Her skull peered out from the hollow trunk of a tree, a limp patch of hair still stuck to its crown. But on a bright spring morning in 1943, four boys from Stourbridge, England, traipsing through Hagley Woods near Wychbury Hill, had no idea what they would find.
They were on the hunt for birds’ nests when they spotted the old wych elm, and it was just begging to be climbed. Little Bob Farmer agreed to go first; he scrambled up. When he peered into the tree’s hollow trunk, he nearly fell backward. Staring back were the empty eye sockets of a human skull.
The boys raced home to their parents. Police were dispatched to Hagley Wood, where they discovered a crime scene straight out of True Detective.
Stuffed inside the tree was the decomposed body of a young woman – nearly complete. Crepe shoes clung to the skeleton’s feet; a gold wedding ring hung from her left hand. The woman’s right hand, meanwhile, had been completely sawed off. Police found it buried at the base of the tree in a ritual fashion.
Forensics placed the victim’s age at 35; she was the mother of one and had been dead for 18 months. Doctors concluded that she had been strangled and stuffed in the wych elm while “still warm,” as her body could not have fit once rigor mortis set in.
Who was she? How did she meet such a grisly end? News spread quickly about the “Tree Murder Riddle.” Many cried witchcraft. Others believed it to be the slain body of a prostitute. Then, the graffiti appeared.
“Who put Luebella down the wych elm?” read the hastily painted message on a wall in nearby Old Hill around Christmastime that year. Another popped up in Birmingham: “Hagley Wood Bella.” At the base of the crumbling obelisk atop Wychbury Hill, the ultimate version appeared: “Who put Bella in the wych elm?”
Numerous attempts to locate the author behind the graffiti were unsuccessful. The probing slogan spread throughout England and Europe – where it took on a life of its own. To this day, the question still appears scrawled across the walls of back alleyways, reigniting interest in the case.
The actual murder, meanwhile, may never be solved. Since the gruesome discovery coincided with wartime, resources were strained and police were overwhelmed with missing persons reports. Many of the case files have long since been lost. Even the body slipped through the cracks – authorities do not know where it ended up.
All that remains is the mysterious graffiti asking its haunting question: Who put Bella in the wych elm?