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

iStock
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.

New Podcast Opens Up the Cold Case of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Art Heist

Ryan McBride, AFP/Getty Images
Ryan McBride, AFP/Getty Images

One of the newest true crime podcasts gathering buzz doesn't involve a murder or kidnapping—instead, it investigates one of the most infamous art heists in history. Last Seen, a collaboration between WBUR and The Boston Globe, looks at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft, a case that has gone unsolved for 28 years.

The story begins on March 18, 1990, when two thieves posing as policemen infiltrated the Boston art museum and stole 13 paintings off the walls. The works are from such master artists as Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Manet, and are estimated to have a cumulative value exceeding $600 million.

The scope of the heist alone would have made it historically significant, but the story became even more interesting after the crime was committed. The case never moved forward, despite a drawn-out investigation and a $10 million reward for the return of the stolen pieces. That didn't mean there weren't suspects: Two unnamed men were identified, but they were killed shortly after the theft, and according to the popular theory, information regarding the location of the stolen artworks died with them.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum case is still filled with mysteries, but the new podcast aims to make the story a little clearer. Hosted by WBUR producers and reporters Kelly Horan and Jack Rodolico, and with contributions from Stephen Kurkjian, who spent years covering the heist for The Boston Globe, Last Seen follows the saga from the night the crime was committed to today. It features interviews with investigators who worked on the case and people who were employed by the museum in the early 1990s, some of whom have never before agreed to speak publicly on the subject.

The first episode of Last Seen debuted on WBUR September 17, and the series will include 10 episodes in total.

11 Facts About the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

For 68 years, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been alerting the public to some of the most dangerous criminals in their midst. The organization's 10 Most Wanted list has become an iconic portrait of federal pursuit—referenced, parodied, and posted all around the world. For more on this famous rundown of felonious fugitives, check out these facts about how the Bureau approaches the most dangerous list in circulation today.

1. IT STARTED OVER A CARD GAME.

FBI Most Wanted poster for Thomas James Holden
FBI, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The notion of “wanted” posters has been around since the 1700s, when slave owners circulated descriptions of runaway slaves in an effort to force their return. The idea of itemizing society’s most hardened criminals originated in 1949, when a newspaper wire story profiled several “tough guys” who were in the Bureau’s sights. The writer had quizzed FBI director J. Edgar Hoover during a game of cards. After seeing how popular the story became, Hoover approved the idea of circulating a top 10 list as a way of soliciting tips and other assistance from the general population. The first name on the list, released March 14, 1950, was Thomas Holden, who had murdered his wife and two of her relatives. Holden was arrested after a newspaper reader in Oregon recognized his photo and alerted authorities.

2. YOU NEED TO BE REALLY BAD TO MAKE THE LIST.

Not just any run-of-the-mill felon is suitable for this kind of scrutiny. Typically, criminals who appear on the list are fugitives who have a long history of disobeying the law, have current charges of a serious nature, are believed to pose a considerable threat to the public, and have potential to be captured based on knowledge submitted by citizens. To make the list, all 56 FBI field offices are tasked with submitting names for consideration. From there, the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division and the Office of Public and Congressional Affairs weed out candidates for final approval by the FBI’s deputy director.

3. IT ALSO HELPS IF YOU HAVE DISTINCTIVE FEATURES.

Wanted By The FBI: Andrew Cunanan
FBI, Getty Images

In selecting fugitives they think the public could provide information on, the FBI looks at the ease with which someone could be recognized. A person with unremarkable features might blend in more easily, but a criminal with a peculiar facial quirk or who otherwise stands out in a crowd might be more likely to be featured.  

4. MOST OF THE FUGITIVES FEATURED HAVE BEEN CAPTURED.

As of 2018, the FBI had featured a total of 519 criminals in the 10 Most Wanted rundown. The Bureau says that 486 of those individuals were eventually captured, with the publicity of the list being a key reason. Of those 486, 162 were apprehended based on information shared by a tip.

5. IT’S NOT ALWAYS A LIST OF 10.

Nice round number that it is, the FBI can’t always restrict their criminal prey to a list of 10. If names on a list are part of a string of arrests, the sheet can drop to seven or eight names before being replenished. If criminals are co-conspirators, it might grow to 16. Anyone numbering 11 or beyond is labeled as a “Special Addition,” which is a polite way of saying a person is so dangerous that their capture is imperative. Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, who planned the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, is just one example.

6. ONE GUY REMAINED ON THE LIST FOR MORE THAN 32 YEARS.

At one time, the FBI might have considered changing their list from the 10 Most Wanted to “Victor Manuel Gerena and Nine Other Fugitives.” In 1983, Gerena was working as an armored truck escort when he decided to swipe $7 million from a Wells Fargo truck. Gerena tied up his co-workers and injected them with a mixture of aspirin and water to make them sleepy, then took off and disappeared. It turned out Gerena was a pawn in a larger robbery scheme involving a Puerto Rican separatist group. In total, 19 men associated with the heist were either caught or killed. Gerena, however, remains at large—though he was finally removed from the list in 2016. Though the FBI didn’t specify why, removal is usually only on condition of the perpetrator’s death, dismissal of charges, or the belief they’re no longer a public menace.

7. THE LIST CHANGES WITH THE TIMES.

FBI Most Wanted poster for Eric Robert Rudolph
FBI, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Looking at the list from different decades reveals a lot about which types of crimes happened to be in fashion during a given era. According to the FBI, bank robbers and car thieves populated the sheet in the 1950s. In the 1970s, counterculture figures engaged in sabotage or kidnappings took over. Today, terrorists and white-collar criminals are most likely to be the most wanted.

8. CALIFORNIA IS A HOTBED OF MOST WANTED ACTIVITY.

The FBI maintains a breakdown of crimes perpetuated by offenders in various states, and California doesn’t come out looking too good. Of the 519 criminals to make an appearance since 1950, 58 committed a crime in the Golden State. Illinois (38) and New York (33) are also prone to harboring Most Wanted activity. Alaska, Hawaii, North Dakota, and Rhode Island have never had one.

9. THERE’S NO TIME LIMIT ON BEING ADDED.

Not all subjects have committed contemporary crimes. In 2014, the FBI added William Bradford Bishop Jr. to the list even though his crime—murdering his wife, mother, and children with a hammer—took place 38 years earlier in 1976. Bishop had been at large the entire time before the FBI made a “surprise” entry to the list, hoping someone might recognize the then-79-year-old with the aid of age-advancing imagery. After two years on the list, he was removed due to a lack of viable leads and because Bishop was no longer believed to be a danger to the public at large.

10. ONLY 10 WOMEN HAVE EVER MADE THE LIST.

Of the 519 criminals who have been featured on the list, only 10 of them—or less than two percent—were women. Ruth Eisemann-Schier was the first woman to earn the notorious distinction; she was added to the list in 1968 and wanted for kidnapping, extortion, and other crimes. She was eventually apprehended on March 5, 1969 and ended up pleading guilty at her trial. She was sentenced to seven years in prison but paroled after four on the condition that she return to her native country of Honduras.

11. THERE’S AN APP FOR IT.

If you feel like scoping out your neighborhood for fugitives, the FBI has an app available via iTunes that guides you through their list and also allows you to be alerted to missing children or other public assistance situations in your region. It’s free, and if you have a tip that leads to capture or resolution, you might even get a reward.

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