Who Put Bella In The Wych Elm?

bella in the wych elm

Image of skull found in the Wych elm.

It was the height of WWII and England was in turmoil. Countless people were left homeless by enemy action and numerous others moved between one place and another in order to live somewhere “safe.”

In April of 1943, four young boys were searching for birds’ nests in a place called Hagley Woods near Stourbrige, a town in the area known as the West Midlands. Legally, they were not supposed to be there, but they snuck into the area and went exploring. Eventually they came across a large Wych elm (Ulmus glabra).

One of the boys decided to climb the tree and see if there were any nests to be found. What he found was something quite different.

In the hollow center of the tree, he saw what he thought to be an animal skull. He reached down to pick it up and discovered to his horror that the object was actually a human skull, complete with teeth and patches of hair. He quickly dropped the skull back into the tree’s hollow. The boys talked among themselves and decided that since they were on the property illegally that they would keep the grisly find a secret.

But one of the boys apparently couldn’t keep a secret. He told his parents of the finding of the skull and they quickly contacted the local authorities.

Police went to investigate and pulled the skull from its hiding place. They dug further into the tree and came away with a full skeleton (minus one hand) and a wedding ring, one shoe, and remnants of cloth in the skull’s mouth. They dug around the base of the tree and later discovered the missing hand.

A forensic examination by a local professor revealed the fact that the skeleton was that of a female of about 35 years old. He estimated that she had been dead for approximately 18 months and had most likely been put into the elm while still alive or soon after death. He made this guess based on his belief that the body would not have fit into the hollow of the tree once rigor mortis had set in. The presence of the cloth (later determined to be a kind of taffeta) in the skull’s mouth indicated the strong possibility that the unknown woman had died from asphyxiation.

As stated, the find took place during a time of great movement of people within England, and so the chances of identifying the skeleton would be difficult. True, she could have been someone from the local area, but she could just as easily have been someone passing through the area on the way to somewhere else further away. The number of “missing” women of that era was enormous.

But the authorities did their best to find a name to go with the skeleton and to develop theories of how she got there in the first place.

Being wartime, one possibility discussed was that the woman had been involved in some kind of spying for the Germans. Had she been a spy who needed to be killed for some reason? Or had she been a loyal Brit who had stumbled upon spy activity in the area and needed to be silenced? This seemed an unlikely scenario, but it was a possible explanation.

A more sinister guess was also developed. Because one of the woman’s hands was found separated from the rest of the body, some theorized that the woman had died in some sort of human sacrifice. There is a folk belief that a “Hand of Glory” can give magical powers. Usually the hand is that of an executed criminal and then dried and used for occult purposes. Other authorities believed the much more plausible explanation that the hand had originally been with the rest of the skeleton but had been moved by wild animals in the area.

bella in the Wych elm

Graffiti found on the Wychbury Obelisk. Public domain image.

The puzzle continued for several months and then got more mysterious. Starting in December, graffiti was painted (or put there by chalk) throughout the area. Initially, near the site of the body was written: “Who put Luebbella down the wych-elm?” The presence of a name for the skeleton was investigated by the police, especially as “Luebbella” is an unusual name. This lead led nowhere. But later graffiti, found on a stone monument near the site asked: “Who Put Bella In The Wych Elm?” This would be replicated in other areas, but nobody was ever caught putting the graffiti into place.

Police wondered at the skeleton being named at all. Did someone in the locale know the identity of the slain woman? Was she someone named “Bella”? Searches through the local area turned up no missing person report of someone with that name.

Similar graffiti would be written on walls and monuments for quite some time, but eventually the graffiti just stopped. Nobody knew why.

The legend of “Bella” became local lore and the tale is still related to children today, ensuring that the mystery of the unfortunate woman in the Wych elm will endure for many years to come.

Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?” Stranger Dimensions website, pulled 1-27-15.
Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?” Wikiepedia, pulled 1-27-15.
Bella in the Wych Elm” Brian Haughton.com, pulled 1-27-15.

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Doug MacGowan

Doug MacGowan lives on the San Francisco peninsula with his wife, a dog, and far too many cats. He has published five books on the topic of historic true crime. In his free time he enjoys reading.

Historic Mysteries