….and we’re back!

The start of September saw us back in the studio and back with Bella at the forefront of our minds.

During the break we’ve been starting to pull together the basis of a script and made the decision to only use words we’ve found written about the case; in newspaper articles, police reports or books to keep the project completely verbatim. So we’re building the script up out of the hundreds of different sources surrounding Bella’s case; from articles about the chalk on the walls and the boys finding the skull, to a police statement by Una Mossop and witness statements by others’ connected with the case

I really love this way of building up the piece and the authenticity it adds to the show – but it does mean we definitely need to keep gathering more information!

We got together on Tuesday and Wednesday last week to get stuck into the beginnings of a script, play with projectors, create a tree (which looked a lot like a dinosaur) out of bamboo, as well as have said beautiful bamboo sculpture removed by the cleaners overnight.

It was great to be together again after a few months apart (although we haven’t actually managed to get the whole cast in one room yet), and we spent most of the time focussing on what is currently ‘Scene 1: the death of Jack Mossop.’ It involves a darkened room, creepy hands, projections of the skull – and it’s already looking pretty good!

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The stage is dimly lit, with the edges in darkness. In the centre of the stage is a metal framed bed where a man can be seen sleeping, with a thin woollen blanket covering him. He is restless, moving a little as the spotlight on him brightens.

There are figures standing in the shadows of the stage, their features invisible to the audience. They are watching Jack Mossop.

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Moving Bella forward

After a lot of thinking, talking and researching it felt like time to get up and do something (about four months ago that is), and while we’ve had to slow down recently due to other commitments we’ve done a few really key things over the past few months which have moved the Bella project forward massively.

  • Found credible sources

I mentioned in a previous post just how much there is on the internet about Bella’s case – all you have to do is type in ‘Bella in the wych elm’ to see what I mean. While loads of those articles are really interesting and potentially useful, they are also conflicting and from sources impossible for us to verify. So we went looking for other sources at the Local Constabulary Archives in the Hive, Worcester. We hoped, as the murder happened near Worcester, that they might have something, articles from the time at least, about the murder. It turned out they had a lot more – the entire case file about the investigation!

While we can’t take any of the sources away we’ve begun to look at them and build up a picture of the investigation. We found police reports detailing the findings, the strange letters that Anne of Claverly (aka Una Mossop) sent to the papers, as well as Una’s police statement 10 years after the body was found, implicating her husband and Van Ralt in Bella’s death. We also found things we hadn’t found mentioned online already, such as an investigation into some travellers in the woods who the police believed might have been involved, and a very odd few letters from a medium to the police containing strange ‘songs’ about mermaids and fish.

Clearly the investigation was much wider and weirder than we ever imagined. The discovery of these sources also changed the direction of the piece we are creating. We had always wanted to focus on the real, but these sources allow us to bring the investigation that happened 70 years ago to the stage, and we have begun to build verbatim work on the reports and letters we have found, keeping the real words at the centre of what we do.

  • Thought about characters

There are so many characters we could potentially bring into this piece, and so many different versions of them presented across the internet and in different books and sources that it was really important for us to spend some time thinking about them and who we thought they were. While this exploration of characters is by no means over we made a great start with a workshop inspired by Laban’s Efforts. This was about physicalising the characters, and doing rather than thinking (as mentioned above this was a key part of us keeping up momentum and moving forward with this piece, as there is just so much to think about if we didn’t forcibly stop ourselves we’d get bogged down in the detail and never start creating anything).

Following on from that we also began to play with different scenes, for example one between Una and Jack Mossop, thinking about dialogue and narration. Something we want to bring into this piece is the dialogue you often get in a film noir, dialogue that doesn’t quite fit with what is happening on screen, or in our case on stage. So we played with this technique, and we will continue to look much deeper into dialogue and narration and how we can get both from the documents in Bella’s case file.

  • Found the focus

With so many potential events in our timeline (see previous post), it was difficult to see a clear focus, so we began to group events into four themes or strands.

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Notes on the walls

The first and probably most interesting strand is that of the body being found, the physical findings, the police reports and the timeline of the investigation. We then thought about the strand containing Una and Jack Mossop and Van Ralt, which fit into the police investigation but there is still more to explore. Then we grouped Margaret Murray, the idea of witchcraft and Charles Walton (the man killed with a pitchfork and supposedly thought of as having connections to witchcraft). Again we still have a lot more to explore here, and I’m hoping we might find some sources on Walton’s case in the Hive too which will help us move this strand forward. Finally we have a strand which is the German spy theory, and the one which purports that Bella was actually the German singer Clara Bauerle. While we don’t give this theory much credibility (you can see Clara’s death certificate which states she died in Berlin here), it’s a theory which seems to have been widely believed and there are some interesting connections and moments we might want to bring into our piece about Bella.

Having those four key strands in mind has really helped us to think about the shape we want the piece to take and the focus for what we need to research and explore next. While we’re still very far from having everything figured out, we know what our next steps are.

  • Know what not to do

We’ve also found out what we don’t want to do, and by default, what we do want to do. While we were workshopping, playing with scenes and narration, it became clear that a play full of multi-roling, gender swapping (our cast is almost all female), and playing out of dramatic events which we’re not even sure have happened, definitely isn’t the way we want to go! Instead we’ve focussed in much more on the physical, on the source material, and on disjointed almost surreal ways of exploring what might have happened.

Rather than having one person who ‘is’ Una Mossop on stage, why not have five people building up a disjointed picture of who Una might have been. At this point, even with the sources from the case, it’s impossible for anyone to know who Una, Jack, Van Ralt, or any player in the case really were, all we have are snapshots built up from differing, sometimes conflicting sources and as a group we agreed that the built-up image of the character and events, especially when it is conflicting is really worth exploring and presenting on stage.

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With all of the above in mind we’ve started creating different scenes, using the sources we have and exploring interesting visual representations of the events like using intricate hand movements to accompany narration, faces and bodies pushing through newspaper reports, projection and chalking on the walls. As ever if you have any ideas then feel free to comment below – Leah.

Untangling the threads

 

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.

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So here are the events we plotted out, rumoured on the left and ‘reported’ on the right.

Uncertain/rumour                                                                                                           Reported

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

war stopped.

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

her death

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!

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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.

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Bella/the body

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.

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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.

Can the phenomenon of true crime be translated to the stage?

Over the past few years the public interest in true crime stories has increased massively with cases such as that of Steven Avery brought back into view by the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer, and Adnan Syed’s story explored through the podcast Serial. It seems that both Making and Murderer and Serial flipped some sort of switch on true crime in their respective mediums. A whole host of new true crime podcasts sprung up as a reaction to Serial itself; Undisclosed, in which Rabia Chaudry offers a far more in depth view of the case, follows Adnan’s current court hearings and counters some of the arguments made in Serial; Truth and Justice by Bob Ruff started off opening Serial and Undisclosed up for discussion with his listeners, in a sense creating a podcast about a podcast; and then there are many more podcasts delving into the mass of interesting, unsolved or wrongful conviction cases such as Generation Why and My Favourite Murder. While there were already a number of well-known true crime documentaries such as The West Memphis Three and The Jinx, Making a Murderer opened the genre up to a whole new audience and since it aired our screens have been flooded with more and more true crime documentaries and dramas. Most recently both The People vs OJ Simpson (a 10 part drama by the creators of American Horror Story) and the documentary OJ: Made in America (an incredibly interesting 9 hour documentary about OJ, the case and the political and social landscape that surrounded it and the outcome), have been hugely popular.

So, can we translate true crime to the stage in the same gripping, compelling way?

We’ve been thinking about this project for a while, about whether we can really translate the true crime we’ve come to know, love and obsess over onto the stage in a real, entertaining, thought provoking and worthwhile way. Both podcasts and Netflix documentaries have something in common; they’re easy to access, free or very cheap, and there’s already a mass of documentaries, podcasts and dramas of this subject just the click of a button or remote away. So there’s no question this would be something completely different to the true crime we’ve gotten used to; the audience will need to make an effort, sit next to someone, maybe even someone they don’t know! Used to watching true crime documentaries in my pyjamas and listening to podcasts on my tube journey to work myself, I can’t quite imagine watching those same stories played out on stage, surrounded by other people with their own thoughts and reactions to the subject.

So no, we probably can’t translate the genre to the stage in the same way as we’re all used to. But then, who wants to be the same?

Our plan is to experiment with true crime and find out which aspects included in podcasts, documentaries and dramas we can bring to the stage, which parts won’t work on stage, and anything we can add to the subject that can’t be found in podcast or documentary form. In our first session Tom said ‘as theatre maker’s there’s something we can offer that people doing podcasts, and documentaries can’t,’ and I think that figuring out exactly what that currently elusive something is, and focusing in on it, is going to be at the centre of our research and development process.  We’ve already started thinking of ways we can make the project accessible to as many people as possible – this blog is another way in which anyone who’s interested in true crime, theatre or finding out who put Bella in the Wych Elm can keep up to date, make suggestions and share ideas about the case and what really happened nearly 80 years ago.

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So why Bella?

After settling on this project as the next step for Pregnant Fish we had to pick a case to work on.

This was easier said than done. As anyone who’s ever listened to My Favorite Murder, Case File or Generation Why will know, there are so many interesting crimes you can spend hours reading about one that links to another and another and so on until it’s 3 in the morning and you have to force yourself to stop as you have work the next day.

Pretty early on, the potential ethical implications of what we were planning to do started surfacing. We questioned whether we should look at cases in England and at first the idea seemed sensible – a possible wrongful conviction case in Canterbury really intrigued me because I spent 3 years at University in the town-sized-city and recognised the places mentioned in the crime. But then it started feeling a little close to home. The cases were often recent, with the family of the accused and the murdered still alive. In Rabia Chaudry’s book Adnan Story: The search for truth and justice after Serial, she gave us an insight into what Adnan’s family went through, and what they still go through now, and I can’t even imagine what the explosion of Serial must have been like for Hay’s family. Not that I’m saying this project will turn into anything like the international sensation Serial was (although you never know right?), but these sort of things still needed to be considered.

But then, is hurting or inconveniencing the families involved ultimately worth it? In the case of Adnan I’d say yes; he’s finally been given the chance at a new trial which is something that never would have happened without Serial and the public interest that followed. Similarly the Tara Grinsted case which had been cold for 12 years, was effectively reopened by a Podcast called Up and Vanished and there are now two men awaiting trial for the crime of her murder. These cases with huge outcomes tend to have something in common, an investigator with a real connection either to the person (as with Rabia and Adnan) or the place (Payne Lyndsey, creator of Up and Vanished, comes from the same town as Tara), or it’s a case that was brought to them personally for some reason or other (Sarah Koenig with Serial).

Our process was different and has started off with research in an attempt to figure out not only which case to focus on, but how we want to portray it, and why it might be better on stage than in any other format. We’re also fascinated by how so many people have turned into armchair detectives and want to consider their stories too, and the very real effect ‘ordinary people’ are having on the justice system. Although we’re still waiting to see whether anything will come of it, I definitely believe Brandon Dassey’s conviction was overturned in large part due to the success of Making a Murderer, the public interest in Dassey’s  case and the widespread belief that his confession was completely coerced and untrue. We’ve already started using our own detective skills to dig into Bella’s case, and  we want to find out more not only about who she really was but about the armchair detective phenomenon itself and what it means for the future of true crime.

While many podcasts relay crimes in a fairly straightforward way, giving the events a narrative and the listener as much information as possible, we’re trying to do something quite different (and we don’t have a concrete idea of what the outcome will be yet). We may end up re-enacting timelines, acting as either murderer or victim, discussing motives, narratives and events; always having to keep in mind that these people are real and had real lives of their own.

We took a look at a number of cases, thinking about what reportedly happened, anything that particularly interested us about the case, and whether there were any ethical problems with us re-creating the events and people on stage. For example, one of many we discussed was the case of Davonte Sandford, a 14 year old boy arrested in America apparently just because he was outside around the time a crime was committed nearby. Although the case is interesting and there’s definitely a story there that needs to be told, we weren’t convinced that as a predominantly white, British cast we were the right people to tell that story with a real in depth understanding of Davonte’s situation and the circumstances that led to his arrest.

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The most crucial thing to find is not only a case with a story that we feel needs to be told, but one we can bring to the stage with integrity, doing justice to all those involved. We ended up choosing a case which was put forward at the very start of our research process:

Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?

This case has been a mystery since 1943. In brief; four boys discovered a human skull inside a wych-elm tree in Hagley Wood (Worcestershire, England). As they had been trespassing on an estate owned by Lord Cobham the boys went home without telling anyone about their discovery. But the youngest boy soon felt uneasy about what he had seen and told his parents who subsequently reported it to the police. On checking the trunk of the tree the police found an almost complete skeleton, and a hand was found some distance away. It is believed the woman was murdered in 1941 but her remains have never been identified.

At the time the body was discovered no one had any idea who the woman was, but a few years later graffiti started to appear linking the unknown woman with a name, an identity, a suggestion that at least someone knew who she was. The supposed first instance was on Upper Dean Street in Birmingham when graffiti saying ‘Who put Bella down the Wych Elm- Hagley Wood’ appeared in 1943 sparking ideas about who this woman, Bella, was (we think  anyway- there have been differing reports on which graffiti first appeared and where). Since the 1970’s the Hagley Obelisk has sporadically been defaced with similar graffiti and it has also sprung up in other places since the 1940’s.

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There have been a number of ideas about who Bella was; some argue she was a sex worker, others that she was a German spy, and there was also a statement in 1953 made by Una Mossop, telling police that her husband (or cousin depending on what you read), Jack Mossop had confessed that he and a Dutchman called van Ralt had put the woman in the tree.

Each of the theories involves a number of different players and conflicting statements from them, so who was Bella really?

The truth is, we don’t know yet. The first step will be to look into all the theories that have surfaced over the years, investigating the key players in each of them and trying to figure out which account makes the most sense. Next it will be a trip to Hagley Woods and the area where Bella was found to search for anything which might help us learn more about the case or develop our piece further.

If you’d like to learn more about the case and the theories surrounding it take a look at these articles:

The Line Up – Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?

The Unredacted – Who put Bella in the wych-elm?

Or listen to these podcasts:

Case File – Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?

Stuff you missed in History Class – The Hagley Woods Murder

(Alternatively just Google ‘Who put Bella in the Wych-Elm and a crazy amount of stuff will come up).

Happy investigating, make sure to let us know what you find out! Thanks – Leah

First blog post

Hello everyone and welcome to our lovely new blog!

This first entry is very exciting as we finally get to reveal what our next project is, and how you guys can all keep up to date and get involved!

Since our return from the Edinburgh Fringe in August 2016 we have had one thing on our minds – MURDER! Well, murder mysteries to be precise; unsolved crimes, wrongful convictions, false confessions and problems with the justice system.

It seems as if the majority of our generation have donned deerstalker hats, pulled out magnifying glasses and turned in to armchair detectives, solving (or at least trying to solve) these cases from the comfort of our own homes, (or on our overcrowded commute to work!). Working out ‘whodunit’ and discussing theories with practically anyone and everyone has become part of the norm in recent months, with names such as, Steven Avery, Adnan Syed and Maura Murray ringing in the air.

As a group of 20 somethings who all have access to Netflix and podcasts such as Serial, My Favourite Murder, Generation WhyCase File and Missing Maura Murray (to name just a few – we’ll do a post on our favourite podcasts at some point!) we too have become slightly obsessed with solving mysteries and discussing our opinions on these cases. So why not attempt to solve a murder live on stage?

So, for out next project we are heading back to our roots (quite literally), to try to unravel a Worcestershire mystery, and finally answer the question that has been on everyone’s lips since the 1940’s – Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?