She had been there all winter. The ancient wych elm had been heavily coppiced by Lord Cobham’s foresters, until it had become a spiky porcupine tangle of thin branches, which jutted out in all directions from the hollow trunk.
She might have been there far longer, were it not for Bob Farmer and his friends, who were out looking for birds’ eggs in Hagley Wood, Worcester on a bright spring morning in April 1943.
The boys would often trespass in the woods around Hagley Hall, the elegant 18th century manor house which formed part Lord Cobham’s estate. The illicit thrill of being where they weren’t supposed to was intoxicating to four active young boys, who’d grown up with the dreary day-to-day privations of wartime Britain.
But when Bob clambered up into the elm and peered down into the trunk, he saw rather more than he bargained for. Hoping to find a nest, instead he found himself staring down at a human skull.
Not certain what he was seeing, Bob pulled the skull from out of its hiding place.
With growing horror, it dawned on the boys that what they had at first taken to be an animal, which had crawled into the hollow tree to die, were in fact human remains.
The woods seemed very silent and suddenly ominous. They knew how easy it was to make free range of the woods around Lord Cobham’s house; if four schoolboys could trespass with ease in Hagley Woods, then who else might have been here and with what purpose in mind?
They stuffed the skull back into the wych elm and swore each other to secrecy about what they had just found.
But even once back in the warmth and safety of his mum and dad’s house, Thomas Willetts, the youngest of the four trespassers, couldn’t get the image of the skull – with its tufts of gingerish hair and empty, staring eye sockets – out of his mind.
Like his friends, Thomas was still child enough to worry that police might be just as interested in their minor lawbreaking, as in the partially decomposing human corpse wedged in the wych elm in the grounds of Hagley Hall.
But despite fears of being led away in handcuffs and packed off to borstal, Thomas knew he couldn’t keep the presence of the skull a secret from his father. Rather sheepishly, doubting what he had seen, he confessed the day’s adventure to his dad, who promptly alerted the police.
Unsurprisingly police were far less interested in how the boys came to be in the woods, than in what they’d found there. But until they arrived at the scene, police remained somewhat sceptical of the boys’ claims.
It seemed far more likely that bored schoolboys may have mistaken part of animal skull, or even someone’s idea of a macabre practical joke, for something more sinister.
But even hardened detectives were stunned when arrived at the scene of the boy’s discovery.
Concealed deep in the tree, like a chick nestled inside an egg, was not just a skull, but the near complete skeleton of a woman.
Her hand and part of her shin bone were found partially buried in tree roots nearby.
From her advanced state of decomposition it was clear that whoever the woman had once been, she had been dead for at least eighteen months.
From the hollow skull police drew out a long piece of piece of taffeta cloth, which had been shoved into the unknown woman’s mouth; although whether this had been done before or after her death was impossible to determine for certain.
By the time the body was found, it was too late to know exactly how the woman had died. But police suspected someone had suffocated the unfortunate woman with the taffeta, before placing the body in the trunk of the elm tree and fleeing the scene.
One thing was clear though. Whoever had put the woman in the wych elm had done so very shortly after her death. Rigor mortis, which sets in as little as four hours post-mortem, would have made the body too rigid to fit within the narrow confines of the trunk. Her body had still been warm when she was deposited there, like a wood nymph or a pagan sacrifice.
The woman had been of slight build. Around five foot in height and slim enough that someone had been able to lift her up and conceal her within the elm with relative ease.
A pathologist’s report, the complete version of which has since been lost, estimated that she was in her mid-to-late thirties when she died and that she had given birth at least once.
In life her hair had been a mousy brown, which exposure to the elements after death bleached and lightened to faded red.
Stuffed down into the tree trunk with the body police found fragments of women’s clothes, a single shoe and a cheap, gold wedding ring.
From this they put together a sketch of what the mystery woman might have been wearing at the time of her death.
It’s often reported that police were too busy with the upheavals of wartime to investigate the woman in the wych elm thoroughly in 1943.
But this is misleading. Police performed an exhaustive and detailed investigation, which included cross-referencing thousands of missing person’s reports and circulating her dental records to every dentist in the country, in an attempt to find her identity.
However, by 1944 they were no closer to knowing who woman in wych elm had been, let alone who might have killed her.
So when graffiti appeared on a wall on Upper Dean Street, Birmingham reading ‘Who put Bella down the Wych Elm – Hagley Wood’ police paid attention. Graffiti relating to the case continued to appear on the walls of abandoned buildings around the West Midlands area, including variations like “Who put Leubella down the wych-elm?” and “Bella – Hagley Wood”.
With little else to go on, police began looking into possible missing ‘Bellas’ in the area, but despite massive media interest the few leads police found never amounted to anything and the case remains unsolved.
It’s never been clear who exactly was the behind mysterious graffiti, much of which appeared to be the work of the same hand.
‘Who Put Bella In The Wych-Elm’ graffiti would crop up for many decades after the case went cold and was last recorded in 1999.
Whether it’s the work of a hoaxer or series of hoaxers, or whether the original message really was written by someone who knew more than the police about the dead woman’s true identity, is as great a mystery as every other aspect of this case.
Many possible solutions to the riddle have been put forward, from witchcraft to German espionage, but though the question has been asked many times, seventy years on we are still no closer to knowing ‘who put Bella in wych elm?’.