Who Put Bella In The Wych Elm? The Story Behind The Mystery That Has Stumped England Since 1943

For true crime enthusiasts and armchair detectives, few things are more fascinating than a gruesome demise with no trace of the culprit. These unsolved cases present endless possibilities, and one such mystery is no closer to being solved now than it was decades ago. In 1943, the skeleton of a woman was found inside the hollow trunk of a wych elm. The case of "Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?" is a story that starts out as a seemingly straightforward slaying, until it diverges into theories of occult rituals, spy rings, and espionage.

The case remains a mystery, in part because the police files are still sealed - the authorities consider the case open, even after the better part of a century. Why hasn't Bella undergone DNA testing? Why can't her remains be examined to bring closure? The answer to these questions and others are every bit as surreal as the initial discovery, which makes solving the case nearly impossible.

  • In 1943, Four Young Boys Discovered A Skull In The Hollow Trunk Of An Elm Tree
    Photo: Unknown author / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    In 1943, Four Young Boys Discovered A Skull In The Hollow Trunk Of An Elm Tree

    On an April afternoon in 1943, a woman's remains were discovered by a group of teenage boys who were wandering through Hagley Woods near Birmingham, England. Bob Farmer, Bob Hart, Fred Payne, and Tom Willetts were in the woods looking for animals to hunt, since they were unable to survive on their WWII food rations.

    In their search for food, Bob Farmer spotted a wych elm and thought he would find some bird eggs inside its hollow trunk. Instead, Farmer and his friends pulled out a human skull, prompting them to run away in terror.

  • Police Recovered An Entire Female Body, Clothing Remnants, And Finger Bones From The Tree

    Although the boys swore one another to secrecy following their gruesome discovery, Tom Willetts soon told his parents about the skull. His parents in turn called the police, and Hagley Wood quickly transformed from a quiet forest to an active crime scene.

    Police pulled not just a skull, but also an entire female skeleton from the wych elm. The only thing missing was a hand, and further investigation revealed a trail of finger bones scattered around the tree. Police also found clothing remnants, a shoe, and costume jewelry on and around the remains. Aside from these few clues, there was no solid evidence that could identify the body, and until an autopsy was performed, there was no way of knowing how long it had been hidden inside the wych elm.

  • A Pathologist Deduced That The Woman Was Placed In The Tree ‘While Still Warm’

    When local medical examiner Professor James Webster was called in to investigate the scene, he discovered a number of crucial facts about the remains found in Hagley Wood. Webster believed the woman had passed approximately 18 months prior in October 1941, providing police with a specific timeframe.

    Webster also deduced that the woman had met her end close to the scene, since her body would have only fit inside the hollow trunk before the effects of rigor mortis set in. In other words, her body had to have been shoved inside the wych elm while still warm.

    Webster's findings also indicated that the woman had been 35 at the time of her demise. She had light brown hair and had given birth to one child. Her skeleton measured just five feet in height. While these facts were all crucial to the investigation, determining the exact cause of her end was far more difficult than the authorities anticipated.

  • A Piece Of Taffeta Was Found In Her Mouth, Hinting At Asphyxiation

    Professor James Webster's autopsy ruled out the possibility that the woman took her own life, chiefly because of a single piece of taffeta fabric. The fabric remnant was found lodged inside the skull's mouth, indicating that the woman may have been suffocated. This information, in combination with the body's odd placement within the wych elm, assured Webster that someone else was responsible for the woman's demise.

    One account claimed the boys wrapped a piece of fabric around a stick and inserted it into the skull while trying to pull it out of the wych elm. While the boys may have tampered with the remains before realizing what they were, it's unlikely that any of them had been carrying a stray piece of taffeta, which was typically used for women's nightgowns or petticoats at the time.

  • Police Attempted To Identify The Woman Through Dental Records
    Photo: United States War Department / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Police Attempted To Identify The Woman Through Dental Records

    Today, forensic dentistry is one of the most effective ways of identifying human remains. This was not the case in 1943, when police painstakingly reviewed dental records across Great Britain in a vain attempt to find the true identity of the skeleton found in Hagley Wood.

    At the time, dental records were thought to be the key to solving the case because of the skull's distinctive overlapping front teeth. The lack of dental records available at the time, however, was a significant setback in the case. These records also became a point of contention for those who believed the woman placed in the wych elm wasn't British at all, but perhaps someone with an anti-British agenda. Armchair detectives have speculated for decades that a spy mission gone wrong was the real reason the woman was in the wych elm.

  • Six Months Later, Mysterious Graffiti Appeared Throughout The Area Calling The Woman ‘Bella’

    Around Christmas of 1943, graffiti appeared on a wall in Birmingham, reading, "Who put Luebella down the wych-elm." Soon after a second piece of graffiti appeared in town reading, "Hagley Wood Bella." Both pieces of graffiti seemed to be written by the same person, and more graffiti soon began to appear. Whoever was responsible eventually settled on the question, "Who put Bella in the wych elm?"

    Police began looking into missing persons cases of anyone whose name contained "Bella." Many are still unsure whether the graffiti was just a sick practical joke, or if someone knew more than they were willing to say outright.