1) Was ‘Bella’ Even Bella? … Or, Do You Believe Everything They Write About You On A Bathroom Wall…
The Wych Elm Mystery secured it place as one of Britain’s most notorious unsolved murders, in part because of the bizarre graffiti that appeared a year after like a message from the beyond the grave.
But what often gets left out discussion of the Wych Elm Mystery is that ‘Bella’ was a common Black Country name at the time. It was common enough that the original anonymous graffiti writer may well have been using it precisely because it was such a generic woman’s name.
As the case took on elements of urban legend, police believe much of the later graffiti was the work of hoaxers and copycats. But many officers believe that the original graffiti was also the work of a macabre hoaxer or a mentally ill person, who had been following the abundant newspaper coverage of then so-called ‘Tree Murder Riddle’.
Despite the tantalizing nature of this apparent clue, we should remember that the graffiti did not offer any new information about the crime or reveal anything hadn’t already been reported in the papers. It’s so ingrained to want to put a name to a person, that it’s easy to forget that we have no way of knowing where the ‘Bella’/ ‘Loubella’ angle originally came from.
Many of the later espionage-related theories take for granted that the woman in the wych elm was, at least at some point, known as Bella while she was still alive. But whether ‘Bella’ was ever called Bella before her sad death, has never been confirmed.
2) Hey, Witches? You Forgot Your Hand of Glory… Or, Why It Probably Wasn’t Witches.
Look, I want to believe that witches were involved. As someone with a lifelong city-dweller’s deep distrust of the English countryside, my default belief is that on every church fete organizing committee are at least two or three old ladies trying to convince the vicar that next year’s church-roof fundraiser needs more human-sacrifices and giant wicker men, and less whack-a-mole and lukewarm orange squash.
But the macabre detail that Bella’s hand was missing alone, almost certainly does not signify a black magic angle to crime.
Not least because many contemporary reports differ on whether it was a hand, part of her shin bone or both that were found buried near the body.
While Margaret Murray’s Main de Gloire theory makes for a completely delicious story, it doesn’t really stack up with what we know – either about the Wych Elm Mystery or folklore surrounding the concept of a Hand of Glory in the first place.
A Main de Gloire was supposed to be taken from a hanged criminal, preserved and then put to use for its magical properties. Clearly Bella’s hand was found near the body, so even if it had been removed deliberately, it hadn’t been taken away for use as a magical object.
There is also nothing to suggest that the hand or shin bone was removed deliberately.
Police officers found it without digging the area, which suggests it was only lightly covered over so it probably hadn’t been buried on purpose, and the pathologist never noted cut marks to the bone or other visible signs that it been removed before the body began to decompose naturally.
We do know that the woman was put into the wych elm feet first. As decomposition happened and the connective tissues keeping the bones in tact started to break down, the hand could have been carried away by an animal or, depending on how she had originally been positioned, simply fallen away from the body near the top of the trunk and been dislodged by strong winds, landing like a dead branch nearby.
3) Clara Baurele: The Spy Who Never Went Out Into The Cold In The First Place
Given the wartime nature of the crime, people have been questioning whether there could be an espionage angle to the wych elm mystery since at least the 1950s.
The earliest spy theories seem to have come from columnist Wilfred Byford–Jones, of the Wolverhampton Express & Star, after he was contacted by a woman calling herself ‘Anna of Claverley’. Initially ‘Anna’ claimed that Bella was a Dutch woman, who had been murdered for knowing too much about a pro-Nazi spy ring, but her story was to go through numerous revisions over the next few years.
‘Anna of Calverley’ was in fact Una Mossap, whose eventual account of how ‘Bella’ came to be in the wych elm is a unverifiable wild-ride involving Dutch spies, madness and an accidental death, which is too long to go into here.
While Anna/ Una’s story is pretty thin, spy rumors circulated for many decades, given credence by verified cases of espionage activity in the area at the time.
Others suggested that Bella, was in fact a Dutch spy by the name of Clarabella Dronkers. But it’s not clear whether there ever actually was a Dutch spy of that name o codename operating in the area, let alone that she was murdered and hidden in a tree (or, as had been claimed, that her spy ring included circus performers and high-ranking British double agents).
But the most promising candidate for Bella-as-Nazi-spy until recently was German cabaret singer, Clara Baurele.
Josef Jakobs Faces The Firing Squad With A Sausage In His Pocket
It all started with Abwehr agent Josef Jakobs, who in 1941 became the last person in British history to be executed at the Tower of London.
In the dead of night in January 1941, the Nazi operative had parachuted from an aircraft and landed in a field in Huntingdonshire.
Unfortunately for Jakobs, he’d landed badly and broken his ankle. Unable to get far, he was spotted the following morning by two farmers, still in his jump suit, with forged identity papers and a large quantity of cash.
In addition to a radio transmitter and a German sausage, investigators found a photograph of his glamorous, cabaret-performer lover Clara Bauerle concealed on his person.
Clara Bauerle had spent time in England and could speak with a West-Midlands accent. This, added to her connection to spymaster boyfriend Jakobs, caused speculation that she may have been working as a Nazi intelligence operative in the Hagley area at the time of the Wych Elm Murder.
Amazing Research By Granddaughter Ruins All The Fun
Bauerle seemingly vanished without a trace sometime in the early 1940s, leading many to conclude that she was the woman in the wych elm.
Not everyone was convinced however. Bauerle was known to be very tall, probably around 6 foot and ‘Bella’ was of petite build. There was also no evidence that Clara Bauerle ever actually worked as a spy, even if she may have been recruited as one by Jakobs.
But the final nail in the Clara Bauerle theory came about thanks to the meticulous research of Jakobs’ granddaughter, who keeps a blog about her notorious ancestor. She tracked down the records of Clara’s death 1942 in a Berlin hospital, which confirmed that while Baurle also came to sad end, she was not the woman in the wych elm.
The Clara Bauerle story would have made for a great murder mystery, but sadly we can write it off as a red herring.
Will The Mystery Of Who Put Bella in The Wych Elm Ever Be Solved?
Earlier this year Caroline Wilkinson, professor of craniofacial identification at Dundee University, used photographs of the skull, taken in the 1940s, to create an image of what ‘Bella’ may have looked like before her premature death.
It’s possible that putting a face to the mystery may help resolve this baffling crime, but after so many years it’s unlikely that anyone who knew ‘Bella’ while she was alive is in a position to help close this case.
Worst of all ‘Bella’s’ remains went missing when they were moved from a police forensic lab into storage, and as of yet have never been relocated. So unless the skull turns up labelled in a stationery cupboard or down the back of the break room sofa, there’s currently no way to use DNA to get answers in her case.
Unless You’re In An Italian Opera, The Gypsies Didn’t Do It
Seventy years on theories about murderous gypsies seem more like products of 1940s racism than a likely lead, while, as we’ve seen, the broader witchcraft/ satanic element is based more on the desire for a good story than the facts of the case.
The spy stories seem a bit of leap based on how slight their foundations actually are, but even if Clara Bauerle has been ruled out, an espionage connection is not entirely impossible.
As had been pointed out by others, rumors of witches and devilry would make a great smokescreen for wartime cover-up of a spy-ring operating in the area and spies were captured locally during the war.
But given the fact that the woman in the wych elm was probably asphyxiated, was not registered with a local dentist and that no-one came forward to report her missing locally, it does seem likely that she was living in precarious circumstances at the time of her death, may well have been new to the area and was quite possibly victim of a sexually motivated killer.
Stripped of its more outlandish elements, the Wych Elm Mystery is a desperately sad story of a woman lost, found and lost again within her own myth.
Whoever she was, wherever her bones may now be, may she rest in peace.