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Mystery of skeleton in Hagley elm tree

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: June 06, 2014

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I WRITE to you as a non-fiction writer, with reference to an old murder mystery about which I am writing a book.

The case of the 1943 discovery of a skeleton in Hagley Wood – popularly known as the case of Bella in the Wych Elm – is one that will be well-known to many of your readers, and indeed is one in which The Bugle has played a vital role.

For those unfamiliar with this notorious Black Country murder mystery, it was in the spring of 1943, when four boys and their dogs were out larking about, hunting for birds' eggs in the bluebell-filled hollows of Hagley Wood.

Suddenly, one of the boys spotted a particularly tantalising-looking thrush's nest perched on the topmost branch of a wizened old Wych Elm.

Peering into the hollow bole of the tree to reach the nest, the boys were startled to see what appeared to be a human skull, leering up at them from the depths of the trunk.

The terrified boys swore each other to secrecy, but one of them went back on his word, and confessed details of the grisly find to his father, who immediately contacted the local police.

Members of the Worcestershire Constabulary descended on the site the following morning. To their astonishment, they found that the tree contained the skeleton of a woman.

The body had been in the tree for at least 18 months beforehand.

Stranger still, the woman's hand had been detached from the rest of the skeleton, and lay buried some distance away. The skeleton was submitted for examination to the renowned pathologist Professor James Webster, head of the Birmingham Forensic Science Laboratory.

A master in his craft, he was able to construct a remarkably accurate picture of the dead woman. Aged about 35, she had mousy brown hair, an unusual crossing of the front bottom incisors, had given birth recently, and wore poor, cheap clothes.

A piece of taffeta stuffed in her mouth led the Coroner's Inquest to conclude that she had been killed unlawfully, by suffocation.

The discovery of the skeleton in the tree at Hagley Wood launched one of the furthest reaching murder investigations ever seen in the United Kingdom, spanning more than 60 years. Everybody had a theory about the murder. The fact that the body had been found in a tree, and that the hand had been found some distance away, led to rumours of witchcraft and black magic rituals.

Other leads linked the dead woman to a network of German spies operating in the area. The most startling lead was when a mysterious woman contacted the Wolverhampton Express & Star in 1953, claiming that the dead woman was a Dutch spy acting on the orders of the German intelligence service, the Abwehr.

To heighten the intrigue, a year after the body was discovered – and for decades afterwards, even as late as the 1990s – graffiti started appearing scrawled across monuments and walls in the area, posing the question: 'Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?'

In the 1970s, the original founding editor of The Bugle – the late Harry Taylor, passing under the rather marvellous pen-name of Aristotle Tump – revived the controversy by running a feature on the Bella case, asking for anybody with further information to come forward.

A deluge of letters ensued, including one particularly intriguing communication with a Toronto postmark, which linked the murder with a network of German spies then operating in England and Canada.

Today, the mystery of Bella in the Wych Elm remains 'unsolved', and the case officially closed. Yet the remaining police files from the case bear witness to a massive cull of papers, to censorship on a massive scale. Was Bella really a part of a secret spy-ring? If so, who else – more important than her – were the police protecting? Like Harry Taylor, I remain convinced that someone, probably still living in the West Midlands area, has the complete answer to this wartime mystery.

If so, I would ask them to come forward with their story, in the interests of setting the record straight, and so that this particular skeleton that rattles still in the Black Country cupboard may be finally put to rest.

With kindest regards (and in fervent hope).

Piu Marie Eatwell,

piueatwell@hotmail.fr

Or by letter via The Bugle,

41 High Street, Cradley Heath,

West Midlands, B64 5HL.

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