A Whisper in the Woods

They had been lucky so far. The four friends, Robert Hart, Bob Farmer, Fred Payne, and Tommy Willetts had managed to avoid detection as they wandered through the woods. Spotting a large elm tree, the four approached, thinking it would be a good place to search for what they had come looking for. The year was 1943, and the world was at war, which left many, including the working class young friends who were walking through the woods, hungry. Too young to be conscripted, the boys (all of which were in their teens) had decided to try and assuage their hunger pangs by poaching on private land. Although the tree was old, largely hollow and had been cut so aggressively and frequently that the branches resembled wispy hair, in April they were confident that it may hold both nests and eggs. Reaching the base of the tree, Bob volunteered to climb it. At fifteen he was both a competent and confident climber. As he neared the top of the tree, Bob happened to glance inside the hollow. What he saw inside would remove some of his confidence, and leave a mystery that continues to baffle local historians, anthropologists, and journalists alike.

Hagley Wood is situated in Worcestershire, UK. Running along the boundary of Clent Hill, the woods are part of the estate of Lord Cobham who also owns the nearby Hagley Hall. The history of the Cobham clan can be traced back to Sir Thomas Temple, 1st Baronet, of Stowe who was the uncle of James Temple, a radical puritan and participant in the English civil war who would later be held responsible for the regicide of Charles I. It wasn’t until his grandson, Richard Temple, 1st Viscount Cobham was awarded the estate owing to his actions in Ireland, and in capturing and holding the city of Vigo in North Western Spain for ten days in September 1719 that the estate of Hagley came into the family. Many locals of the nearby village of Hagley, may have been unaware of the history of the Temple family, but they knew that at the heart of the second world war when rationing was at its peak, and food at its scarcest, that the woods made an excellent poaching spot, which was the explanation for the activities of the four local boys.

As he glanced into the hollow of the elm, young Bob Farmer saw what he thought was a pile of animal bones. Ironically the elm has always been a tree that has had long connotations with death and the underworld. In the Aeneid by Virgil for example, the elm occurs as a motif as Aeneas is led to the Underworld by the Sibyl of Cumae. For the Romans and Greeks, the elm tree was perceived as being a representation of ill omen, and some of this belief has leaked into British folklore. The tree that Bob saw the bones in was a wych elm, and many assume that this species gets its name from an association with witchcraft, however some etymologists claim that rather than wych being a derivation of the word witch, that it actually means pliant, which the wood of the elm distinctly is. Driven by curiosity, Bob pulled what he thought was an animal skull from the confines of the tree. Seeing two empty eye sockets staring back at him, Bob also saw strands of human hair attached to the skull, crooked front teeth, and a patch of rotting flesh. Dropping his gruesome discovery back within the hollow of the elm, Bob jumped down from the tree and joined his friends, all of whom agreed to keep their find to themselves rather than admitting they had been poaching in the private woods.

Three of the boys kept their word, but for the seventeen year old Tommy (who is often reported as having been the youngest in all but historical sources of the time such as the Birmingham Daily Gazette of 24 April 1943) the events of the afternoon proved too concerning to keep to himself. At some point on the evening of 18 April 1943 he told his father what he and his friends had found in the woods. The following day, Mr. Willets, reported the gruesome discovery to the Worcestershire County Police Force who were on the scene the following morning. Inside the elm tree they discovered a full set of small skeletal remains, rotting clothes, and nearby to the corpse a crepe soled shoe. Widening the search from the location of the discovery the day before, the police also discovered an empty bottle that was suspected as being attached to the case. In addition the investigators also found a number of small bones that were missing from the body. According to the more lurid accounts of this strange case, the remains of a severed hand were buried close to the base of the tree, however a review of the available documentation of the period which sadly is limited to press reports indicates that the working assumption of the police was that such bones as were recovered not attached to the body has been “carried away by squirrels or foxes that habitate the woods” (Birmingham Daily Gazette, 24 April 1943, ‘Summer Night Scream may be Woods Riddle Pointer’, Pg.4). It also fell to the local police who were soon joined by Detective Inspector Inight, and Superintendent Hollyhead (who was in charge of the investigation as reported by the press at the time) from the County Criminal Investigation Department to remove the body from its resting place. Once carefully extricated the body was transferred to the Home Office Forensic Science Laboratory in the West Midlands where it was examined by Professor James Webster. During his investigation, Professor Webster was able to determine that the body was that of a young woman, no older than thirty five, who was five feet tall, and had mousy brown hair. She also had irregularities with her lower teeth, and had given birth at least once. Whoever she had been, she had been in the tree for at least eighteen months before she was discovered by the boys, dying at some point in 1941.

Oddly considering where the body had been found, there were no marks of violence on the body itself. In the throat and mouth of the body, Professor Webster found a lump of taffeta, which was in his estimation the cause of her death by asphyxiation. The current location of the skeleton and the accompanying autopsy report are not known however, and so it is problematic for interested parties to review what additional data may have been collected. The body in the tree was the likely result of a murder, and had been positioned in the hollow when she was still warm, as the onset of rigor mortis would have made insertion into the narrow elm impossible for her attacker. As well as determining the cause of death, and rough description of the victim, Professor Webster was also able to determine what she had been wearing at the time of her untimely death, and noted that she was also wearing a cheaply produced wedding ring. This allowed the police to circulate a description to the local media and community.

Police sketch circulated in the local press (from http://www.blackcountrymuse.com/myths.htm)

Police enquiries and appeals largely led to naught. Although Professor Webster was able to establish that the victim had distinctive unaligned teeth, and had visited a dentist recently, appeals to local dentists and indeed even a description as printed in widely circulated dental journals (as revealed the Birmingham Daily Gazette on 4 May 1943), failed to result in identification. The clothing worn by the victim also proved to be a dead end from an investigatory perspective. All labels had been removed from the clothing, which was common for second hand clothing sold during the period. The footwear recovered was eventually traced to a market stall in Dudley which only dealt in cash, and had no memory of anyone fitting the victims’ description having purchased them. The police were left with a working class female victim discovered in a highly unusual location and with no motive for her death.

As reported in the Birmingham Daily Gazette at the time of the investigation, a clue to the identity of the victim and the circumstances of her untimely demise may be found a year prior to gruesome discovery in the woods. In July, 1941 several witnesses including a local schoolteacher reported hearing a piercing scream from within Hagley Woods. Although these reports were investigated at the time, no trace of their cause could be found. Some have assumed that this was because that there was nothing untoward to discover, and that the screams heard were actually mating foxes. Although the noises made by foxes can prove terrifying for the residents of cities, for those in the country, they would be a common noise, and not one that long term country residents may ordinarily confuse with the piercing screams of a woman in distress. Perhaps rather than foxes, the noise was more indicative of more suspicious and potentially deadly activities. Like so much with this case, the truth of the cause of the screams may never be known.

According to some accounts of the case, the police were presented with another series of clues that commenced in December 1943. On a wall in the Old Hill area of Staffordshire, block printed graffiti written in chalk was discovered that stated “who put luebella in the wych elm?”, however it is worth noting that seems to be little to support this claim directly. As reported by the media of the period (Evening Despatch, 30 March 1944, ‘Hagley Wood Bella’, Pg.1) the graffiti was joined in March 1944, by further on Upper Dean Street in Birmingham which stated “Who put Bella down the Wich elm Hagley Wood?”. On the same wall of the empty premises that had previously been targeted a few days before on Dean Street, the phrase “Hagley Woods Bella” was found scrawled high up on 30 March. The name ”Lue-Bella” was reportedly first seen on the side of a house in Haden Hill Road in Old Hill (Birmingham Mail, 1 April 1944, ‘Mysterious Writing on Walls, Pg. 1). At the time the theory of the graffiti writer as favored by the local police, was that it was the work of one individual the handwriting being consistent across all three occurrences, and someone who came into Birmingham in the early hours with farm produce for sale in the cities markets. Up until the present time and starting in the seventies when the case of the body in the woods began to enter local legend, graffiti still intermittently appears in the area local to Hagley Woods, typically on the Hagley Obelisk which stands in Hagley Park near the summit of Wychbury Hill (it is worth noting that the last time that this monument was reportedly defaced was in 1999).

There were numerous theories for the unknown victim, who would come to be known to all as Bella owing the activities of a potential hoaxer, and these are worth examination in detail. Perhaps the most lurid is that Bella was the victim of a witchcraft inspired sacrifice. This was seemingly first suggested by the anthropologist and Egyptologist, Margaret Murray who was the author of ‘The Witch-Cult in Western Europe’. Noted for her examination, Murray assumed that the case of Bella was linked to that of Charles Walton, whose badly mutilated body was found in the hamlet of Lower Quinton in Warwickshire on 14 February 1945. According to the theory proposed by Murray, Bella has either transgressed the ordinances of a local coven she was a part of, or been the victim of a sacrifice, and her missing bones, were sufficient to establish as much. Murrays’ theory is that whoever was responsible for the death of the woman in the woods, had taken the opportunity to remove her hand and construct a ‘hand of glory’. This theory was repeated by the British journalist and popular historian, Donald McCormick in his 1968 book, ‘Murder by Witchcraft: A Study of the Lower Quinton and Hagley Wood Murders’ (Murder by Witchcraft. London: Long, 1968) and has been repeated on numerous occasions since Murrays initial theories were published. A hand of glory is a dried, pickled, or otherwise preserved hand that is utilised in witchcraft that supposedly made immobile all those that were presented with it. In some instances the hand of a gallows victim is preserved and made into a candle. Unfortunately for Murray, McCormack, and later lurid researchers into the Hagley Wood incident, a hand of glory according to all the eighteenth and nineteenth century sources that first popularised belief in such, is always traditionally made from the left hand of a male victim of violence, commonly those that died upon the gallows. As shown in the articles of the period, unlike what many later researchers have claimed “Bella” was not allegedly missing a hand, but merely a number of finger joints. It seems far more plausible that such damage as occurred against the body was enacted post mortem, and rather than being as a result of the actions of a clandestine cabal of country witches was a result of natural decal and scavenging.

Another popular theory is that the mysterious body in the woods belonged to that of a war time spy. This theory first came to prominence ten years after the discovery in 1953, when the Wolverhampton Express and Star journalist, Wilfred Byford-Jones writing under the pen name of Quaestor began to compose and publish a series of articles about the case. In one of his initial articles, it was claimed by the local church warden A.H. Hodgetts that the woman found in the woods (now known to all and sundry as Bella) was actually a Roma gypsy that had been punished for an indiscretion of offence. Although more than a little racist by modern standards, it was this theory that was largely locally believed and initially posited by Byford-Jones. He changed his opinion however when he posted a reward of one hundred pounds leading to information concerning the death of Bella. One hundred pounds was a significant sum in nineteen-fifties Britain, and the journalist soon found himself deluged with letters. Of the number that flooded into the offices of the Express and Star, one stuck out from the many cranks, which stated:

“Finish your articles re the Wych Elm crime by all means. They are interesting to your readers, but you will never solve the mystery.

The one person who could give the answer is now beyond the jurisdiction of the earthly courts. The affair is closed and involves no witches, black magic or moonlight rites

Much as I hate having to use a nom-de-plume, I think you would appreciate it if you knew me.

The only clues I can give you are that the person responsible for the crime died insane in 1942, and the victim was Dutch and arrived in England illegally about 1941. I have no wish to recall any more – ANNA, Claverley”.

The Original “Anna” Letter as held by the Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service (http://www.explorethepast.co.uk/2016/09/monthly-mystery-who-put-bella-in-wych.html)

Anna was subsequently to meet both Byford-Jones and the police, and tell a tale of a spy ring that was operating in the Midlands area according the accounts provided by McCormick. The actual story she told (which has been conflated with that of Josef Jakobs which will be outlined later) was far more prosaic however. Anna, it transpired was really Una Mossop. According to Una, there were a number of pro German conspirators operating in the Midlands during the war and regularly passing on intelligence about munitions and aircraft factories. One of these was her ex-husband Jack. Although a black marketer, Jack also worked in a munition factory, and occasionally dressed as an RAF officer (even though he was a civilian). According to the confession he was later to make to Una, Jack had been drinking with a Dutchman by the name of Van Ralt, in a pub by the name of the Lyttleton Arms in Hagley. Van Ralt had been with a Dutch woman who was drunk and insensible. According to the accounts later provided when driving back from the Lyttleton Arms, Van Ralt had argued with the woman and killed her and then he and Jack Mossop had deposited her body in a the elm. In another account, the pair had left their victim alive and gagged in the tree, owing to her drunken state. The guilt proved to be too much for Mossop, and he was subject to frequent hallucinations concerned with a face in a tree, prior to his committal to a Stafford mental hospital and alleged death in 1943. In all probability, Mossop may have been committed to St George’s Hospital (known as the Stafford Mental Hospital between 1929 and 1948) however a review of the archives from the 1913 – 1960 Board of Control and Patients Admission Register as available online do not show an admission for either Jack or John Mossop (this may have more to do with the absence of searchable records via the Internet than their absence from the archives in Kew). Although the details provided by Una Mossop to Byford-Jones are intriguing, they have been muddied as highlighted by conflation with the case of Josef Jakobs.

As with the witchcraft theories proposed by Murray the espionage explanation for unknown woman in the woods has been latched upon by a number of people including McCormack. He claimed in 1968 that the body in the woods belonged to a German female spy by the name of Clarabella and sometime occultist that had parachuted into the Midlands in 1941, and lost radio contact with her handlers before for some reason ending up entombed in a tree (possibly as a result of being murdered by locals who subsequently hid the body rather than reporting that they had captured an enemy spy). Utterly unconfirmed, this theory was further confused by the release of MI5 war time records as pertaining to Jakobs. Josef Jakobs was born in Luxembourg in 1898 and by the time of the outbreak of the Second World War was a German citizen. Imprisoned by the Swiss legal authorities for selling counterfeit gold between 1934 and 1937, Jakobs eventually joined the Abwehr, the intelligence department of the German Army. In January 1941, Jakobs parachuted into the UK in Huntingdonshire in Cambridgeshire, but upon landing promptly broke his ankle. Quickly detained by the authorities, Jakobs faced a military court martial and was the last person to be executed by firing squad at the Tower of London on       15 August 1941. During his interrogation, military authorities recovered a photograph of the cabaret singer and German movie actress, Clara Bauerle who Jakobs admitted was his lover. According to statements released later, Bauerle had met Jakobs at the Café Dreyer where she was performing. As well as being as being a singer and sometime actress, Bauerle allegedly was also in close contact with leading Nazis and had like Jakobs been recruited into the Abwehr. According to statements that Jakob provided, Bauerle had a distinct advantage one many wartime agents, in as much as she had spent two years working in West Midlands music halls before the war, and spoke with a convincing Birmingham accent. According to reports published in the Independent Online (‘Is this the Bella in the wych elm? Unravelling the mystery of the skull found in a tree trunk’, 22 March 2013) Jakobs claimed during his interrogation that Clara had been due to parachute into the Midlands in Spring 1941 and had subsequently lost radio contact with the Abwehr. Clarabella or Clara Bauerle could well or so it was assumed be the mysterious Bella in the wych elm and the unsubstantiated claims made by McCormack could hold a ring of truth. Owing to the research of Giselle K. Jakobs researchers now know that not to be the case. In September 2016, revealed how after years of dedicated research she had managed to establish that rather than parachuting into the Midlands in 1941, Bauerle had died on 16 December 1942 at a Berlin hospital of complication caused by Veronal poisoning. Varonal was the first commercially available barbiturate marketed until the 1950s and it may have been the case that Bauerle may well have been the victim of a suicide possibly in reaction to the death of her lover Jakobs at the hands of the British authorities.

Death Certificate of Clara Bauerle from Giselle K. Jacobs (http://www.josefjakobs.info/2016/09/clara-bauerle-is-finally-laid-to-rest.html)

So, if “Bella” was not a spy, a sacrificial victim, an unfortunate Dutch immigrant, a gypsy, or a former coven member, who was she? One theory that has been suggested is that the body in the woods belonged to a prostitute from the Birmingham area that had been taken to the woods and subsequently murdered. This theory too seems unlikely. Although prostitution was rife in Birmingham during the Second World War, for a woman to travel from a secure location where she may have had the protection of her peers to an isolated wooded area which would have required a car ride seems doubtful. Alternatively, it has been suggested whoever she was, she was seeking refuge from a nearby air raid, and in doing so climbed voluntarily into the wych elm. Others have suggested that owing to the wedding ring “Bella” was a local resident who had an abusive spouse or partner who was responsible for her death and the disposal of her body. Still other theories have suggested that “Bella” may have committed suicide in mysterious circumstances akin to those of Elisa Lam in 2013. All of these theories, and those others outlined in this article, are of course conjecture, and they arguably do the victim a disservice.

Whoever “Bella” was, she ended her days in circumstances that were truly hellish. She was a small woman at only five foot. She was also in all probability a financially poor woman. She wore clothes from which the labels had been cut out which was common practice for second hand clothing purchased from markets. She wore shoes that had also been purchased on a market stall. She may have gone to the woods by choice, or by force, alive, or recently dead, but it was where her journey ended. She died on an estate controlled by a family that had huge influence in the local area. She died in an environment where poaching was a dangerous pursuit and where trespassers may have been shot by overzealous gamekeepers. She may have died as the result of a violent attack, or as a result of exposure, or as a result of a gunshot wound that failed to impact upon her skeletal remains, but she died alone and possibly in pain. Although her death remains mysterious it looks likely to remain so. In a final indignity, both the autopsy report and her skeleton have vanished from the Home Office Forensic Science Laboratory in the West Midlands or Birmingham University where they were believed to be present. Advances in DNA testing will never be applied to the remains of the woman found in the elm tree. In 2005 the West Mercia Constabulary (successors to Worcestershire Constabulary) officially closed the file on “Bella” owing to a lack of investigative opportunities. She deserves better than spurious theories, wild conjecture, and to be related to the category of “creepy” local legend. It is my hope that this post can dispel some of the mythos that has been built up around the unfortunate end to a life, and prompt a more serious consideration and examination that may finally produce tangible answers.

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