The Witchcraft Murder: One of Britain’s Oldest Unsolved Crimes
Valentine's Day 1945 dawned cold and frosty. A weary Britain was entering the last months of the Second World War and a bitter winter was almost at an end. For elderly Charles Walton, the shortage of young men meant that there was plenty of agricultural work available. As he rose early that morning, Charles was probably grateful that at 74, despite needing a stick to walk, he was still fit and active enough to do a hard day’s work.
It was dark as he pulled shut the front door of his small cottage in Lower Quinton and began the journey to nearby Meon Hill. Tasked with trimming some hedging for a local farmer, his day must have begun in the same way as a thousand before it. As the old gentleman made his way along the narrow country lanes, he surely had no idea that by the end of the day he would lie dead in a field, a pitchfork pinning him to the ground. His murder, shocking as it was, would probably have been written off as a tragic but random attack had it not been for the mysterious land which he inhabited and the superstitious folk who lived there. Instead, the death of Charles Walton became a mystery that will probably never be solved, a mystery that was to lead investigators down a path of folklore, ghosts, and ultimately, witchcraft.
A Body Discovered
Widowed Charles Walton lived with his adult niece in a small cottage. He and his wife had adopted the young woman as a child when her mother died. That fateful Valentine’s Day Edith Walton arrived home from work at 6:00 pm and was surprised to discover her uncle hadn’t returned home. Concerned, she called next door and fetched her neighbour, Harry Beasley. Together, they began the walk to Meon Hill and the farm known as The Firs. On their way they stopped to collect the farmer, Alfred Potter, who took them to the spot where they had last seen Walton. The scene that met them was horrific, Charles Walton lay dead next to the hedge he had been trimming, the ground around him saturated in blood. The elderly gentleman had been beaten with his own walking stick. A cross was carved into his chest, his neck had been slashed with a trouncing hook and a pitchfork used to pin him to the ground.
The Investigation Begins
By 7.00pm the police had been informed of Walton’s murder. As was common in the 1940s, local police called in Scotland Yard to assist them. By the following day one of England’s foremost detectives, Robert Fabian, had taken over the case. Along with his assistant he began a methodical and detailed investigation into the murder. In the early days of the investigation there were three main lines of enquiry.
- Close to Lower Quinton was an Italian Prisoner of War Camp. As the war was drawing to a close, the prisoners were given an unprecedented level of freedom. Often used as cheap labour on local farms, the prisoners were allowed to travel to and from their place of work unsupervised. Had one of the P.O.W.s happened upon Charles as he worked alone and murdered him? It seemed unlikely. The only thing missing from Walton’s body was a cheap tin pocket watch, hardly worth murdering the old man for.
- George Higgins was the best friend of Charles Walton and was working less than 300 yards from where his body was found. Rumour had it that the old men had a falling out about Christmas time. Had Higgins made his way across the fields to kill his old friend? Fabian concluded that he hadn’t. The old man, he decided, was far too frail to carry out such a vicious crime.
- The prime suspect in the case, was and still is, the owner of the farm where Walton died, Alfred Potter. There was a suggestion that Potter had borrowed money from Charles Walton, a claim vehemently denied by Walton’s niece Edith. However, Potter’s behaviour remained suspicious throughout the investigation. Potters demeanour was first noted when the police arrived at the scene. He appeared overly agitated and anxious to leave the scene, complaining of feeling cold. The farmer was keen to tell the police that they would find his fingerprints on the murder weapon as he had handled it on discovering the body. However, when the weapon was examined no fingerprints were discovered, it had been wiped clean. Eventually, Potter was asked to supply the clothes he had been wearing on the day. There was a clear stain on the front of his trousers which could have been blood. However, they had been so thoroughly scrubbed, a sample could not be taken. The farmer gave various contradictory accounts of his movements during the day at one point saying he had seen Walton in the distance, then changing his testimony. One of the most damining pieces of evidence against Potter however, was his claim that he sometimes paid Charles Walton for hours he had not worked. In fact the opposite was true. Had a row erupted when Walton finally discovered what was going on and demanded payment?
Fabian eventually met a wall of silence. The uncooperative villagers were less than forthcoming. Frustrated, the officer began to believe he would never solve the case until a Warwickshire policeman with local knowledge put forward another theory and changed the whole direction of the case.
A Ritual Murder
Detective Inspector Alex Spooner was a Warwickshire man with a detailed local knowledge of the area. He immediately recognised the ritualistic nature of the murder of Charles Walton. He also understood that the area around Meon Hill was steeped in tales of witchcraft and the occult. Spooner drew Fabian’s attention to a book on local folklore. The book was called, ’Folk-Lore, Old Customs and Superstitions in Skakespeare-land’ by J Harvey Bloom. Two chapters in the book piqued the interest of the frustrated Fabian, the first involved a young Charles Walton’s encounter with the paranormal many years before, the second was the very similar murder of an old woman some seventy years before. By the time he had finished reading, Fabian had to acknowledge that Charles Walton may have been murdered not for an old tin watch but because he was a practising witch.
A Cunning Man
Whilst Charles Walton was unlikely to be the devil worshipping witch some accused him of being, there is a very strong possibility that he was one of the last cunning folk practising low magic in 1940s Britain. As a cunning man, Walton would have been respected in his community. He would have a deep understanding of folk magic, cures and medicine and would use his knowledge and skills to combat malevolent spirits and bad witchcraft. He would also heal the sick and offer charms and spells for a small fee.
Cunning folk were predominantly male and were seen as useful people. With a deep understanding of the countryside and an affinity with nature, they were particularly valued in the villages of rural Britain. Charles Walton was rumoured to have had many gifts. He could tame wild dogs with his soothing voice and his manner was so gentle that birds flocked to him without fear. Why then, would anyone wish to murder the old man in such a ritualistic manner? The answer may lie in a rumour that had made the rounds of the small village where he lived in the months before his death.
Charles Walton had been accused of "blasting" by some of the local villagers. Blasting was a form of witchcraft used to hex crops and livestock. Lower Quinton had suffered a dreadful harvest in the year before Walton’s death, so it was perhaps not surprising that he became the subject of local gossip. The ritual of blasting involved driving natterjack toads across the land to strip it of all goodness.The garden of Walton’s cottage was overrun with such toads and one villager even claimed that Old Charlie kept a toy plough to which he harnessed the creatures before they did his bidding.
In the days before Walton’s death, two heifers had been discovered dead. Did one of the local farmers believe the hex was upon them again? It is a strong possibility. The old man was killed using a method traditionally used to murder those suspected of witchcraft. Walton was "’stanged," meaning his neck slashed and his body pinned down by a pitchfork to prevent him rising from the dead. His blood was left to drain into the ground and replenish the soil he had cursed.
Mysterious Meon Hill
Charles Walton met his grisly death on Meon Hill. As far back as living memory, the hill and its environs have been associated with the occult and black magic rituals. Steeped in mythology, its very existence is said to have been the result of a row between the devil and the monks from nearby Evesham Abbey.
One version of the story has an irate devil kicking a boulder at the abbey in a bid to destroy it. His plan was thwarted by the power of prayer and the boulder fell to the ground as Clevedon Hill. Another twist on the legend has him throwing a lump of earth. Again, the power of prayer shielded the newly built abbey and the clod fell to Earth as Meon Hill.
The Celts who occupied the area centuries ago believed that Meon Hill was the resting place of Arawn, the god of the Underworld. Arawn was guarded by a pack of spectral black dogs who went hunting with him as he searched for unsuspecting mortals to populate his kingdom. To this day, witnesses claim to encounter these dogs on Meon Hill. A harbinger of death and destruction, the legend of the black dogs was to have particular significance in Charles Walton’s life.
Black Dogs and Ghostly Ladies
One of the tales recounted in the book given to Fabian by Spooner, features the story of a young boy called Charles Walton. The story takes place in the area where the murdered Charles Walton lived and puts him at the right age in the late nineteenth century to be the boy concerned. On eight successive nights fourteen year old Charles Walton encountered a ghostly black dog on his way home from the farm where he was working. When Charles told the farmer, he scoffed at him and told him to try and forget what he had seen. Walton was unable to do this as the dog appeared once more, for a ninth and final time. This time the dog walked quietly next to him for a few minutes before slowly transforming into a woman. The woman wore a black silk dress and a hooded cape. When she pulled down her hood she appeared completely headless. The terrified Walton ran home only to discover his sister dying from a sudden unknown illness. From that time onwards some of the young Walton’s neighbours were suspicious that he had strange powers gifted by the devil, powers which allowed him to predict the future and practise witchcraft. The legend of the black dog played an eerie part in Fabian's investigation. In the first few days of the investigation a police car knocked down and killed a black dog and another was found hanging from a tree on Meon Hill. Fabian also recounts seeing a black dog himself while he searched for clues at the murder site. A few minutes later he encountered a young boy who appeared to be looking for something. When Fabian asked him if he had lost his dog, the boy visibly paled and took to his heels.
A Very Similar Murder
Some seventy years before the death of Charles Walton another murder took place in the nearby village of Long Compton. There is a possibility that the victim, Ann Tennant, was a relative of Walton. On the evening of her death 79 year old Ann left her cottage to buy a loaf of bread. On her way home she crossed paths with labourer John Hayward who had been working in the fields to bring in the harvest. Without any warning he attacked the defenceless old lady with a pitchfork. A farmer called John Taylor intervened but was unable to stop the attack. Three hours later the unfortunate woman died. When asked for his motive John Hayward accused Ann Tennant of being a witch who had put the evil eye on him. According to Hayward she was not the only witch in the area and if he had the opportunity, he would have killed many more.
An Anonymous Letter
One of the strangest twists in the murder of Charles Walton was an anonymous letter sent first to the police and then to a local newspaper. In the letter a Wolverhampton woman calling herself Mrs. Jones claimed to have been present when Charles Walton was murdered. The woman suggested that she was part of a coven of witches who gathered together to perform the ritualistic sacrifice.The leader of this coven of witches, she suggested, was the former lover of Aleister Crowley. Crowley was infamous throughout Britain at the time for his occult beliefs and practices and had hundreds of followers across the country. The self styled Beast of Boleskine was labelled ' the wickedest man in the world' by the press of the day. Mrs. Jones' account was discounted as fantasy by the police but it certainly helped consolidate the belief amongst the public that witchcraft was involved in Walton's death.
A Seance is Held
By the early fifties the murder of Charles Walton remained unsolved but that did not mean that interest in the case died down. In 1950 the respected Egyptologist and anthropologist, Dr. Margaret Murray made a study of the murder. Masquerading as a tourist enjoying a painting holiday, she made her own surreptitious enquiries and concluded that Charles' death was almost certainly the consequence of a black magic ritual involving local witches. In 1952 Mills and Higginbotham from the Birmingham Psychical Society held a secret séance on Meon Hill on the anniversary of Walton's death. While the identity of the murderer was not revealed Walton is rumoured to have left the following message; “I forgive, I forgive. I deserved what was coming to me but not in such a brutal way.”
A Strange Discovery
One of the items missing when Charles Walton’s body was discovered, was a small tin watch. Worth very little in monetary terms, the old man always carried it with him. Fabian very quickly realised that finding the watch could lead him to the killer and organised a fingertip search of Walton’s home to make sure that it wasn’t there. After a number of searches failed to turn up the watch Fabian became convinced it had been stolen. In 1960, the cottage where Walton had lived was modernised. In a small outhouse in the garden, a workman found a small tin watch secreted away. Walton‘s niece confirmed that it was the missing watch but could give no explanation as to how it had found its way to its hiding place. Had the murderer returned it? When the watch was opened a shard of witch glass was found inside. Witch glass was used to deflect bad magic away from a person and if lost would always find its way back to the person who it was charged with protecting.
The Last Word
Charles Walton’s murder remains unsolved and is likely to remain so. The debate is still open as to whether the crime was an occult ritual or an argument over money that got out of hand. Perhaps it is fitting then to leave the last word to the celebrated investigator, Robert Fabian, who ultimately tried, but failed, to crack the case.
I advise anybody who is tempted at any time to venture into Black Magic, witchcraft, Shamanism–call it what you will–to remember Charles Walton and to think of his death, which was clearly the ghastly climax of a pagan rite. There is no stronger argument for keeping as far away as possible from the villains with their swords, incense and mumbo-jumbo. It is prudence on which your future peace of mind and even your life could depend— Robert Fabian ' The Anatomy of Crime'