Hagley Woods Mystery

Hagley Woods Mystery

Date: April 18, 1943

Location: Stourbridge, Dudley, West Midlands, England

Four teenage boys from nearby Stourbridge, Robert Hart, Thomas Willetts, Bob Farmer & Fred Payne, were in the woods poaching. It was a chilly spring day in rural England. They came upon an old hollow elm tree and decided it would be an ideal place to search for birds nests. Bob Farmer attempted to clamber up into the tree, but as he glanced down inside the hollow trunk he suddenly saw the empty eye-sockets of a whitened skull, staring up at him from among the twisted branches.

At first he didn't realize what he was looking at and thought it must belong to an animal, possibly a oppossum. But as he pulled the skull out from the gnarled branches and saw a small patch of rotting flesh on the forehead, the remains of some hair, and metal fillings in the teeth he realized what he'd found. The boys panicked...they were on the land illegally, after all, and were afraid of being punished for trespassing. They vowed to forget their grisly find and tell no one.

After hours of hand-wringing the youngest boy, Tommy Willetts, felt uncomfortable about keeping such a secret and decided to tell his father what they'd found. Naturally his father then told the Worcestershire County Police, who went to the site the following morning. Inside and around the old tree they found not only the human skull, but an almost complete skeleton, a crepe soled shoe and some fragments of rotted clothing. During a careful search of the surrounding undergrowth a severed hand from the body was also discovered buried nearby.

The task of examining the body fell to Professor James Webster, then head of the Home Office Forensic Science Laboratory in the West Midlands. After a detailed examination at the lab at Birmingham, Professoressor Webster ascertained that the woman was probably about 35 years old and 5' tall. She had mousy brown hair and a malformed lower jaw. There was a cheap gold wedding ring, no more than four years old, and she had given birth at least once. He estimated that she had been dead for at least 18 months before she was found. There were no marks of disease or violence on the body, but her mouth had been stuffed with taffeta, a synthetic silk fabric, and one hand had been severed and buried at the foot of the tree. The coroner declared cause of death as asphyxiation and estimated the time of death to be around October of 1941, 18 months before her body was discovered.

He stated that the woman was probably murdered and then pushed into the hole while still warm, as the body would not have fit into the hollow trunk after rigor mortis had set in. Professoressor Webster was able to reconstruct almost exactly what the woman had been wearing at the time of her murder, and it was then possible for the police to issue a description which must have been very close to the actual appearance of the mystery woman.

Most of the investigators thought it would only be a matter of time before she was identified. But the most unusual detail was that despite exhaustive searches through dental records, no trace of the woman was found.

Even after a description of the woman and the specific irregularities of her lower jaw were published in dentists' journals, and despite the fact that she'd had a tooth taken out from the right side of her lower jaw within a year of her death, there was no response.

The only thing that the police were fairly certain of was that the woman was a stranger to the area. There were no local missing persons whose description matched that of the victim. As well, only one clue came from anyone in vicinity of Hagley.

This clue was in the form of a report from the executive of an industrial company.

In July, 1941, he had been walking to his lodgings in Hagley Green, when he heard a woman's screams coming from Hagley Wood. A couple of minutes later he met a schoolteacher walking in the opposite direction who had also heard the screams. The men phoned the police who arrived and searched Hagley Wood, but nothing was found.

This incident was exactly 20 months before the body was discovered, and, considering the pathologist's estimate that the woman had been dead for at least 18 months before she was found, seemed extremely promising. However, as with many clues in what the press were now calling the 'Tree Murder Riddle', it was to lead nowhere.

Around Christmas 1943, graffiti began to appear on the walls of empty buildings in various parts of the West Midlands area.

The first message, written in large blocky letters in white chalk, said:


In the following weeks, the graffiti changed into:


And so it has remained for over six decades.

Though the graffiti seemed to be the work of a hoaxer, there was the slim possibility suggested by the slogans that somebody knew something about the crime. Appeals for the mysterious graffitist to contact the police proved futile, though the messages continued to appear, and have so, intermittently up until the present time.

However, the immediate result at the beginning of 1944 was that the unknown woman was given a nickname that even the police adopted.

There were and still are many theories as to the identity of 'Bella' and the mystery of her murder. But perhaps the most controversial was put forward at the time by Professor Margaret Murray, of University College, London. She was a respected anthropologist, archaeologist and Egyptologist, but her theories on the origins and organization of witchcraft, with her suggestion that it pre-dated Christianity, were controversial, and not taken seriously by many of her colleagues. Today some of her books have become cult titles.

Professoressor Murray drew attention to the fact that the hand was missing from the skeleton when found, and suggested it was the sign of a black magic execution. She linked it with 'The Hand of Glory', traditionally obtained at the dead of night when it would be cut from the body of an executed criminal hanging from the gibbet or gallows. The hand was supposed to possess powerful magic, and was used to protect its owner from evil spirits, to reveal where treasure was buried or even to put people to sleep. She also drew attention to the 'ancient tradition' that the spirit of a dead witch could be prevented from causing any more harm by being imprisoned in the hollow of a tree. Inevitably no evidence was ever found to back this up and some people believed that an animal could have been responsible for removing the hand from the skeleton.

Another major theory, somewhat less extreme than the witchcraft explanation, and with a little more evidence to support it, emerged ten years after the discovery of the body and came in the form of a letter to the Midlands newspaper The Wolverhampton Express and Star. The letter was sent to the columnist Lieutenant Colonel Wilfred Byford-Jones, who in November, 1953, had written a series of articles on the Hagley Wood murder.

The mysterious person who sent the letter claimed to have information about the murder and signed herself 'Anna', Claverley. According to this 'Anna', Bella was actually a foreign spy who had been part of a ring scouting out munitions factories in the area and reporting back to the Luftwaffe. The murder victim, 'Anna' claimed, was a Dutch woman who had arrived in England illegally about 1941 and had become involved in these activities. She had accidentally learned too much about a British officer who was a mole involved in the spy ring. In order to guarantee her silence, the officer and another spy killed Bella before dumping her body in the woods. The letter named the British officer involved, but he was discovered to have died insane in 1942.

Eventually when Byford-Jones and the police met 'Anna' they learned that the officer involved had been a close relative connected to a spy ring selling secrets to Germany. According to Byford-Jones, some of Anna's facts were subsequently verified, and apparently both MI5 and the police investigated her claims. Richard Deacon mentions that there was contact with an ex-Nazi called Herr Franz Rathgeb, who had spent time in the English Midlands during the war, and knew a German agent named Lehrer who had a girlfriend also working as a German spy.

She was a Dutchwoman possibly called Clarabella Dronkers, who had lived in Birmingham, was about 30, and had irregular teeth. It is a known fact that a Dutchman named Johannes Marinus Dronkers was executed for spying by the British in December 1942, but whether there was ever a Clarabella Dronkers has never been proven.

In 1968, the writer Donald McCormick revisited both murders. He asserted that Bella had been a Nazi spy, and occultist, named Clarabella, a woman well known to several senior Nazis, recruited by the Abwehr and given the codename Clara.

He claimed to have gained access to Abwehr records which indicated that she had parachuted into the West Midlands in 1941 but subsequently failed to make radio contact and disappeared.

Furthermore, at least one piece of the contemporary graffiti, he claimed, referred not to 'Bella' but to 'Clarabella'. It was an entertaining, if boldly uncorroborated theory and did nothing to help bring the case to resolution.

30 years later, the mystery endured despite continuing media interest, including from The Independent, which revisited the story in 1999. But the official closure of West Mercia Police's investigation and publication of the case file has allowed it to be re-examined, and a startling conclusion presents itself.

The police's final review acknowledges that while there would be some merit in a DNA investigation, they have been unable to ascertain where Bella was laid to rest.

But they overlooked the fact that after the post-mortem, Bella's remains were not buried by the local constabulary, but were in fact passed to one of Professor Webster's colleagues at the University of Birmingham for more unofficial tests.

The police were looking for Bella in the wrong cemetery.

McCormick's theory may lack hard evidence, but in the 1960s there were only limited lines of enquiry available. He certainly couldn't have had access to wartime MI5 files, which detail the interrogation of a Czech born Gestapo agent named Josef Jakobs, arrested by the Home Guard after parachuting into Cambridgeshire in January 1941.

His declassified file at the National Archives contains a photograph carried by Jakobs at the time of his arrest, which throws McCormick's claims into fascinating relief.

The woman in the photograph was named by Jakobs as cabaret singer and German movie actress, Clara Bauerle.

Jakobs told his interrogators that Clara was his lover and that they had first met in Hamburg where she had been singing at the Café Dreyer with the Ette Orchestra. She was well connected with senior Nazis and had been recruited as a secret agent. She was due to parachute into the Midlands after Jakobs had established radio contact, but he claimed that since he had been captured before he could send word, this was now unlikely to happen.

MI5 learned that Bauerle had been born in Stuttgart in 1906, making her 35. She was indeed a cabaret artist, in fact, she spent two years working the music halls of the West Midlands before the war and was said to speak English with a Birmingham accent.

Rumors that two German parachutists had landed and vanished in the Hagley area early in 1941 seemed to add more weight to the 'spy' theory. It all sounded somewhat promising when all of this came to light. The public became convinced that Bella had either been a spy or mixed up with spies. And when it emerged that her skeleton had disappeared from the Birmingham University Medical School, an outcry of conspiracy and cover-up began...though no proof was ever presented.

Certainly if she was discovered spying for Germany by the British she would have been arrested and questioned, but not executed and stuffed in a tree.

There were other theories, of course, that Bella was a prostitute who had picked up the wrong 'John', that she had been a refugee fleeing the Blitz and had met a rapist in the woods, that she was a gypsy murdered by her tribe for some horrible misdeed.

But for the people around Hagley Woods, the first two theories still held the most weight.

However, if Bella was a local woman sheltering from the blitz, then some clues should have turned up to her identity by now, either from relatives attempting to locate her, or from relevant dental records, but nothing has ever been found, and it seems no one knew anything about her.

The case is still open, though it has long since gone cold. With the body missing and over 60 years between the murder and today, the only thing that is clear is that the chances of anyone uncovering Bella's true identity and that of her murderer are so slim as to be impossible. Just as we may never be sure of Jack the Ripper's identity, so too will Bella become a figure of myth and folklore.

When Anna spoke to the authorities it transpired her real name was Una. She explained that her husband, Jack Mossop may have been involved.

They lived near Kenilworth and Jack worked in an aircraft factory. Jack met a Dutchman called Van Ralt in 1940 and suddenly he seemed to have a lot more money, so much so that he bought expensive clothes and even an officers uniform, though he was not in the armed forces. Una & Jack went their separate ways when his drinking became too much, but Jack came back in 1941, ill and with something terrible haunting his mind.

He was having nightmares about a skull in a tree. Jack confessed that he met up with Van Ralt at a pub near Hagley called the Lyttleton Arms and found him arguing with a Dutch woman. They all went for a drive and en route Van Ralt killed the woman.

Jack helped hide the body in the tree. Una said Jack died in a Stafford mental hospital in 1942.

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