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Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm: The Wychbury Obelisk Mystery

In 1943, several boys exploring the woods stumbled upon a terrifying discovery in Hagley Wood, Worcestershire, England: hidden inside a huge Wych Elm tree, they found the skeletal remains of a woman.

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Bella in the Wych Elm Graffiti
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Who put Bella in the Wych Elm: A Short Synopsis of the Case

The mystery of the crime story that would become known as “Bella in the Wych Elm” remains unsolved to this day. The long-standing confusion surrounding the woman’s true identity gradually coalesced into multiple theories and possibilities, from espionage to witchcraft, as the secret remained unrevealed. Who was Bella?

An overview of identity theories.

Bella’s real name and identity remain unknown to this day. However, the mystery’s investigators quickly became set on a series of theories. The five most widespread suggesting that Bella was a German spy, a city prostitute, a gipsy sacrifice, a maid from nearby Hagley Hall, or a missing person from faraway Birmingham.

Bella’s discovery:

When discovered, Bella’s remains indicated that she had been in the tree for at least 18 months, meaning that she was murdered sometime in 1941. Due to the piece of taffeta found in her mouth, the cause of his death was believed to be asphyxiation. Therefore, considering that the woman had been murdered and hidden in Wych Elm, the investigation was classified as murder.

Bella in the Wych Elm 1945

The body was discovered by four boys, (Robert Hart, Thomas Willetts, Bob Farmer and Fred Payne), who were either exploring the woods of nearby Hagley Hall or looking for birds nests and stealing the eggs.

Witchcraft and espionage: The darkest theories about Bella’s death.

Sensational theories about Bella’s death include witchcraft and espionage, among others. The witchcraft theory was supported by the fact that similar rituals had supposedly been occurring in the region, as well as the way in which Bella’s corpse was discovered. On the other hand, espionage theory fits into the broader context of wartime Britain, in which spies commonly parachute into remote, rural England.

Forensic findings:

What Bella’s bones tell us Forensic analysis revealed that Bella was a woman between 35 and 40 years old, implying that she would have been an adult during World War II. She had also had spotty dental work, but, more importantly, no remains of clothing or items could be found that conclusively identified her. In fact, in the new millennium there have been no significant advances in forensic science that could provide a conclusive identification of Bella.

Graffiti and public fascination:

“Who put Bella in Wych Elm?” Not long after her discovery was made, chalk and paint graffiti appeared on walls in the area asking “Who put Bella in Wych Elm?”  This persisted for years and even decades to come.

Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm 1950

The question “Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?” first appeared as graffiti on the Wychbury Obelisk near Stourbridge after the discovery of the remains in 1943 . The writer and the meaning behind this message are not definitively known, and various hypotheses suggest that it could have been someone who knew the case or that it was just a local resident with the desire to spread the message and maintain interest regarding this bizarre unsolved crime. The message has been refreshed several times on the obelisk and numerous nearby surfaces over the decades, with the intention to continue the legacy of the unsolved mystery. This repetitive manner of re-introducing the message points to an underlying intent to continue to evoke public passion and a desire to learn more about a case that has not yet reached a conclusion. This message has transformed into a symbol of the Bella case, forming part of the community’s collective memory regarding local landmarks.

The Wychbury Obelisk with amended Message from May 2024

Hagley Woods with Bluebells in the area where Bella was found in the Wych Elm (Wych Hazel)

Hagley Woods with bluebells in the area where Bella was found in the Wych Elm (Wych Hazel)

The role of local legends and folklore in the Belle mystery:

In fact, local folklore played an important role in the Belle mystery. Creepy tales of witchcraft and ghost sightings in and even around Hagley Wood have complicated the factual aspects of the Belle mystery and have woven a rich tapestry that makes it difficult to separate fact from fiction.

Key witnesses and suspects in the Bella case in Wych Elm:

The initial investigation focused on examining transient populations and local residents, but no suspects were identified. In fact, numerous people have been suggested as potential criminals, including known criminals and wartime spies. However, as of 2021, none have been definitively linked to Bella’s disappearance.

Motive for the violent crime:

What was behind the Bella mystery? Subsequent profiling techniques suggest that the perpetrator, familiar with the location and possibly harbouring a personal grudge against the woman, wanted the evidence permanently removed due to the level of premeditation involved.  There has been suggestions that the murder may have been linked to witchcraft or even devil worship as one of her hands was missing.  Interestingly, the nearby ruined temple has recently been graffitied with a devil face.

Devil Face Bella Wych Elm
Devil Face Hagley Temple

The role of World War II in the Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm mystery:

Clearly, the development of the research depended significantly on the war factor. Law enforcement was in dire need of resources and many officers were sent to the front lines. The war introduced an entirely new breed of people into the countryside, confounding attempts to track suspects.

Modern technologies for solving crimes and the Bella case:

Well-established techniques such as forensic science have come a long way over the decades and tasks such as DNA analysis are now much more effective. Modern challenges, such as the decomposition of biological material, offer limitations, and the mysteries of the last century do not provide sufficient documentation to apply advanced techniques.

Media view of the Bella mystery:

The media’s responses fluctuated serially in intensity. Initially, it became a sensation, displayed on the front pages of major newspapers all around the United Kingdom. In the post-internet era, subsequent documentaries and Internet forums rekindled interest in the case and prompted amateur investigators to offer theories.

The Shared Responsibility of the Mysteries

The internet has also birthed a growing community of amateur sleuths that continues to go over the available evidence, speculate, and entertain all kinds of hypotheses. Such enthusiasts also perpetuate an interest in these unsolved murders and ensure that the case lives on in the hopes that Bella’s true identity will be discovered and the circumstances of her death established.

The Legacy of Bella’s Case:

Moreover, fortunately or unfortunately, Bella in the Wych Elm stands as a dark testament to forensic science and criminal investigation’s limits, particularly during war. However, it demonstrates that human nature will always compel people to want to understand the unknown and solve it. Yet, merely it’s still a rich wellspring of reflection, from an artistic and historical perspective and a context for analyzing criminal mysteries to justice and the endurance of forensic science.

Who put Bella in the Wych Elm

Recently the graffiti on the Wychbury Obelisk has been changed to read: Hers (could be ‘Yers’) Put Bella in the Wych Elm. Is this just people being vandals or is it a message and a clue?

Various leads and theories have been followed up over the decades, including those from police investigations and public speculation. The case has seen reviews and re-examinations, such as the one by West Mercia Constabulary in 2005, but no conclusive conclusions have been reached, keeping the case at the forefront of unsolved British mysteries​.