someone with limited intelligence and awareness combined with the persistent legends of their environment of such things as black magic and witchcraft might be easily convinced that a person was a witch.

The Midlands, England – A Place Of Interest For Nazi Spies

Ultimately, 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.

Skull and bones in the woods

Skull and bones

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. However, we should note that recent research suggests that Clara Bauerle died in Berlin in 1943.

Clara Bauerle - was she the Bella in the wych elm?

Clara Bauerle – was she the Bella in the wych elm?

A Simpler, Although No Less Grim Explanation?

Although the dark fascination of witchcraft or the dramatic intrigue of espionage remain the most popular theories to explain the mystery of Bella, there is perhaps, a simpler, although no less grim solution. For example, as we know, people go missing all the time, and there were no shortage of missing persons reports in and around the time of the discovery of the unidentified body. Many of those that remained unsolved could obviously be Bella.

More recently, however, in 2019, author and researcher Keith Swallows claimed to have gotten a lot closer to the truth [4] of exactly who did put Bella in the Wych Elm, putting together a potential book The Hagley Wood Tree Murder as a result (at the time of the revelations the book was unpublished).

It is Swallow’s opinion that there is “no evidence for witchcraft” and that the hand being separated was merely coincidence and “classic conspiracy theory”. He also dismisses the claims that Bella – whoever she was – was a spy. Not least due to the discovery of Clara Baurele’s death in Berlin in 1943. However, he points out that it would be suspect for “an assassin working for the government” to simply dump the body inside a tree.

While this is perhaps a good point, we might also consider that such a location as the tree might help to implicate – in theory – another section of the community, the traveling community. That is not what Swallows is saying, although he does suspect that Bella may once have been a member of such a community, which might, for example, explain why no records could be found of her in the UK. It is there we will turn our attention next.

A Brutal Victim Of Domestic Violence?

According to Swallows the dumping site was likely nothing more than a “convenient hiding place, known to some who used the tree regularly”. Ultimately, Swallows believes that Bella – whoever she was – was perhaps a member of the traveling community and that she likely met her brutal end as a result of domestic violence. Swallows points out that there were a number of traveling communities in the area in the same time window as the discovery of Bella’s body.

We might speculate further that it might not have been a partner or lover who was responsible for her death, and that she might simply fell victim of a random attack from a member of any part of the wider community. However, if that were the case (and keep in mind her remaining hand contained a wedding ring and she was found to have given birth), we might suspect her partner or other family members to have issued their own missing persons report. Perhaps this, then, makes the notion that Bella was essentially a victim of domestic violence a little more plausible.

We should note that Alex Merrill made similar potential connections to the traveling community in the book Who Put Bella In The Wych Elm Volume 2: A Crime Shrouded In Mystery, as well as multiple other possibilities of Bella’s identification. We should also note that Swallows himself state there is no “right or wrong” theory in the case, and the fact that it remains unsolved shows how perplexing the case is to researchers and investigators.

There is also the mysterious graffiti that began appearing around the area in the years that followed – something which still occurs today, although incidents are much further and fewer apart. According to Swallows research, the chalk on the very first reported incident of the bizarre graffiti in 1944 was written in chalk that matched on used by a local pub. It is essentially his conclusion that the graffiti was not some coded message or attempts at confessing by the apparent murderer or someone who knew their identity, but rather it was merely a joke carried out in “poor taste” that was then imitated as the months and years went by. And it is quite likely that Swallows is spot on here.

As we might expect, not everyone accepts Swallow’s take on the mystery. Just one of whom is Birmingham councilor, Peter Douglas Osborn, who has also researched the case relatively extensively. Furthermore, his father was a squadron leader in the armed forces at the time of the discovery and even had to guard the location upon the body being found. He would state quite bluntly that he “believed the spy story, but it is circumstantial evidence”.

Putting A Face If Not A Name To Bella?

Around a year before the claims of Keith Swallow, in 2018, a digital reconstruction of Bella’s face was revealed. The reconstruction was achieved [5] by Professor Caroline Wilkinson from Liverpool John Moore’s University, who along with her team used their specialist craniofacial skills to bring Bella’s visual identity to life, if not he she actually was. You can see that picture below.

The picture was achieved using multiple photographs of Bella’s skull after Wilkinson was hired by Alex Merrill for his book Who Put Bella In Wyche Elm?: Volume 1: The Crime Scene Revisited. Their work resulted in the first ever images of what Bella likely looked like during her life.

As well as the images of Bella, Merrill speculates that the body could have been placed in the tree much earlier than 1941, perhaps even as far back as the mid-1930s. This would seemingly make the claims of espionage being responsible for her death, or that Bella was a spy at all, a little les credible.

Perhaps also of interest is that many of the bones of Bella have “mysteriously disappeared” between the time of her discovery and the contemporary era. And while there is most likely an innocent explanation for this, for those who subscribe to the spy or witchcraft theories, this is a little suspicious.

Regardless of what stance we might take on the Bella mystery, that it still intrigues and frustrates researches in equal measure over three quarters of a century after the discovery is perhaps a testament to the many layers and complex nature of getting to the truth of this unsettling case.

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.

References

References
1 Is this the Bella in the wych elm? Unravelling the mystery of the skull found in a tree trunk, Allison Vale, The Independent, March 22nd, 2013 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/bella-wych-elm-unravelling-mystery-skull-found-tree-trunk-8546497.html
2 Who Put Bella In The Wych Elm: Volume 2: A Crime Shrouded In Mystery, Alex Merrill, ISBN 9781789 960624
3 The Story Of Ann Tennant of Long Compton, Warwickshire (1794-1875) http://d23iiv8m8qvdxi.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/The-Full-Story-of-the-Murder-of-My-Great-Great-Grandmother-Ann-Tennant-of-Long-Compton.pdf
4 Author claims to know who put Bella in the Wych Elm -one of Britain’s greatest murder mysteries, Mike Lockley, Birmingham Mail, August 4th, 2019 https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/midlands-news/author-claims-solved-bella-mystery-16688811
5 Face of Bella in the Wych Elm revealed for first time as 75-year Hagley Wood murder mystery continues to intrigue, Bev Holder, Stourbridge News, February 26th, 2018 https://www.stourbridgenews.co.uk/news/16048176.face-bella-wych-elm-revealed-first-time-75-year-hagley-wood-murder-mystery-continues-intrigue/

Marcus Lowth

Marcus Lowth is a writer with a love for UFOs, aliens, and the Ancient Astronaut Theory, to the paranormal, general conspiracies, and unsolved mysteries. He has been writing and researching with over 20 years of experience.

Marcus has been Editor-in-Chief for several years due to his excellent knowledge in these fields. Marcus also regularly appears as an expert on radio talk shows including Troubled Minds and Unexplained Radio discussing these topics.

Read Marcus' full bio.

You can contact Marcus via email.

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