A Digital Reconstruction Reveals the Face of Famed Murder Victim 'Bella in the Wych Elm'
For people obsessed with the very specific sub-category of grotesque murder mysteries in wartime England, there’s no better story than that of Bella in the Wych Elm. On April 18, 1943, four teenage boys playing soccer decided to go for a walk in Hagley Woods, a forested area in Worcestershire. There, one of them wandered up to a witch hazel tree, a looming, storybook-sinister growth that was sometimes referred to as a wych elm. The boy, 15-year-old Bob Farmer, caught sight of a white protrusion from its hollow trunk that he thought was a bird’s nest. Peering closer, he realized it was a human skull.
Terrified, the boys backed away from their discovery, figuring the best course of action was to say nothing. By nightfall, however, 13-year-old Tommy Willetts broke down, telling his parents what he and his friends had stumbled across. They duly alerted police, and the next morning, detectives from the Worcestershire County Police and the nearby Birmingham force were on the scene, along with forensic expert James Webster. The team retrieved the skull, most of the skeleton, some decomposing clothing, a wedding ring, and a shoe. A right hand was found 100 yards away, with the other matching shoe nearby.
Webster quickly concluded the remains were the work of foul play, a scenario supported by eerie graffiti that began to spring up near the Hagley site. The scrawls gave a name to the victim by asking, “Who put Bella down the wych elm?”
For the next 75 years, no one could say how or why the woman was struck down before being stuffed in the tree. That may soon change, if someone is able to recognize the first reconstructed image of what Bella in the Wych Elm may have looked like.
Before it became a cold case, the story of “Bella” titillated true-crime aficionados of the era. Webster estimated the woman’s age to be between 35 and 40, and her height about 5 feet. Her murder might have taken place between 18 and 36 months prior to being found; he considered it likely she had been deposited into the tree immediately after death, since any delay would have allowed for limb-stiffening rigor mortis that would have made the task impossible. A wadded piece of taffeta had been found in her throat, leading Webster to suspect asphyxiation.
Attempts to identify the woman proved fruitless. Her large, protuberant teeth were circulated among dentists, but none could confirm ever seeing anyone with the same bite. Files of missing persons within 1000 square miles of Hagley Woods revealed no comparable profiles. One man reported hearing screams coming from the woods in July 1941, but no further evidence was forthcoming. Only the graffiti appearing in and around the crime scene—later dismissed as the result of a prankster—gave her any semblance of an identity. Both police and newspaper readers reluctantly filed it away as a morbid story with no apparent end.
In 2017, forensic anthropologist Caroline Wilkinson was approached by father-son authors Alex and Pete Merrill to see if she might be able to reconstruct a digital depiction of the victim’s face using photographs of her skull. Wilkinson, who has performed similar tasks on both recent criminal cases as well as archival reconstructions like Richard III, agreed. With colleagues at the Face Lab of Liverpool John Moores University, she was able to extrapolate facial features based on the available images. (It was necessary to use photographs because the real skull, having been moved around in storage over the decades, could not be located by authorities.)
“When reconstructing using a 2-D photo, rather than a 3-D model of the skull, we may only be provided with one, or sometimes a few, views,” Sarah Shrimpton, a research assistant and Ph.D. researcher at the Face Lab, tells Mental Floss. “However, there is still a lot of information within a photograph that allows us to make an assessment of shape, but as with all photographs, the planes of the image are flattened, which results in some slight loss of perspective.”
The flattened shape can omit key details—like how deep the eye orbits are, for example. Still, the photos of the remains provided valuable clues. “We were lucky to also have a profile view of the skull," Shrimpton says. "This proved useful when trying to estimate the shape of her nose.” A bony protrusion called the nasal spine indicated how and where the nose pointed; the alveolar bone, which supports the teeth, indicated the mouth size and the thickness of the lips as well as the general shape of the jawline. Since part of the victim's scalp was still attached to the skull, her hair length and possible style was available for interpretation. Bella’s unique feature—her protruding teeth—was also on clear display.
“Normally we depict faces with their mouths closed and a neutral expression. However, if the teeth are interesting, as in Bella’s case, then we depict the mouth open. It is also likely that her protruding upper teeth would have resulted in her mouth being slightly open at rest.”
Upon receiving the image from the Face Lab, the Merrills used the reconstruction as part of their examination of the crime. Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?: Volume One: The Crime Scene Revisited examines the early attempts to solve the mystery as well as some of the more sensational theories to arrive long after the case had grown stale.
The fact that Bella’s hand was found some distance from the tree led one observer, folklorist Margaret Murray, to speculate in 1945 that Bella had been the victim of a black magic ritual in which her hand was said to have occult powers. Putting her in a tree, Murray said, was one arcane way of imprisoning a witch. Webster, the more pragmatic forensic scientist, asserted that it was far more likely that animals had run off with her hand.
Another story—that Bella was in fact a German cabaret singer and secret agent named Clara Bauerle—seemed to lose steam when Bauerle was found to be around 6 feet tall, almost a foot taller than the skeleton found in the tree.
It’s possible that the depiction of Bella commissioned by the Merrills will open up new leads. Until then, she remains defined by the circumstances of her discovery—the woman found, and still lost, in the hollow of a tree.