A Digital Reconstruction Reveals the Face of Famed Murder Victim 'Bella in the Wych Elm'

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iStock

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.

A digital reconstruction of the victim known as 'Bella of the Wych Elm'
Courtesy of Pete Merrill/APS Books

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.”

Graffitti referencing the Bella Wych elm murder appears on an obelisk in Worcestershire, England
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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.

The Real Reason Costco Employees Check Receipts at Exits

Tim Boyle, Getty Images
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

If shoppers have one complaint about Costco—the vast discount warehouse chain with a notoriously permissive return policy and speedy checkout lanes—it’s that the employees posted at the exits to take a marker to customers' receipts seem vaguely insulting. Is the premise that everyone is a shoplifter until proven otherwise?

Not exactly. A recent rundown of Costco's policy from The Takeout (via Cheat Sheet) points out that the true motivation of these exit-door sentries isn’t to identify potential thieves. It’s to make sure that Costco isn’t picking the pockets of its customers.

According to employees who have made not-for-attribution comments, Costco is actually examining receipts to make sure a shopper hasn’t been overcharged for their purchases. Someone with three giant bundles of toilet paper in their cart, for example, might have been charged for four. By giving the receipt a cursory glance, the employee can make sure a cashier didn’t inadvertently ring up phantom crates of canned tuna.

Of course, if someone did try to wheel out several big-screen televisions without a receipt, the exit door employee would likely make an issue of it. But they’re not in loss prevention, and the measure isn’t intended to deter thieves. If you do have something in your cart you didn’t pay for, their immediate assumption is that the mistake is almost certainly the result of a cashier not scanning the item.

In fact, hardly any criminals are caught at the door—which isn't to say the store isn't immune to theft. Earlier this year, thieves at a Seattle Costco were busted with armloads of laptops after they barged out of the back entrance. In June, a Costco in Alpharetta, Georgia, was victimized by burglars who smashed the jewelry case at night and made off with $10,000 worth of valuables.

[h/t The Takeout]

8 Dishes Made by Notorious Poisoners

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iStock/com/bhofack2

While many poisoners throughout history have stirred their deadly potions and powders into drinks, some of the more culinarily inclined have crafted killer dishes instead. The nurturing image these poisoners often presented—with casseroles and cakes always at the ready—may have even helped distract from their murderous ways.

1. NANNIE DOSS’S APPLE AND PRUNE PIE

Nannie Doss (1905–1965) poisoned as many as 12 family members. She allegedly added poison to both prune cake and an apple-prune pie, soaking the fruit overnight in rat poison. Her reported recipe included sprinkling the top of the crust with sugar when it was fresh from the oven, which probably helped disguise the taste of the poison.

2. ANJETTE LYLES’S BANANA PUDDING

Anjette Donovan Lyles (1925–1977) owned and operated a thriving luncheonette in Macon, Georgia. She was known for simple Southern fare and desserts such as her banana pudding with vanilla wafers (which you can find a recipe for here alongside a selection of her other popular creations). She took frequent breaks from the restaurant to tend to two dying husbands, a mother-in-law, and a daughter, all of whom she killed by adding rat poison to their food—though it's not clear precisely which specific dishes she served them.

3. BLANCHE TAYLOR-MOORE’S PEANUT BUTTER MILKSHAKE

Milkshake in nostalgic glass with whipped cream and cherry on top
iStock.com/sandoclr

Blanche Taylor-Moore (1933-) dispatched of at least three people in a prolonged and agonizing fashion by repeatedly serving them arsenic-laced meals. She then hindered recovery by bringing digestive-friendly foodstuffs laced with poison (including banana pudding) to their hospital beds. Shakes made with vanilla ice cream, milk, and creamy peanut butter were the favorite of her second husband, the Reverend Dwight Moore, who survived despite reportedly having 100 times the normal levels of arsenic in his system.

4. LYDA SOUTHARD’S APPLE PIE

She sprinkled it with cinnamon, a dash of nutmeg too
And sugared it with arsenic, a tasty devil's brew.
That famous apple pie, which ne'er forgot will be,
And for Lyda Southard's apple pie, men lay them down to die.

Idaho folk song

Lyda Trueblood Southard (1892-1958) and her family are said to have moved from their home in Missouri around 1907 after seeing a photo of a man holding a cantaloupe-sized apple grown near the new town of Twin Falls, Idaho. She put these apples to use in pies ... along with arsenic from boiled flypaper, which she reportedly used to poison four husbands, one daughter, and a brother-in-law [PDF]. Although she proclaimed her innocence to the end, it's rumored that her body was hairless, revealing a prolonged exposure to arsenic.

5. LYDIA SHERMAN’S CLAM CHOWDER

Bowl of clam chowder
iStock.com/MSPhotographic

Lydia Sherman (1824-1878) poisoned three husbands and eight children with milk, oatmeal, and New England clam chowder. The standard Civil War recipe involves salt pork, potatoes, shucked clams or quahogs, and plenty of milk and cream. In Lydia's case, it also involved arsenic, which helped earn her $20,000 worth of real estate and $10,000 in cash after one inconvenient husband died. She went the easier route with her next husband by simply adding arsenic to his bottle of brandy.

6. DEBORA GREEN'S HAM AND BEANS

When Debora Green's (1951-) marriage dissolved in the summer of 1995, her husband began suffering from mysterious bouts of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Although he at first blamed the symptoms on a bug picked up during a recent vacation in Peru, investigators grew suspicious after a fire burned down the family home that fall, killing two of the couple's children. Police looking into the blaze soon discovered that Green had burned down her own home in a rage—and that she been poisoning her husband by putting castor beans in his chicken-salad sandwich and ham and beans. Castor oil is commonly used as a laxative, but when crushed, the beans produce the deadly toxin ricin.

7. LOCUSTA'S MUSHROOMS

An Amanita phalloides in the woods
iStock.com/empire331

The Roman emperor Claudius (10 BCE-54 CE) loved mushrooms, a fact that the notorious female poisoner Locusta allegedly used to help finish him off. Locusta was acting on the orders of Agrippina the Younger, Claudius's fourth wife, who wanted to clear the path so that her son Nero (from a previous marriage) could ascend to the throne. Historians debate whether the assassination ever really happened, but some report that Locusta added the juice from death cap mushrooms (Amanita phalloides, known as "the destroying angel") to a dish of Claudius's preferred fungi, Amanita caesarea. The details after that vary—a poisoned feather stuck down Claudius's throat or a poison enema may have also been involved—but either way, the death would have been slow and painful.

8. CAROLINE GRILLS’S TEA CAKES

Caroline Grills (1888–1960) was a prolific baker known for bringing home-baked cakes and cookies to tea with relatives. Unfortunately, Grills was lacing her goodies and tea with thallium, a popular rat poison, and may have killed as many as four family members doing so. The symptoms of thallium poisoning often involve fever, delirium, convulsions, and progressive blindness, followed by death.

Still, Grills's sweets were so delicious that even when she was under suspicion of murder, it didn't stop people from consuming them: One relative given some candied ginger couldn't resist trying it and was rewarded with pains in his neck and chest and numbed toes. Grills was eventually arrested and charged with four murders and one attempted murder, but only convicted on one count. Her case was part of a string of thallium poisonings in post-war Australia, with dozens of cases, several high-profile trials, and 10 deaths.

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