Yesterday's Myths & Mysteries

Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?

This year, we saw one of the stranger mysteries of recent memory: Elisa Lam, the young woman who was found dead in a water tank at the historic Cecil Hotel. While that case appears to be closed, officially, we still don’t know what exactly transpired that night in January, and I’m not sure we ever will.

Unfortunately, Elisa Lam’s macabre tale is not alone, as she joins a long line of troubling unsolved mysteries. There are countless such cases, but tonight I thought we’d look at the murder of an unidentified female that occurred just over 70 years ago, which to this day remains unsolved.

A Mystery In Hagley Wood

On April 18, 1943, four boys were out poaching in Hagley Wood, located in the village of Hagley in Worcestershire, England. There, they found a witch-hazel tree (sometimes mistaken for a wych elm), which they thought would serve as a good place to hunt for bird nests. One of the boys, Bob Farmer, climbed up to check it out.

That’s when he found a hollow opening in the tree’s trunk. A pair of empty eye sockets from within stared back at him, and at first he thought it was just the skull of an animal. He reached in and picked it up.

It was human.

A small fragment of skin and hair clung to its rotted surface, and crooked human teeth were clearly visible. Farmer dropped the skull back into the hollow trunk, and the four boys ran back to town.

Since they found the skull while out illegally poaching, they agreed to keep quiet about their haunting discovery. However, the youngest boy, Thomas Willetts, was so disturbed that he eventually told his parents, who then contacted the police.

The Investigation

A skull found in the wych elm

When police arrived at the tree, they found more than just a skull. Inside the hollow trunk, they discovered a nearly complete human skeleton, along with a pair of crepe shoes, a wedding ring, and some fragments of clothing. They also found a severed hand buried near the tree.

Upon further examination, the body was found to be that of a 35-year-old female. Taffeta, a type of woven fabric, was located in her mouth, indicating probable death by asphyxiation. The autopsy also confirmed that she had been dead for at least 18 months, which would mean she died sometime around October 1941. She was likely placed within the tree shortly after death.

The final conclusion by forensic scientist Professor James Webster was murder, most likely by asphyxiation.


That, however, was not the end of the story.

To this day, the identity of the woman found in Hagley Wood remains a mystery, as does the reason for her death.

There are various theories, including the possibility that she was an immigrant who became entangled in a German spy ring, and was later silenced (or that her parachute failed while diving into the West Midlands, though that theory has its own problems).

There’s a stranger theory, as well. If you remember, one of the woman’s hands was found severed and buried near the witch-hazel tree. This led some to believe that her death was actually the result of a black magic execution.

Why? Well, there’s something called the “Hand of Glory,” which is a nice way to describe the severed hand of a hanged man, which is then dried and pickled and thought to hold certain magical powers for its owner.

The following is courtesy Wikipedia:

“According to old European beliefs, a candle made of the fat from a malefactor who died on the gallows, lighted, and placed (as if in a candlestick) in the Hand of Glory, which comes from the same man as the fat in the candle; this would have rendered motionless all persons to whom it was presented. The candle could only be put out with milk.

In another version, the hair of the dead man is used as a wick, and the candle would give light only to the holder. The Hand of Glory also purportedly had the power to unlock any door it came across. The method of making a Hand of Glory is described in Petit Albert, and in the Compendium Maleficarum.”

However, as exciting as all that sounds, it’s unlikely to provide answers for the mysterious body found in Hagley Wood. As in the case of Elisa Lam, there are enough more probable explanations for her death that we don’t really need to look in those directions. Although it’s still a possibility, I guess (you don’t need to believe in black magic to be harmed by its…rituals).

As to her identity, there have been many attempts to uncover the truth, even today. The fact of the matter is that, at the time of her death, the world was in turmoil. People were moving place to place, and World War II raged on. Identifying the woman in a sea of other reported missing persons was just about impossible. There were also no missing persons reported locally that matched her description. Even dental records failed to provide identification.

And that is where we are today.

Who Put Bella In The Wych Elm?

A statue with Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm? written on front
Image: Flickr/mjeshenton via CC by 2.0

If you can believe it, the story takes one last peculiar turn.

In December 1943, mysterious graffiti began to appear throughout the West Midlands, written on walls and eventually upon the stone obelisk at Hagley Hall. The first read, in white chalk, “Who put Luebbella down the wych-elm?” The question changed in later graffiti, though it seemed to be written by the same hand: “Who Put Bella In The Wych Elm?”

Why Bella? Did the person writing the graffiti know something about the murder? Was it perhaps a reference to witchcraft (as belladonna, or deadly nightshade, is associated with witchcraft)? Could the writer simply have meant “Bella” as in “beautiful?” No one knows, and the person never came forward. But throughout the years, others have taken to writing the question in white chalk on stone surfaces, usually during the night when no one is watching. It’s become something of a tradition in the area.

For more on the mystery of Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm, I recommend heading over to Brian Haughton’s blog. It contains a more in-depth look at some of the theories surrounding the woman’s death, as well as a few more specific factoids. Check it out.

Rob Schwarz

Writer, blogger, and part-time peddler of mysterious tales. Editor-in-chief of Stranger Dimensions.