At the height of the Second World War four young boys went into Hagley Woods looking for bird’s eggs, then considered a proper occupation for a young man. But they found more than they expected, a human skull, hidden in the hollow trunk of a wych elm. When the police were alerted they discovered the full skeleton, although the left hand had been buried separately. The pathologist’s examination showed that it was of a female who had been dead about eighteen months and, because of irregularities in the jaw, police were confident they would soon establish her identity.
But a nationwide trawl of dentists produced no candidates and then things took a more sinister turn. Professor Margaret Murray, then a respected anthropologist, let it be known that this bore all the signs of a black magic execution, the ‘hand of glory’ of an executed person being ritually very powerful and the dead body enclosed in a tree would be unable to haunt its murderers.
Then the graffiti started appearing, ‘Who Put Bella Down the Wych Elm?’, first in Birmingham and then at other points in the West Midlands. Still the police seemed no closer to answering that question and, over the next decades, the graffiti artist continued to taunt them.
In the fifties another line of enquiry opened up. A letter to a local paper claimed that the victim was a German spy, killed by her confederates. The police dismissed this as fanciful but, just in the last few years, as MI5 files have been opened to public scrutiny, evidence of a German spy ring operating in the area has come to light. One of them had a photograph of a well-known actress, Clara Bauerle, whom he claimed had also been trained as a spy because she had worked the music halls of Birmingham in the thirties and spoke English with a pronounced Brummie accent. She was due to have been parachuted into the area at about the time the body in the wych elm had met her fate but there was no official trace of her.
The graffiti kept appearing, the last time as recent as 1999. Perhaps modern DNA would answer the riddle but, unfortunately, the skeleton has disappeared as mysteriously as it got into the tree in the first place.
By David Phelps