A Night at the Opera

The evening of 14 January 1858 was bustling in Paris. The crowds were present and packed for a procession from Napoleon III, the then Emperor of the Second French Empire and the nephew and direct heir of Napoleon I. This evening he was due to attend, alongside his cousin and fiancée, Princess Mathilde Bonaparte a performance of Rossini’s William Tell at the Opéra Le Peletier. His arrival was scheduled for half past eight in the evening and the crowds were eager to witness the procession as it passed. For some the mounted cavalry stirred deep rooted feelings of patriotic fervor, for others the crowds provided an excellent mechanism for petty thefts and larcenies. For others still, the crowd served to provide excellent cover. A few hours before the Emperor was due to arrive with his retinue the Parisian police had spotted an individual in the crowd they had been searching for some time. Shortly after 7pm a police inspector by the name of Hérbert spotted Giovanni Andrea Pieri lurking amongst the gathered crowds near the opera house on the Rue Le Peletier. Acting swiftly, he and some constables moved behind the angular frame of the Italian, and roughly held his arms to his side, before taking him into custody. Only a few years prior on 28 April 1855, there had been an assassination attempt on the Emperor by another Italian by the name of Giovanni Pianori who had managed to unleash a few shots from the revolvers he had carried which had ultimately failed to find their mark. Pieri was well known to the police having immigrated to France as a youth, served in the French Foreign Legion, and been resident in Paris for years. In 1848, Pieri had taken part in the Paris Revolution, and had returned to his native Italy to take part in the first Italian War of Independence. A noted and known radical, he was aggressive in his demands for Italian independence, and his distinctive features were easily identified by the sharp eyed Parisian police inspector. When arrested, Pieri was found to be in possession of a loaded six shot revolver, a German passport in another name, and an explosive device the likes of which the police had never seen. Staying silent on the threat so as not to create alarm, the police assumed that the radical was acting alone, and that no other threats were present. As it transpired, Pieri was not alone in his plans, and the actions that were to occur later that evening would lead to an international crisis, the downfall of a government, and unleash onto the global stage a device designed and delivered from Birmingham, UK.

At 8:30pm the Imperial procession appeared on the Boulevard des Italiens heading towards the opera house. At its head was a company of lancers, the tricolour wafting from their steel. Behind them came the Emperor in his steel walled carriage, with his fiancée bringing up the rear, some thirty feet behind. As the group turned left onto the Rue Le Peletier where Pieri had earlier been detained, and came to a stop in front of the opera house, an explosion ripped through the evening, felling both horses and riders. Shortly afterwards a second explosion rang out. This was quickly followed by a third. Shouts and screams filled the streets as above the crowd windows broke and glass shards exploded outwards. As the smoke cleared, it was found that over one hundred people had been injured, and eventually between eight and twelve would die. Although Princess Mathilde had been thrown from her carriage, she was found on the street covered in blood, but unharmed. As too was the Emperor save for a small cut to his nose, who was able to step out of his carriage unaided. In the panic, and smoke, and chaos, the would be assassins had managed to slip away. For some it was not their first escape.

L’attentat de Felice Orsini contre Napoléon III by H. Vittori Romano, 1862

One of those involved that fateful January night was Felice Orsini (or Orso Teobaldo Felice Orsini to give his full name). Born in Mendola in the Papal States (which were later to become Italy) on 10 December 1819, Orsini was the son of an Italian nationalist, and was to become an ardent nationalist revolutionary himself. Giacomo Andrea Orsini was originally from Lugo and had been an officer in the Napoleonic Russian campaign of 1812, and following the conflict found employment as a member of the papal police, whilst at the same time continuing as a Carboneria, or member of the Carbonari, who were active in Italy between 1800 and 1831 and sought Italian unification and independence. Originally from Florence, Orsinis’ mother Francesca Ricci was to die when he was only twelve years old in 1831. Following the death of his mother, the young Felice was moved to the home of his uncle Orso Orsini in Imola in Northern Italy. Far more conservative than his brother, Orso had been made wealthy by the cultivation and trade of hemp for use in ropes, and raised his nephew in both an orthodox and strict environment. It seems that the way in which Orsini was raised was not strict enough however. At the age of 16, on 5 July 1836, Orsini was involved in a fatal shooting. The family cook, Domenico Spada had come across a teenage Orsini playing with a revolver that belonged to his uncle Orso. According to the record of the events as described by Orsini in his later memoirs, he had been so surprised by Spada that he accidentally discharged the revolver at close range resulting in the death of the unfortunate cook. Whatever the truth of this, Orisini soon gathered enough of his wits to flee both the scene and the home of his uncle. Initially charged in absentia with voluntary homicide, luckily for Orsini his uptight uncle was friends with the then Bishop of Imola, Mastai Ferretti. Ferretti as well as being the local bishop was highly enough regarded by the Catholic church that he would later go on to become Pope Pius IX. Perhaps because of the ministrations of uncle Orso, or the high standing of Giacomo in the papal police force, Felice was able to return to the home of his uncle and face a sentence of six months in prison for the accidental murder of the family cook. Following proclamation of the sentence, the Orsini family sent a plea to Pope Gregory XVI requesting clemency on the proviso that the troublesome Felice entered the seminary. Clemency was granted, and although Orsini completed some religious training, he did not become a priest. After a few years in the seminary Orsini first returned to his fathers’ home in Mendola, before again returning to the home of his uncle Orso.

Following the completion of both school and university studies, Orsini graduated and began to practice as a lawyer and became involved in the Italian nationalist movement. At the time of Orsini, Italy as we know it today did not exist. It was not until the Risorgimento that Italy as a country came to be. Before the unification, Italy consisted of a collection of independent states, including those controlled by the papacy. With the end of direct Napoleonic rule in 1815, Italy would be occupied by a variety of foreign nation states, including the Austrians, before it became a nation state in 1861. Orsini was involved in the radical Carbonari movement which consisted primarily of the middle classes and intellectuals who inspired by the French Revolution sought to enact Italian unification by the violent overthrow of all foreign occupiers, including Napoleon III. Whilst still practicing as a lawyer, Orsini founded a secret society by the name of Congiura Italiana dei Figli della Morte (Italian Conjuration of the Sons of Death). Although vaguely sinister in tone, the society probably served as little more than a debating shop, however this did not prevent his arrest. After spending several years in custody, Orsini was released under a general amnesty for political prisoners, which was declared by the bishop who had interceded in his earlier shooting, who had now become Pope Pius IX.

Following his release from Civita Castellana in Lazio in 1846, Orsini moved to Florence which was the birth place of his mother. Here Orsini continued with his earlier Carbonari activities as well as operating a legal practice and in 1848 joined Livio Zambeccari in the first Italian War of Independence. Lasting from March 1848 until August 1849, the First War of Independence saw Sicily first rebel against the rule of the Bourbon Empire before spiraling out from Milan, with Italian nationalists engaged in strikes, rabble rousing, and armed conflict with the Austrian authorities. During this period of tumult, Orsini found time to return to Florence, and marry Assunta Laurenzi on June 28 1848. Following the lead of Giuseppe Mazzini and seeking to bring about the unification of the Italian state by Republican means, Orsini, carried out revolutionary activities and attacks both within the Papal States and throughout the Tuscan region in which he was resident. Following the establishment of the Roman Republic in February 1849 where the rebels were able to temporarily (very temporarily it transpired as the Roman Republic lasted only five months in total) seize power from the Austrians, Orsini was elected as a deputy to the short lived Constituent Assembly. Following armed French interference at the behest of the Pope, the Assembly was disbanded and the short lived experiment in an Italian Republic fell apart, leaving Orsini and many of his peers to flee from invading French troops.

In March 1850, Orsini and his wife settled in Nice. Here he opened a business ostensibly to supply the hemp ropes supplied by his uncle Orso, however he still kept in contact with other Republicans and was in regular contact with Mazzini during this period. His revolutionary and mercantile activities did not impact upon the family growing however, and in 1851, Orsinis’ first daughter Ernestina was born. She was joined in early 1853 by her sister, Ida. Life as a small time merchant was frustrating for Orsini who like many of his generation longed for an Italian that was administered and controlled by the people of Italy rather than aggressive foreign powers. In September of 1853, Orsisin attempted to stage armed revolts in both Sarzana and Massa. Both of these resulted in failure and attracted the attentions of local legal enforcement agencies. Following this debacle, Orsini was forced to leave both his small business and small family behind, and escaped from Italy with the police close at heel, finally finding refuge in London. Life in the British capital was not particularly unpleasant (apart from the grey skies) for Orsini as he was still acting as an agent on behalf of Mazzini and was in frequent contact with other revolutionaries. Although exiled from both his country and his family, Orsini was not isolated, as England at the time had a wide variety of political exiles, including numerous Italian Republicans. Orsini was also not in England long. In 1854 on orders of Mazzini he travelled to Austria where he attempted to start a rebellion amongst troops and in doing so influence their actions within Italy. His attempts did not meet with success, and again Orsini was forced to flee to Hungary with the Austrian police and military in hot pursuit. Here his luck ran out and he was arrested in 17 December 1854. Orsini soon found himself detained for life in the fortress of Castello di San Giorgio in Mantua, Lombardy.

The imposing fortress prison of Castello di San Giorgio, where Orsini was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1854.

Although imprisoned for life, Orsini was far from bereft. He was still in regular communication with the outside world, including friends and acquaintances in the United Kingdom, and fellow followers of Mazzini in Italy. As well as communication with the outside world, Orsini was also able to have goods smuggled to him whilst imprisoned, and it was thanks to these that he was able to make a series of increasingly ludicrous escape bids. Initially, Orsini was able to get opium smuggled into his cell. This he used to drug the guard on duty. Unfortunately the small quantity of opium with which he was able to drug the guard with failed to have a particularly soporific effect and when the guards changed duty it was assumed that their drugged up colleague was merely drunk. Not to be disheartened, Orsini then had morphine smuggled in. Unfortunately the quantity provided was insufficient to drug all the prison guards and turnkeys on duty and so this plan too was aborted. Finally on 29 March 1854, in scenes reminiscent of low grade prison movies, Orsini was able to saw through the bars of his cell with a smuggled blade, and after constructing a rope from torn up bedding, shimmy down the 100 feet of the exterior walls of the Castello di San Giorgio. Somehow reaching the ground without breaking his neck, Orsini was met by his contacts, and after quickly changing into peasant clothing made off into the night. Eventually with the support of both friends in the UK and followers of Mazzini in Italy, Orsini was able to make his way back to London using false documents.

Despite the ease with which Orsini was able to make his escape, the fortress of Castello di San Giorgio had a reputation for being impregnable. A physical manifestation of the Austrian state, it was assumed that escape was impossible for those detained within. Much to the chagrin of the Austrians, and the delight of international members of the press, its defenses had been trivially bypassed using a saw, some torn up bedding, and possibly a small bribe to ensure the relevant guards looked the wrong way. Orsinis’ escape was the topping of much conversation, and he quickly exploited it producing two volumes concerning his adventures with Austrian jurisprudence, ‘The Austrian Dungeons in Italy’ (1856) and ‘Memoirs and Adventures of F. Orsini Written by Himself’ (1857) which were widely and enthusiastically read by an amused British public. Orsinis’ time in the United Kingdom was not just spent churning out epistles of his escape, and he was able to contact many fellow Italian nationalists. Included in their number was Giovanni Andrea Pieri who had been a resident of Birmingham since 1853, and Carlo de Rudio (about more later) was living nearby in Nottingham. As well as being in regular contact with those Italian Republicans in the Midlands, Orsini was also briefly a member of the ‘Muswell Hill brigade’ which centered around the radical English solicitor, William Henry Ashurst.  Opposed to capital punishment, and slavery, Ashurst was a proponent of the political and social equivalency of the sexes, and established the ‘Friends of Italy’ which welcomed refugees to the fold such as Orsini. Following a acrimonious dispute with another member of the Friends of Italy, James Stansfeld (who would later go on to be Sir James Stansfeld, MP for Halifax and President of the Local Government Board) and the issuance of an invitation to duel by Orsini, the latter fractured his long held association with Mazzini.

It seems odd, on first glance that Orsini would cease his adherence to the cause of Mazzini. He had after all, acted as an agent, an instigator, revolutionist, and briefly member of the Constituent Assembly and for years had adhered to both the cause and strategies outlined by Mazzini. The rift is possibly to do with the acrimony he encountered from the Friends of Italy, the influence of the French exile Simon François Bernard, or merely because Orsini perceived that the current strategy had resulted in little more than privation and exile. Simon François Bernard was like Orsini and exile in London, having taking flight from his native France, and was a committed revolutionary. Although at one point a military doctor in the French navy, by the time of Orisinis’ arrival in England, Bernard was very much associated with European radical movements and was perceived by many to be a martyr in search of a cause, and may have discussed with Orsini the plot of the rue Saint-Nicaise wherein a small group had plotted to assassinate Napoleon Bonaparte by use of explosives in 1800. Although he was not to find a cause in Italian Republicanism, the fatalism of Bernard may have proved contagious to Orsini especially considering the latters displacement from many supposed radical circles in London. It was following his break with Mazzini, that Orsini first formulated a somewhat convoluted plan. If he could successfully assassinate the French head of state, the French armed forces would be temporarily rudderless. The death of the French Emperor could perhaps lead to widespread revolt in France, which would spill into the rest of Europe, which could result in the formation of an Italian state as neither the French nor Austrians would be in a position to provide resistance having troubles of their own to consider and address. Fully convinced in the logic of his cause, Orsini sought out both supplies and co-conspirators who could help him enact his plan.

Orsini found likeminded radicals who supported his aspiration in Giovanni Andrea Pieri, Carlo de Rudio and another Italian nationalist, Antonio Gomez who was at the time also a resident of Birmingham. As well as being home to both Gomez and Pieri, Birmingham at the time was also a major manufacturing hub, and it was upon this expertise that Orsini was to draw. In his travels, Orsini had attempted to learn as much as he could with regards both improvised explosives and chemistry and it was a Birmingham gun maker to which he was to turn to develop his invention. Conventional explosives of the period relied upon a fuse or a timer, and it was Orsini who was to provide the world with an alternative. By appending pins filled with mercury fulminate to a casing filled with explosives and shrapnel, the device could be detonated by merely throwing it and causing the pins to come into contact with a solid object.

Orsinis’ Infernal Machine

Birmingham as highlighted was a hub of heavy industry and had a thriving market for gun makers who were at the time of Orsinis’ visit famed throughout the Empire and beyond. Taking the designs of his improvised ordinance around the city, Orsini was able to find a Birmingham gunsmith and manufacturer by the name of Joseph Taylor. According to Graces’ Guide to British Industrial History a likely suspect for the original maker of the Orsini bomb could be found at the time on 49 Lawley Street (which presently in known as Lawley Middleway) or later working as an engineer in an Iron Foundry situated on Broad Street  Following construction and testing of the device, Joseph Taylor provided several working devices to the conspirators who smuggled them into France under the auspices of medical equipment.

49 Lawley Street Birmingham, known today as Lawley Middleway. Where the Orsini bomb was fabricated is now the site of a Volkswagen car dealership.

With newly created fragmentation explosives in tow, the band of assassins arrived in Paris in 1858. On the evening of 14 January 1858, Pieri found himself detained, however Orsini, Gomez and de Rudio were able to detonate their Birmingham made devices with devastating effect. As a result of the explosions that shattered the Parisian evening, Orsini was injured himself by shrapnel and bleeding copiously from a jagged wound to his cheek made his way laboriously back the lodgings of the group after first seeking treatment from a local pharmacy. Although the suspicions of the pharmacist may have been raised, ultimately the group was undone by their youngest member Gomez, who prior to the attack had sought to steady his nerve in a nearby Italian restaurant and was questioned by the police who noticed his nervousness. They could hardly not, as his behavior in the restaurant had what was prompted the police to be called in the first instance. After running around the restaurant in a highly agitated state, Gomez had eventually slammed himself down at a table and ordered meal after meal in rapid succession, failing to finish any of them. When questioned by the police prior to the attack, he helpfully provided the address of the hotel he was staying at for his tenure in Paris. Within hours of the attack, the Parisian police had gathered descriptions of the suspects, and Gomez, de Rudio, and Orsini soon found themselves woken from their hotel beds and marched into police custody to face justice for an attack that left eight people dead, and one hundred and fifty eight injured, and the Emperor of France with a grazed nose.

French justice was swift, and the group was bought to trial on 25 February 1858. Following a two day trial in which the defendants all shifted culpability to Orsini, the judgements were handed down. Although their cause has created some sympathies in French radical circles, Orsini, Pieri, and de Rudio were all sentenced to death, with only Gomez (who was considered largely idiotic) was condemned to a life of penal servitude at the prison of Cayenne in French Guyana. Following the trial, de Rudio was also sentence to a life of penal servitude a decision that may have been as a direct result of his noble birth as he was in actuality the errant son of the Italian nobles, Count and Countess Aquila di Rudio. During his brief detention Orisini composed a number of eloquent letters, however for all his eloquence, sentence was carried out and on 13 March 1858, both he and Pieri were executed by guillotine in Roquette Square. Although Orsini had left a will and requested that his body be buried in Chiswick cemetery in London that was also the resting place of the Italian poet, Ugo Foscolo, the French state was in no mood to honor his request and his remains, along with those of Pieri were dumped in a common pit at the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris.

And here, the story of a Birmingham bomb designed by an Italian radical and thrown at a French Emperor that sadly resulted in civilian carnage would end, were it not for the oddities of history. One of these can ultimately be found in the life of Orsinis’ co-defendant de Rudio. Carlo Camillo Di Rudio (commonly called de Rudio) has a life that has unsurprisingly failed to attract either serious historical research outside of Italy, or the attentions of a Hollywood screenwriter. Born on 26 August 1832, Carlo was the son of Italian nobility, the Count Ercole Placido and Countess Elisabetta de Domini. He enlisted in the Italian military at the tender age of fifteen, and during the Milan uprising referenced earlier in this article was responsible for killing an Austrian soldier who had himself killed and raped two local women. Inspired by the injustice he saw around him, he took part in a number of failed rebellions and met Mazzini and Garibaldi before like Orsini having to seek refuge in the United Kingdom. Following his involvement in the Orsini plot, de Rudio was sentenced to a life of penal servitude in French Guyana. Within a year he had managed to escape from a seemingly inescapable tropical hell, and after surviving a storm which battered his raft as he floated free of Devils Island found his way eventually to England. To escape the diplomatic pressures that the French were bringing to bear on the UK authorities, de Rudio then immigrated to the United States, arriving just as the civil war broke out. Enlisting on the Union side was wounded on multiple occasions and rose to the rank of Captain. Following the civil war, de Rudio stayed in the military and was sent to the Western frontier joining the command of the 7th Cavalry and a certain George Armstrong Custer. On 25 June 1876, de Rudio was present for the infamous Battle of Little Big Horn. One of the few survivors of this seminal event in the history of the American West, de Rudio was transferred subsequently to Texas where he got to know Geronimo. Eventually in 1896 he retired before becoming a successful and prosperous vineyard owner producing wines grown from grapes he had imported from his native Italy.

The somewhat implausible life of de Rudio aside, the Orsini bomb was to live on owing to the later actions not of nationalists and Republicans, but of European Anarchists. On the evening of 7 November 1893, the Spanish Anarchist, Santiago Salvador hurled two Orsini bombs from the balcony at the Gran Teatro del Liceo in Barcelona which ironically was also staging a performance of Rossini’s William Tell (the same opera the French Emperor had been on his way to observe). The attack by Salavdor left 22 dead and 35 wounded and resulted in a crackdown by Spanish legal authorities that led to the detention, brutal torture, and death of hundreds of Spanish Anarchists. Rather than prompt a revolution against the bourgeoisie, the bloody attack by Salavador led to a bloody reprisal by the Spanish state.

Salvador was not alone in his use of the fragmentation grenade designed by Orsini, and its malignant spread resounded around Europe for decades after its creation in a Birmingham workshop. It remains perhaps one of the most barbarous and bloody exports from Birmingham, and its origins are arguably of interest to not only historians of political violence and terrorism, but those concerned with local history and its impact on the world as a whole. Although Joseph Taylor could not have known at the time, the ordinance he created was to leave a bloody stain on the pages of history, that are now for the most part neglected, however relevant to our own disappointingly fractured and bloody age.

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.