They found the woman’s body jammed inside a tree. As Nazi bombs rained down on wartime Britain, her death might have been passed off as just another statistic. Instead, it became one of the most intriguing mysteries of the war. It was murder, but the victim was never identified. There were hints she had been an enemy agent, and that the authorities knew more than they let on. There were ritual aspects to the murder strongly suggestive of witchcraft and the occult. Finally there were the anonymous graffiti messages, popping up everywhere, asking the question that remains unanswered to this day: “Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?”
It started in April 1943. A decomposed human body – by this time little more than a skeleton – was found inside a hollow tree trunk in Hagley Wood, about ten miles from the industrial city of Birmingham in the English midlands. Tattered fragments of clothing and a cheap, imitation gold ring indicated the victim had been a woman. The skeleton was complete except for one thing: The woman’s severed right hand was found 40 feet away.
A wad of fabric had been stuffed inside the victim’s mouth, and the pathologist concluded she had died from asphyxiation. He estimated her age as 35, and the time of death as approximately 18 months prior to the discovery of the body – October 1941. The police scoured missing person reports from all over the country, but without success. They failed to identify her from dental records, and no labels were found on any of the clothing. The woman’s identity remained a total mystery.
There may be a clue in the date of the murder. In October 1941, early in the Second World War, German bombers regularly targeted industrial sites around Birmingham. There was a constant threat of invasion, and people were always on the lookout for Nazi parachutists. A Home Guard soldier remembered finding a parachute near Hagley Wood some time in the fall of 1941, and seeing a suspicious-looking car parked in the woods near where the parachute had come down. In 1953, a local newspaper received an anonymous letter claiming the murder victim was a Dutch woman who had been working as a Nazi agent. Allegedly she was part of a spy ring that acted as forward air controllers for German aircraft, signalling their way to prime industrial targets using flashlights.
There is evidence the story was taken seriously by MI5, but nothing to suggest any official action was taken – except perhaps a cover-up of the truth. The skeleton, with its potentially valuable forensic evidence, disappeared under mysterious circumstances. After the autopsy the pathologist sent the remains to Birmingham University for safe-keeping, but there is no record the university ever received them. The police have doggedly refused to allow private investigators or journalists access to the case files.
One of the strangest twists in the case came in December 1943, eight months after the discovery of the body. An anonymous graffiti artist scrawled a cryptic message on the wall of a building on Upper Dean Street in central Birmingham: “Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?” Over the following weeks and months, similar messages appeared all over the area – most famously on the plinth of the Wychbury obelisk, just half a mile from where the body was found. By then, the spelling had been subtly and spookily altered – “Wych Elm” had become “Witch Elm”.
The graffiti is remarkable in that it gives the previously unidentified victim a name – Bella. The name was commonly associated with witches, as a shortened form of Belladonna. The body really was found in a Wych Elm – a tree that also has associations with witchcraft, even though the word “wych” derives historically from “wicker” rather than “witch”.
In pagan traditions, the sound of a word is as important as its original meaning. “Wych Elm” conjures up images of witchcraft, just as “Wychbury” does. “Bella” echoes belladonna, and “Hagley” echoes hag. Indeed, Hagley Wood had strong associations with paganism and witchcraft, and it’s reputed that Witches’ Sabbaths were regularly held there before the war.
The connection with witchcraft and the occult was strengthened when Margaret Murray became involved in the case. A retired professor from University College, London, she was one of the first academics to study witchcraft as a serious religious tradition, in contrast to the ignorant image of “Devil Worship” prevalent at the time. She put forward the theory that Bella’s death had been some form of ritual sacrifice, as evidenced by the symbolic disposal of the body in a “witch tree” and the removal of the body’s right hand. Murray identified this as the “hand of glory” – a powerful ritual object described in the 17th century Compendium Maleficarum.
The “witchcraft theory” explains certain facts that remain puzzling in the “Nazi spy theory”, such as the severed hand and the body’s placement in a tree. On the other hand, why was the woman never identified, and why were the authorities so secretive about what they knew of the case? These facts point more towards the spy theory than witchcraft.
My own view is that BOTH theories are correct. Contrary to centuries of prejudice and superstition, witches are not evil people. They are on the side of good, but they go about it using their own methods and traditions. The Nazis, on the other hand, really were evil. What if a coven of witches discovered that a Nazi spy was lurking in their midst? Might they not have dealt with the problem in their own way... by putting Bella in the Wych Elm?