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Who Put Bella in the Witch Elm?

“Who Put Bella in the Witch Elm?” - a question first asked in 1944 when the words were painted on a warehouse wall in Digbeth, Birmingham, with an ominous clue to the answer also daubed there – Hagley Wood. In April of the previous year a group of boys were out hunting for bird's eggs in those woods, part of the Cobham estate arranged around the Clent hills in Worcestershire. One of the lads climbed up the trunk of an old wych elm, thinking it's hollow core would be a perfect place for a rooks nest, but when he reached inside the tree he was shocked when he gripped a human skull. The gang raced off home, swearing to keep the discovery secret as they had been trespassing on a private estate, but Tom Willet told his parents. Understandably shaken by what he'd seen, he then led the police to the tree.

Inside the wych elm was a full female skeleton, clothed and with some hair still attached to the skull but further searching revealed her severed hand some way from the tree along a path. The remains were sent for examination by pathologist Prof James Webster. He prepared a report painting as good a picture of her living appearance as he could and impressions of the still intact teeth were checked and cross referenced against all available records – with no match found. A piece of taffeta cloth was found deep inside her mouth and throat area which gave the only clue as to how the woman may have died, with Webster concluding she had been suffocated. This could also have been a gag of some sort and she was killed by a blade – but there were no signs of battering. She was around 35, just 5feet tall, with brown hair and had given birth at least once. She wore a wedding ring made of plain metal and had been put in the tree very soon after death as a corpse stiff with rigor mortis could not have been bent into the space.

Absolutely no firm evidence came out of the enquiries made by the police to identify the woman, and never has to this day. Theories abound, from her being raped by American servicemen to her being a drunk prostitute shoved comatose in the tree as a “prank” by local men. Other ideas have her as a spy, either killed by fellow double agents for “knowing too much” or summarily executed by British intelligence officers. This might explain her anonymity and lack of dental records, as examinations showed work had been carried out on her teeth close to the time of her death. Her clothing, or what was left of it, was very cheaply made but also very plain, and this along with her hair showing no signs of artificial colouring for at least a year led some to double down on this spy theory. She could have blended in to any street or factory, and surely if she'd been a street girl she'd have had a more “glamorous” style? Tales abound of Dutch spies parachuting into the forests around Clent, was she involved somehow, or even one of them? Unlikely, as British Intelligence would have removed any suspected spies to London for interrogation and subsequent execution.

Margaret Murray, the well-known folklorist and author of “The Witch Cult In Western Europe”, put forward the idea that poor “Bella” had been ritually killed in order to take her hand and turn it into a “hand of glory”. This macabre part of occult paraphernalia was allegedly the hand of a hanged man or woman, preserved and used as a charm to bind entire households in a deep sleep – enabling robbers to go about their business with impunity. Were the killers disturbed in their work, throwing the hand aside as they fled? Not a likely theory, and Murray's writings on magic and folklore were widely disputed and discredited as mere hypotheses with little connection to historical evidence.

Yet the occult theories persist. Others have said that Bella was the victim of a deadly ritual in order to invoke or even lift a curse, allegedly by old Romany gypsies, and this was the subject of a recent BBC TV segment. Why was one hand removed, was this a part of a dark ceremony or could animals have pulled it off? When you look at this case alongside the Charles Walton case and the death of Harry Dean on Bredon Hill, you'd be forgiven for thinking a murderous occult group were going about their dark business during World War II. We know that the New Forest coven was a group of modern witches who gathered during the war, culminating in their “Cone of Power” ritual where several of them allegedly died, so such a theory is no less plausible than the spy ring tales. The spelling of “wych” as “witch” in the old graffiti is telling for some.

And what of that now infamous question? The mispelt graffiti reappeared on an obelisk on Wychbury Hill which looks down on Hagley Wood in the 1970s, and has been repainted by persons unknown a couple of times since then. On my visit today it appears some “adjustments” have been made with “Who” being replaced by “hers”, along with a Grotbags style pair of hooped stockings being painted over the “witch”. Nonetheless, it points almost like an accusing finger towards Hagley Woods. The tree Bella was interred in is long gone, dragged out by the roots and the wood is private. An Iron Age hillfort sits next to the obelisk, containing some very old yew trees and has become a favourite gathering place for modern witches of the gentler kind, surrounded by woods as it is. It's one of the many places laying claim to be the last stand of King Arthur!

In a strange twist, the skeletal remains of “Bella” have disappeared with no authority having any knowledge of their whereabouts. Whoever she was, this lady had become an eternal feature of the modern folklore of England, but wherever her remains lie – may she rest in peace.

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