After settling on the mystery surrounding Bella as the focus for our project we decided to go away and do some studying, then re-grouped and began to plot a timeline of possible events.
There is a lot of information about Bella’s case on the internet, and although at first this seemed like a good thing it’s becoming clearer that it’s going to be extremely difficult to find out what really happened. So many of the accounts run parallel only up until a certain point, or, more often than not, conflict completely. So we decided to just lay out everything we could find, doing our best to plot the events in order, and drew up a list of possible events and players in Bella’s murder.
One of our main sources was a book by Andrew Sparke which details the events of the discovery of the body, possible theories about who Bella was and where those theories came from, as well as coroners and police reports both from the time the body was found and from another investigation into the case in 2005. As with any source it’s important not to take it as fact just because it’s written in a book, so although we split the events into ‘reported’ and ‘rumoured’ even the reported events need to be taken with a very big pinch of salt. We need to keep questions such as ‘was this really reported? Who reported it? Why? Who wrote up the report? (and again, why?)’ constantly in mind.
So here are the events we plotted out, rumoured on the left and ‘reported’ on the right.
1)Bella gets married, date unknown
2)Bella bears a child, reported in
autopsy, date unknown
3) 1940’s-Nazi spies Rathgeb and Lehrer
are in the midlands with Clarabella Dronkers,
She is Lehrer’s girlfriend also a spy, and has
irregular teeth (like the body found in the tree).
4)31st January 1941, Josef Jakobs parachutes into
Cambridgeshire and is arrested by the home guard.
He is carrying a picture of his lover in his pocket
– ‘Clara Bauerle’
5)15th August 1941 – Josef Jakobs is executed
in the Tower of London for being a
Nazi Spy (last person to be executed there).
6)1941- Clara Bella, a German spy from
Abwer is parachuted into the West Midlands
7) Warwick Plant reported that a woman
named Bella played the piano in his parents’ pub,
for which his mother gave her a pair of crepe soled shoes.
Supposedly she suddenly stopped showing up.
7 b)Another woman said Bella was in a music
group in Germany but came back to England once the
8) Jack Mossop, Van Ralt and an unknown Dutch woman
drink at the Lyttleton Arms; Van Ralt and the woman argue.
9) Jack and Van Ralt go for a drive with the woman (in Jacks car);
Van Ralt kills the woman and they dispose of her in the woods.
10) Police report of car stopped by woods
with a uniformed man and a woman lying
in the back covered by a coat.
11) Bella dies, probably around October 1941
12) Within 2-6 hours of her death ‘Bella’ is put into the tree
13) Rumours that ‘Bella’ was a parachutist
14) No evidence from home guard of
anyone parachuting in around time of
15) 1942 –Johannes Marinus Dronkers
(possibly Lehrer?) is executed (as a spy?)
16) 1942 -Jack Mossop dies in Stafford
mental hospital (before the skull is found).
17) Sometime 1941/2 – Local woman hears
a scream from the woods.
18) April 18th 1943 – Bob Farmer finds
a skull in a hollow tree in Hagley Woods.
He’s with Fred Payne, Robert Hart and Tommy
Willets who later tells his parents about the skull
19) Police are alerted and discover almost
the whole skeleton in the tree ; the tibia (shin bone)
is 12 yards away and they find other bones (of the
lower body) outside the tree too.
20) There are rumours her hand was buried
nearby (but details differ).
20) The investigation begins.
21) Police do dental search
(skull has abnormal teeth, no molars) but get
no results. They also look into sex worker
links but there are no missing person reports.
They find the corpse’s underwear still present
and determine it was unlikely she was raped.
22) April 23rd 1943 – James Webster publishes the final coroner’s report
23) Autumn 1943 – Graffiti appeared in Birmingham
24) 14th February 1945 – 74 year old Charles
Walton is found pinned to the ground
(in the field he was working in) with a pitch fork,
his own trancing hook still buried in his
throat and a cross carved into his chest.
25) 1945-49 Margaret Murray, a professor at UCL,
connects ‘Bella’s’ murder to witchcraft,
the occult and Charles Walton’s murder.
26) Locals blame gypsies and claim it was a ritual
murder, but there is no evidence supporting that theory.
27) Police suggested ‘Bella’ had been killed by a lover
for falling pregnant, but Webster concluded she wasn’t
pregnant at the time of her death, although he also
found that she had borne a child before.
27) 1953 – Una Mossop contacts the newspaper
under the fake name Anna of Claverly,
and claims that Jack Mossop (her husband who she was
supposedly estranged with at the time of the murder),
and van Ralt put a Dutch woman in the tree.
28) 1968 – Donald McCormich says he got unsealed
documents from Abwehr stating that a spy
with the code name Clara/Clarabella
was dropped into the West Midlands in 1941
29) 1968 – Franz Rathgeb – an ex-nazi says that another spy,
Lehrer, had a Dutch girlfriend,
Clarabella Dronkers, who was also a spy
30) Professor Webster gives ‘Bella’s’ bones to someone
at Birmingham university medical school
31) 2013- Alison Vale of the Independent makes
a connection between ‘Bella’ of the wych elm and Clara Bauerle
32) Bones still missing
33) Paranormal investigator accesses police records about the case
As you’ve probably noticed there are a lot of possible players in Bella’s case, and a few key theories or strands starting to come out: that Bella either was or was connected with a German spy, the theory that Van Ralt and Jack Mossop murdered her, and theories involving witchcraft and the occult. We’ll work on untangling the theories and whether there’s any possibility they could have overlapped later on, but for now we’re still trying to work out who everybody was!
After plotting the timeline of possible events and discussing the names that cropped up (some in more detail than others), we decided to try and write down as much as we knew about each person in 60 seconds.
While this started off, well we didn’t end up writing much down, and digressed into discussions about Broadchurch, ITV vs BBC while Bibi and Faye passed secret notes, and we realised that we’ve still got a lot of research to do in terms of understanding exactly who everyone is; so I’ll just briefly lay out what we know about some of the more interesting possible players in the case.
The body was found by 4 boys in a Wych Elm in Hagley woods on April 18th 1943. Here’s what we know (mainly), according to James Webster’s coroner’s report:
-Most of the skeleton was found inside the tree, but a number of bones including her tibia, shin bone, left pelvic bone, right femur and right fibula were found outside of the tree, nearby.
-The skeleton was that of a woman around 35 years old, who was not pregnant at the time of her death but had had at least one child in the past.
-The skeleton had irregular teeth.
-It was very likely that she was put into the tree very soon after her death, as it would not have been possible to put her in during rigor mortis (which sets in 2-6 hours after death), and was unlikely that someone held on to a dead body until rigor mortis had passed (generally around 72 hours after it sets in).
-She was likely to have died around October 1941.
-Many online accounts report that the whole of her right hand was missing and found buried outside the tree, but this is not specifically mentioned in Webster’s report.
Una Mossop, Jack Mossop and Van Ralt
Una Mossop is a very interesting player in Bella’s case, whether what she said was true or not.
Ten years after the body was found, while theories about who it could be were still being published in the local paper, she wrote to the paper under the pseudonym Anne of Claverly. She said: “Finish your articles re the Wych Elm crime by all means. They are interesting to your readers, but you will never solve the mystery…The one person who could give the answer is now beyond the jurisdiction of the earthly courts. The affair is closed and involves no witches, black magic or moonlight rites…”
She went on to tell a tale about her husband, Jack Mossop, and his involvement in Bella’s murder. Allegedly, Jack Mossop, who was separated from Una at the time, came into some money after meeting a Dutchman Van Ralt, (there were also rumours that Mossop, who worked in a munitions factory, had been seen dressed in uniform), and that he and Van Ralt were at the pub one night with a Dutch woman, called Bella. Both Van Ralt and Bella are rumoured to have been part of, or connected with, a Nazi spy ring. While at the pub Van Ralt and Bella argued, and as Jack drove them away the argument escalated and Van Ralt strangled Bella in the car and then Jack helped Mossop hide the body in the hollow of a tree. Una described that Jack was so traumatised by the event that he had a nervous breakdown, driven mad by visions of a woman’s skull watching him from a tree. He was institutionalised in 1941 and died later that year, before the body was even found.
Again there are a number of questions surrounding Una’s account, not least that reports differ in that some mention the Nazi spy connection while others’ don’t, some mention Jack dressing in uniform and others’ don’t; but we also need to consider why Una even told the tale; why so long after the body was found, and why did she start off writing under a pseudonym. The fact that the story is so many times relayed, through Una pretending to be Anne, having supposedly heard it from Jack, who died in an institution, further dilute the account and give rise to questions around the sources reliability.
Charles Walton and Margaret Murray
On the 14th February 1945 Charles Walton was found in Lower Quinton, close to where Bella’s body was found. He had been pinned to the ground with his own pitchfork, a cross had been carved into his chest and his trancing hook, had been used to slash his throat. Described as a hard working and mild mannered man, Walton had lived in the area all his life and at the time of his murder shared his home with his niece Edie Walton, but spent much of his time alone and survived by working as a farm laborer. The detective brought in to deal with the mystery expected that in the small rural village of Lower Quinton someone would know something, however, even after interviewing 500 locals no one offered any information about the case, and perhaps more oddly, no one seemed concerned for their own safety despite a neighbour being brutally murdered in their midst.
Professor Margaret Murray took a great interest in both Walton and ‘Bella’s’ cases and linked both to the occult and witchcraft.
So what links did Walton have to the occult?
Locals offered some information about Walton that suggested he had supernatural powers. He was described as a ‘horse whisperer’; able to speak with birds, a clairvoyant and seer of spirits and was even mentioned in a book of folklore: Folklore, Old Customs and Superstitions in Shakespeare Land, authored by a local clergyman named J. Harvey Bloom in 1929. The book describes his encounter with a black dog on his way home on nine evenings in a row. On the ninth day a headless lady also appeared to walk past him, and the next day he found out about his sister’s death. Locals believed this encounter stained Walton’s soul and some even believed him to be a witch. During their interviews many mentioned the failing crops though none of them explicitly told the investigators what Walton had to do with them.
Murray suggests that Walton’s murder was likely a ritual act to replenish the soil with the man’s blood. If the locals believed he was the cause of the failing crops they may have offered him as a sacrifice, particularly if they also believed he was a witch.
Two years after Bella’s body was discovered Murray proposed a theory, that Bella had been killed as part of an occult ritual, and that her hand had been removed to be used as a Hand of Glory (a dismembered hand which would be used by thieves as a candle whilst burglarising a home, for good luck or protection). She also linked Bella being hidden in a tree to her being a witch, as apparently it was believed that burying a witch’s body in a tree would stop her soul from escaping.
What do we know about Murray?
She was an anthropologist and archeologist from University College London who had a fascination with witchcraft. She wrote a number of books on the subject and her theory seems to be the basis for the popular rumour between 1943 and 1953, that Bella was killed by gypsies as part of an occult ritual. While there is no evidence to suggest Bella was, or was involved with gypsies, it’s clear that the occult and witchcraft played a large role in the local life of rural Hagley.
Josef Jakobs and Clara Baurler.
In March 2013, Allison Vale of the Independent offered another theory about who Bella might have been. She references war time M15 files which supposedly contain evidence of the interrogation of Czech born Gestapo agent, Josef Jacobs. Jacobs was arrested in January 1941 after parachuting into Cambridge, and admitted that the photograph in his possession was that of Clara Bauerle, his lover who he had met in Hamburg when she was a music hall singer. She was apparently well connected with Senior Nazi members, had been recruited as an agent and had been planning to parachute into the west midlands in the spring of 1941. Jakobs claimed he didn’t know whether she had ever dropped into the country, as he hadn’t been able to establish radio contact with her, and he was executed in the Tower of London (he was the last person to be executed there), on the 15th August 1941.
Vale claims that M15 learnt more about Bauerle: that she had been born in Stuttgart in 1906, making her 35 in 1941, that she was a cabaret artist and had also spent two years working in English music halls before the war and spoke English with a Birmingham accent. Vale also connects this theory with that offered up by Una Mossop, arguing that Mossop draws a connection between ‘Bella’, espionage and a music hall, in her letter to the paper.
While Vale manages to make Jakobs’s confession fit well with other theories and possibilities about who Bella was there are a number of flaws with the theory. Andrew Sparke claims that the skeleton was short, around 5 foot, while Clara Bauerle was closer to 6 feet tall, and while Vale reports Bauerle’s singing career came to an abrupt end around the time of ‘Bella’s’ death, one of Jakobs granddaughters has recently located Bauerle’s death certificate which proves that she did die around a similar time (in 1942), but this was coincidental, as she died in Berlin, Germany.
So who was Bella?
While I’m fairly sure ‘Bella’ wasn’t Clara Bauerle, or a gypsy (if only based on the clothing she was found in), that doesn’t bring us any closer to knowing who she really was. Many of the theories focus far more on the people around ‘Bella’ than ‘Bella’ herself. I feel this often tends to happen in true crime stories, it’s all too easy to forget about the victim at the very centre of the case, and is something I know we’ll address in our project in some way. I also find it fascinating just how much time people have spent researching the different theories surrounding this case over the past 80 years or so, and how invested they’ve been in one version of Bella and what they believe happened to her, and I suppose we’re adding to the mass of information and interpretations already out there. The next step for us is to start work-shopping some of the theories and characters I’ve outlined here, to find out which ones work for the type of piece we want to create – although exactly what that is we don’t know yet!
Feel free to leave a comment and share your ideas below – Leah.