December 14, 2015 12:43 pm

wych elm

Something about England seems to attract the strange and mysterious– from Sherlock Holmes to Jack the Ripper, it always seems like something spooky is going on– but few cases can top the legend of the Wychbury skull. It’s like something ripped from the pages of an Agatha Christie book… except for one little problem: there’s no ending. The case has remained unsolved for 70 years… but someone (or something) won’t let the town forget.

The mystery began in 1943, when four boys lived out every kid’s nightmare. The setting: the rural, old town of Worcestershire, England in the 1940’s. The group of friends were exploring (read: trespassing on) their neighbor’s property, the creepy, old Hagley Hall, intending to do a little bird hunting. They found a tree that looked like a promising spot to find a nest or two, and climbed up it– but what they found inside the trunk was much more gruesome than a bird’s nest: it was a skull. At first, they tried to convince themselves that it was from an animal who had died while living inside the tree, but upon further examination, they realized that it had teeth and hair– it was undoubtedly human. Frightened, they put it back and quickly left– but not before making a pact to keep their discovery quiet; they had been trespassing, after all.

It wasn’t long before guilt set in for one of the younger boys, though, and confessed about the skull to his parents. The trio went back to the tree and were disturbed to find not only a skull, but a nearly-complete skeleton, a shoe, a wedding band, and some scraps of clothing. The authorities were summoned, and further investigation turned up a severed hand buried near the tree, as well as a fragment of taffeta in the skull’s mouth. The remains were sent off for forensic analysis, which revealed that the victim had been a female. She had been dead for roughly 18 months (placing her death in October of 1941), had likely died from asphyxiation (from the taffeta) and had been placed in the tree shortly after her death– she wouldn’t have fit inside the trunk after rigor mortis set in. There were no other clues as to her identity, and no evidence to go on. Plus, since England was busy fighting World War II and forensic technology was lacking, there was little hope of finding any other clues.

who put bella in the wych elm wychbury hill hagley hall england

But that’s just the beginning of the weirdness. In 1944, a prostitue reported a potential second victim, claiming the woman in the tree was a prostitue named Bella who disappeared in 1941. It was shortly after that that the graffiti began appearing. It was originally spray painted onto a wall in nearby Birmingham, but periodically since then, it’s been scrawled onto the Wychbury Obelisk. No one knows who wrote the original message, or how many people have written out the message, but it always says the same thing: “Who put Bella down the Wych Elm?”

In the 70 years since the body was discovered, there’s been only one promising suspect: a man named Jack Mossop. Mossop’s cousin came forward 10 years after the body was discovered and claimed that Jack had told her something before the body was discovered that led her to believe that he may have been present at her murder. According to the cousin, his story stated that he met a friend named van Ralt for a drink at a nearby pub. He said that van Ralt had an unnamed woman with him. This woman allegedly became incredibly drunk and passed out, and to teach her a lesson, Mossop and van Ralt put her in the tree, so that when she woke up she would be frightened into not getting blackout drunk again. The cousin claimed that Mossop died before the body was discovered– he had been institutionalized after reporting vivid nightmares that involved a woman coming out of a tree to attack him. The Mossop story is discounted by most, but it’s one of the few solid leads the case has ever had.

The case leaves behind numerous mysteries: who was Bella, and how did she wind up in the tree? Who wrote the graffiti, and what do they know? And, most of all, will the case ever be solved, and can Bella ever be put to rest, once and for all?