In February 2018, Dr. Caroline Wilkinson, forensic anthropologist and Director of the Faces Lab at Liverpool John Moores University, revealed her facial reconstruction of ‘Bella in the Wych Elm‘. The digital reconstruction shows the smiling face of a young woman with crooked teeth, big, narrow-set eyes, and a snub nose. ‘Bella in the Wych Elm‘ is the nickname given to a 75-year-old cold case of an unidentified woman who was killed and had her remains stuffed into a tree in Worcestershire, England.
On April 8, 1943, four boys, who were playing in the Hagley Woods, discovered some human bones in a wych elm. The West Midlands Police recovered the body and a post-mortem examination was conducted by Professor James Webster, a forensic scientist at nearby University of Birmingham. Webster estimated that the bones belonged to a woman between 35 and 40 years old, who was about five feet tall, and may have given birth. Because a wad of taffeta had been stuffed into her mouth, Webster surmised that her cause of death was homicide by asphyxiation and estimated that she died about 18 months earlier. He thought that her killer hid the body in the tree shortly after her death because the killer or killers could not have done this after rigor mortis, stiffening of the joints and muscles of the body after death, set in.
About six months after Jane Doe’s bones were found, someone started painting the message, “Who put Bella down the Wych Elm?” around Birmingham and Hagley. No one knows if the graffiti was the work of an anonymous tipster who knew the unidentified woman’s name or a prankster who wanted to create controversy. Either way, the message kept the case in the newspapers and added more intrigue to already baffling case.
Despite combing through missing persons reports and dental records nationwide, Bella in the Wych Elm was never identified. To make matters worse, the police lost the woman’s skeletal remains. At certain points over the decades, the bones were stored by the West Midlands Police, the West Midlands Police Museum, and a Birmingham forensics lab. Officials from all of these locations scoured their records and storage and could not locate the poor woman’s bones. Dr. Wilkinson’s had to base her facial reconstruction on photographs.
The theories about Bella’s identity and death include:
- A woman who was murdered as a human sacrifice and her remains her used in a Hand of Glory ceremony.
- A gypsy executed by her clan.
- A Dutch woman named Clarabella Dronkers who had gotten involved with a Nazi spy ring and was possibly executed because she knew too much.
- A German woman and cabaret singer named Clara Bauerle who was supposedly involved with Josef Jakobs, a German spy and the last man to be executed in the Tower of London.