It’s the murder mystery that has stumped a small village for more than 70 years.
In April, 1943, four teenage boys discovered a skeleton in the hollowed-out body of a wych elm tree. At first, the boys only found the skull, initially believing it to be the remains of an animal.
They pulled it out with a stick, soon realising the horrible truth of what they’d found.
Understandably freaked out, the boys put the skull back, and made a pact to keep their discovery to themselves, as they were trespassing on private land when they made the grizzly find.
The secret weighed on the youngest boy, Tommy Wittells, who told his parents, and a full investigation began. Despite extensive detective work, and a public appeal, the police could not identify the body, nor zero in on the exact cause of death.
Then the mysterious graffiti began appearing around town, asking the ominous question: “Who put Bella in the wych-elm?” And every few years it comes back.
Hagley Wood is located within Worchestershire, a county in the West Midlands in England. It was also private property, belonging to one Lord Cobham, and a great place for illegal poaching.
It was for this reason that the four boys who discovered the body were hesitant to report their findings, and why Bob Farmer first climbed the elm tree, assuming there would be bird’s nests to raid.
The boys only found the human skull, with tufts of hair and missing teeth, however police quickly recovered an entire female body from within the tree. She was estimated to be around 35 years old, and was wearing a gold ring, a shoe, and remnants of clothing.
She was — however — missing a right hand, bones from which were later found scattered nearby. Forensics estimated the body had been in the trunk for 18 months. There was a fragment of taffeta in her mouth, which suggested the victim had died of suffocation, and — most chillingly — it was determined the body must have been placed within the hollow trunk while still warm, as once rigor mortis had set in, it would have been impossible to fit within the tight confines.
This was clearly a murder case, although police couldn’t identify the victim, and had no suspects. It seemed like a dead end.
Then that Christmas a disturbing piece of graffiti written in chalk appeared on a wall in a nearby neighbourhood, asking “Who put Luebella down the wych-elm?”
This was the first time a name had been attached to the victim, and police were obviously interested. Despite a public plea for whoever wrote this to come forward, they remained silent. Similar messages kept popping up around town, seemingly written in the same hand, asking variants on the same question: “Who put Bella in the wych-elm?”
The graffiti rang with the implication that somebody knew the answer to the question.
The name “Bella” or “Luebella” suggested the artist was aware of the identity of the victim, and led to reports of a Birmingham-based prostitute named Bella, who went missing in 1941.
The timeline fit, although there were no dental records or relatives to help further match the victim.
The only other presented explanation didn’t come until 1953, a full decade after the body was found. Una Mossop claimed her cousin Jack had confessed to putting the body in the tree, with the help of a Dutchman named van Ralt.
The pair were reportedly drinking with an extremely drunk woman at a nearby pub and, after she passed out on the way home, put her in the trunk in the hopes she would see this as a wake-up call.
This dubious tale was further discredited by the fact Jack Mossop was confined to a mental hospital some years earlier, dying there before the body was even found. If he had told his cousin this story, why did she wait 10 years to report it?
The decades rolled by, and the mystery deepened. The missing right hand, the evil-looking wych-elm, and the mysterious messages led to locals spinning the murder into legend. A ritualistic killing? War-time espionage? A jilted love story?
Who was leaving the graffiti around the town, and what did they know?
In 1999, “Who put Bella in the Witch Elm?” [sic] was again written in white paint on the side of the nearby Wychbury Obelisk, renewing interest in the mystery.
This June, a cardboard sign again asking the question was attached to a fence near the woods, once more bumping this mystery into the news-cycle.
The identity of Bella was never discovered, and no suspects have ever been charged.
The mystery is now 73-years-old, so it is unlikely the 2016 sign is anything more than copycat graffiti. It is, however, possible that somebody with a heavy heart is still out there, posing the same question, hoping the secret will be solved before those who know the answer take it to their grave.
Now the story of an unsolved local murder is headed for the London stage.
It was 75 years ago that four teenage boys looking for birds' eggs on Lord Cobham's Hagley estate found a human skull, still with hair and teeth attached, in a hollowed-out wych elm.
The lads returned to their homes in the Wollescote area of Stourbridge, worried they would get into trouble for poaching but the youngest of them, Tom Willetts, found the secret too hard to keep, and told his parents.
Police were called and found the near-complete skeleton of a young woman, believed to have been strangled around 18 months earlier, inside the tree. In nearby fields they found her severed hand.
Not long afterwards, graffiti posing the cryptic question 'who put Bella down the Wych Elm' began appearing on walls around the West Midlands, most famously on the Hagley obelisk.
But the riddle of both her identity and that of her killer have continued to confound police and armchair detectives alike.
The mystery even brought comedian Steve Punt to the Express & Star head office in Wolverhampton when he launched his own investigation for his BBC Radio 4 series Punt PI, looking into the involvement of legendary E&S journalist Wilfred Byford-Jones, whose coverage in the 1950s opened up a new line of inquiry.
Theatre director Tom Drayton is the latest to show an interest in the enigma which has spawned wide-ranging theories about who Bella was and why she was murdered.
His show is due to open at The Space Theatre in London in March and potentially the Edinburgh Fringe in September.
He is also in talks with Midland theatres about bringing the story 'home' before the end of the year.
Mr Drayton, who teaches at the University of Worcester, said: "Part of the attraction is that this story is local to the Midlands and partly, there is an obsession with true crime stories at the moment which we, as a theatre group, very much follow.
"You can see it in series like Making A Murderer on Netflix and all sorts of podcasts. There's been a real surge in interest in real crime stories and it's something we'd already been exploring.
"The fact that this murder remains unsolved is another factor. In the end it's really elemental: there's a skeleton inside a tree found by four boys during the Second World War – there are so many images. It sets you thinking – what part can theatre play in telling this story?"
Early speculation was that she was a gipsy ritualistically murdered using witchcraft.
Byford-Jones was sent a letter suggesting Bella, thought to be aged 35 to 40, had been killed by a German spy-ring passing on intelligence about Britain's munitions and aircraft manufacturing base in Wolverhampton and Birmingham.
The spy theory gained more weight when MI5 published its wartime files, which reveal Gastapo agent Josef Jacobs, caught parachuting into Cambridgeshire in 1941, was the lover of actress and cabaret singer Clara Bauerle (possibly Bella), recruited by the Nazis as a secret agent, who had also been due to parachute into the Midlands in 1941.
Other lines of inquiry were that a Dutchman called Van Ralt had killed his mistress and dumped the body in the tree, and that she was a Birmingham prostitute who had worked the Hagley Road before disappearing mysteriously.
Mr Drayton, 26, said: "This story takes us from spies in Birmingham to singers in Berlin. There is so much to peel away, with one link leading to another. It's so much more than a myth."