Bella in the Wych Elm
As distressing as serial killers are, there is something in us that breathes a sigh of relief when they are caught. We know that whether they have been sentenced to death or they have simply gone on to live behind bars for the rest of their lives, they will never be allowed to harm people again.
That relief is entirely absent when we find a body but no killer. In the United States, the Black Dahlia mystery continues to haunt the state of California, but in the United Kingdom, collective chills are felt when someone references Bella and her wych elm.
This mystery is one that dates back more than sixty years. In 1943, four young boys were roaming the woods near Wychbury Hill. The boys would have likely said that they were simply walking, but it would likely be more honest to say that they were poaching, looking for eggs and other things to eat. One of the boys, Bob Farmer, climbed an enormous elm tree, assuming that there would be nests and eggs to be found. Instead of finding eggs, however, he found a mystery that continues to puzzle and frighten people decades later.
Farmer climbed the tree, and realized that though it was still in bloom, it was quite damaged. From the top branches, he could look down into a hollow trunk, and there he found what he at first thought was an animal skull. Closer inspection revealed hair and teeth, and he and the other boys realized that the remains were human.
As the boys were trespassing, they put the remains back into the trunk and go home, resolving to say nothing. The youngest boy, Tommy Willetts, felt the empty gaze of the skeleton preying on him, however, and he told his parents, who wisely told the police.
When the police started canvassing the site, they found a nearly complete human skeleton in the trunk, a shoe, some clothing rags, and perhaps most poignantly, a gold wedding ring. Close to the tree, they discovered a severed hand buried in the ground.
Wild theories abounded about the skeleton, ranging from mob hits to druidic sacrifice, but then the autopsy came back. A thorough examination told the public that the body in the wych elm was female, and she had been dead for at least 18 months. In her mouth was a wad of taffeta, leading him to believe that she had choked to death. However, from the measurement of the trunk and the position of her body, she would have been placed there very soon after her death; otherwise, rigor mortis would have prevented her from being squeezed in.
In many ways, the woman crammed into the wych elm was as much a casualty of war during her death as she was of a killer during life. In 1943, Europe was at war, and the search for her identity was lost. Today, both her autopsy and even her body have been mislaid.
The questions of who killed and why the killer chose such a place to hide her remain in the public’s mind, however. The listening public soon gave the lost woman the name Bella, and the graffiti, “Who put Bella in the wych elm?” has sporadic emergences throughout the UK.
Just a year ago, a Radio 4 programme suggested that the identity of poor Bella might be uncovered.
In 1953, a woman named Una Mossop stated that her cousin Jack had confessed to her that it was he and an unnamed Dutchman who had killed the woman and put her in the tree. According to Jack Mossup’s story, he and his companion had met a woman who had drank with them, passing out from inebriation. They placed her in the tree to teach her a lesson, not realizing that it would be fatal. In support of this story, Jack Mossup did dream often of a woman staring at him from a tree, though he died before Bella was found.
Others have made suggestions of who Bella might be, ranging from missing heiresses to prostitutes to abused wives. Whoever Bella was, however, it seems that she has taken her secrets to the grave.