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Thursday, August 12, 1999 Published at 13:52 GMT 14:52 UK


Murder mystery returns to haunt village

Hagley: revisited by ghosts from the past

After over 50 years, the mystery surrounding the murder of a woman has come back to haunt a village in Worcestershire.

The skeletal remains of the victim, known only as Belladonna, were accidentally discovered by poachers in a tree on the Hagley Hall estate in 1941.

Now a decision to remove graffiti from an 18th century obelisk at the estate, owned by Lord Cobham, has revived interest in the unsolved murder.

Stranger than fiction?

Like a good script from a Ruth Rendell story the mystery of who killed Bella has foxed local police and residents for years.

Periodically, memories of the macabre murder are revived. This time it was the Lord Cobham's decision to invite guests to witness a graffiti clean-up on the estate.

One message stood out amongst the others: "Who put Bella in the Witch Elm"

Witchcraft, German spies, a wayward American serviceman - the theory as to who, or what,killed Bella are as varied as the local legend is enduring.

Geoff Pardoe, who has lived in Hagley for all but a few of his 72 years, says: "There has been a murder, whether it was committed here or the body was taken to the Witch Elm in Hagley Wood.

"There are so many theories being bandied around about what it could be."

Mystery letter

In 1943 a letter to the local newspaper, the Wolverhampton Express and Star, deepened the mystery.

The writer claimed the dead woman was part of a spy ring, giving secrets to the Luftwaffe about local munitions factories.

But an eminent London University professor reckoned it may have been a black magic execution, because the skeleton was complete except for a hand, found some distance away.

Local broadcaster John Barnes on "a classic Black Country mystery"
Whatever the real cause, local broadcaster John Barnes says the mystery has spawned many a story to scare local children away from the woods. It remains as baffling as ever.

'Difficult to solve'

He says: "In 56 years the case has remained open all of that time. It's a case of where do you find the information from though, it's hard enough sometimes to solve a murder from six months ago.

"Certainly, 56 years on, where most of the people that were involved in it and most of the witnesses are dead, it's one of those things that will probably continue to be a classic Black Country murder mystery for many years to come.

"The police are just waiting for that one call that says 'we know who did it'... 'we know who put Bella in the Witch Elm'. But it hasn't happened just yet."

As an unsolved murder, the West Mercia police have kept the file on Bella open. They welcome any new leads but do not hold out much hope.

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