Bella In The Wych Elm
Welcome to the latest Horrified...and loving it! column in which people share the British horror moments that terrify and thrill them the most. This time, Anna Orridge explores the strange, unsolved mystery of Bella In The Wych Elm...
‘Who Put Bella In the Wych Elm?’
The question is in careful white capital letters, stark as the brick monument it was painted on. The obelisk stands at the top of Wychbury Hill, not far from where I grew up in Birmingham. More pertinently, it is close to Hagley Woods, where Bella (as she became known) was found in 1943.
Even as a child, the question struck me, because of its playful, enigmatic lilt – like a skipping rope rhyme. The writing has been there for decades. Almost identical graffiti appeared first on a wall in Upper Dean Street six months after the discovery of the skeletal remains, and then, sporadically, in various places across the West Midlands.
Bella was found in exactly the sort of tree you imagine might conceal a body: a Scots Elm, its eldritch trunk topped by pollarded branches, like a halo of rays of light. The boys who found her were collecting eggs on a private estate. The one who climbed up to peer into the elm’s hollow must have thought he’d hit the jackpot when he saw the white gleam. But instead of an egg, he pulled out a human skull, with some hair still attached. Shaken, and worried they’d get into trouble, the boys quickly headed home. The youngest of them, though, was too upset to keep it quiet and spilled the beans to his mother.
All this happened during the second world war when huge numbers of people were reported missing. Police were, however, initially confident about discovering Bella’s identity on account of her very distinctive dentistry – a mouthful of overlapping and protruding teeth. They could also tell she died by suffocation, a piece of taffeta cloth stuffed into her mouth. The body must have been placed in the hollow while still warm, or rigor mortis would have rendered it too stiff to fit.
There have been theories, of course. Some have speculated Bella was a Nazi spy, dealt a particularly harsh punishment by her confederates. One of the most troubling aspects of the mystery is her severed hand, found buried near the tree. Some believe she may have been the subject to a black magic ritual. The Hand Of Glory, traditionally, was the dried pickled right hand of a hanged felon, said to have magical protective qualities. Could Bella’s hand have been buried to prevent the victim from haunting the perpetrators?
If you Google ‘Who Put Bella In The Wych Elm?’ along with pictures of the tree and the graffiti, you’ll see a reconstruction of her face, done by the same expert who brought Richard III back to life. Her features are appealing, disarmingly youthful: wide eyes a little close together above a snub nose and those crooked teeth.
She has inspired an awful lot of art. Again, if you Google, you’ll find charcoal etchings of women curled up in the foetal position, branches bursting out of their lips and eyes. Bella’s fate taps into a deep folkloric seam. The wild woman of the woods makes an appearance in so many stories worldwide, from Greek Dryads to female Thai tree spirits and the child-eating Baba Yaga. Frankly, if this story was pitched as a folk horror concept, it would probably be rejected for being a little too… on the nose.
It has some echoes of the Jack the Ripper and the Black Dahlia cases. These unsolved mysteries became notorious largely because of the elaborately sadistic nature of the mutilations performed on victims. There has been a great deal of very valid criticism of the ghoulish and misogynistic framing of these murders in modern culture. As Hallie Rubenhold, author of The Five has noted, we should be talking about the victims – their lives and cruelly curtailed dreams – not obsessing about the degrading nature of their deaths. But neither Bella nor her killer (or killers) has ever been identified. There was only one mutilation, and even that may have been post-mortem. The police of the time came to the conclusion that the hand may well have been torn off by wild animals. But we simply don’t know. It is, I think, this tantalizingly unfinished quality as a story that has inspired so many poems, songs, TV series and films.
A few years ago the writing on the obelisk that so intrigued me as a child was altered. Somebody scrawled out the ‘Who’, replaced it with ‘Hers’ – apparently the tag of a local graffiti artist. This was much in the run of things. Graffiti, after all, is an art form of gleeful transience, as fluid and dynamic as the urban spaces it uses as a canvas. But it also seems the ‘right’ reaction to the story of Bella and the Wych Elm, which unsettles us because of its stunted quality as a story. All the potential leads have turned out to be dead ends, none of the rumours verified. Even Bella’s skull has been lost.
It’s a common horror movie trope – a disturbing phrase or snippet of music, repeated to the point of madness. Think of Jack in The Shining, frantically bashing out the same phrase on his typewriter over and over again. ‘All work and no play…” Or perhaps The Joker, leaving comedy-themed gadgets to belch out canned laughter. In Bella’s case, perhaps a stuck vinyl record would be the most fitting image for the era in which she died. (Incidentally, one of her touted identities is a woman called Clara Bauerle, a German actress and cabaret singer). It also suits that haunting graffiti tag. ‘Who Put Bella In the Wych Elm?’ – one of the most memorable musical refrains in the long Weird symphony that is the underbelly of British history.