The Pitchfork Murder: Is This England’s Creepiest Unsolved Crime?

“This is the country of the spook and the witch; of the spirits that haunt the hillsides; of the demon that halts horses in lonely roads and makes them refuse to take another step”
From ‘Warwickshire’ by Alan Burgess

When conjuring up an image of Shakespeare-land deep in the heart of the Cotswolds, one is likely to envisage rolling hills, picturesque villages with thatched cottages and a quaint, unhurried way of life. Black Magic, brutal murder and unfriendly, suspicious locals is a far less common view of one of England’s most popular tourist destinations. For those with an interest in unsolved cases, Witchcraft and British folklore, however, one mention of ‘The Pitchfork Murder’ instantly links the region with a centuries old underbelly of superstition, hostility and death.

On St Valentine’s Day 1945, the mutilated body of 74 year old farm labourer Charles Walton, who lived his whole life in the sleepy village of Lower Quinton some eight miles from Stratford-Upon-Avon, was found on the nearby slopes of Meon Hill. Walton had set out at 8am that morning from the small cottage he shared with his niece, Edith Isabel Walton, for a day’s work hedge-cutting for local farmer Alfred Potter.

Riddled with rheumatism, the ageing villager carried with him his walking stick and the tools of his trade; a pitchfork and a billhook. When his corpse was discovered later that evening, all three of those implements had been used to end his life in the most horrifying of ways.

The site of Charles Walton's murder, as it appears today
The site of Charles Walton’s murder, as it appears today

A Field in England

Walton’s failure to return to his modest home at 4pm that afternoon had concerned Edith, as the quiet, reclusive man always stuck to a strict routine. Within a couple of hours Edith was sure there was something wrong so, along with her neighbour Harry Beasley and Potter, she set off to look for Walton.

What the trio found under an oak tree at the spot the old man had been working was a scene straight out of a horror movie. Walton’s body had been pinned to the ground by his own pitchfork and the billhook had been used to slash a rough cross into his neck and chest. The assailant, or assailants, had then rammed the billhook into the open wound with such force that it passed through flesh and bone some six inches into the ground below.

The dead man’s walking stick lay some three feet away, stained with blood and matted with hair, apparently used to inflict a head wound during the vicious attack. The grim scene was completed by the chilling look on the dead man’s face; his features were contorted by abject terror and agony.

When Professor JM Webster, the Home Office Pathologist of the West Midland Forensic Science Laboratory, was called to the scene of the murder, it took both of the burly policemen who accompanied him to remove the farm tools from Walton’s body, so deeply had they been embedded into the corpse and hillside. After carrying out his initial examinations by torchlight, Webster placed the time of death at around noon of that day. The date, gruesome manner of the killing and place it occurred were to form the backbone of what would subsequently become the Warwickshire Constabulary’s oldest, and strangest, unsolved case.

The brutal, seemingly senseless killing of the old man took a bizarre turn as rumours immediately began to circulate amongst the locals that Walton’s death was an ‘Evil Eye’ murder, an act carried out in relation to superstitious belief in Witchcraft and the powers of Black Magic.

Fabian and Charles Walton
Robert Fabian and Charles Walton

Witchfinder General

 

Detective Chief Superintendent Alec Spooner of the Warwickshire Constabulary was put in charge of the case and it was he who broached the subject of the Dark Arts with the detective who arrived from Scotland Yard to assist in the investigations.

Such was the unusual, vicious nature of the crime that none other a figure than Chief Inspector Robert Fabian had been sent with his assistant, Detective-Sargeant Albert Webb, to the small village in the hope of uncovering Walton’s killer. The author of several volumes of memoirs and the inspiration behind the TV series Fabian of the Yard, the Chief Inspector and his assistant were met with a wall of silence during their investigations.

Whether scared, suspicious of outsiders or bound by something altogether more sinister, the residents of Lower Quinton would not shed any light on the murder. All 493 of them were personally interrogated by Fabian and Webb in what proved to be a frustrating and fruitless exercise. A level-headed realist, Fabian was loathe to believe that Black Magic and Witchcraft could be behind the murder, but with little else in the way of firm leads to go on, the renowned detective couldn’t rule it out.

When Spooner handed Fabian a copy of a book entitled Folk Lore, Old Customs and Superstitions in Shakespeare-land by J Harvey Bloom MA, the famed detective began to get a clearer idea of just why the locals were so reticent to open up to the police.

Through the centuries, the county of Warwickshire had earned itself a reputation for being a great centre of Witchcraft, with a ‘Witching Tree’ at the summit of Meon Hill the supposed destination for Coven meetings. Spooner directed Fabian to a passage in the book recounting a crime that had taken place in the village some 70 years earlier that bore an uncanny resemblance to the case in hand.

In 1875, one James Heywood, a simple, superstitious man with a firm belief that cattle deaths and crop failures were the result of an ‘Evil Eye’ cast by a witch, killed 80-year-old Ann Turner by pinning her to the ground with a pitchfork before slashing a cross into her body with a billhook. Though found not guilty by reason of insanity and sent to Broadmoor, Heywood’s actions highlighted an undercurrent of superstition and belief in ungodly practices that clung to the area and stretched back into early British history. Meon Hill was once the site of Stone Age and Iron Age encampments and has been associated with evil for over 2,000 years. The Celts believed the hill belonged to Arawn, the God of the Underworld and through the ages many a dark story has been attributed to Meon Hill and the surrounding villages, supposedly the most haunted part of the country.

A 1978 copy of Bloom's book on Warwickshire folklore
A 1978 copy of Bloom’s book on Warwickshire folklore

The Howl of the Black Dog

As preposterous as all this may sound, and many have subsequently debunked and disputed the facts in Heywood’s murder of the supposed witch Ann Turner, at the time the detectives were plunged into a world where these arcane beliefs still held some sway.

Was Walton murdered in some archaic ritual? It transpired that the previous year’s crops had failed and some of the villagers apparently saw Walton as a witch who had been sacrificed in order to ensure the success of the current season’s yield. It’s true that his body had been mutilated in such a way so as to allow the blood to run more freely into the ground below, believed to be a way to revitalise and replenish soil in ancient customs.

The date of the killing, St Valentine’s Day, further muddied the waters of an already strange case as it is historically the day appointed for Druidical sacrifices. Furthermore, that year’s Valentine’s Day fell on Ash Wednesday, a date of significant importance in the Christian calendar. Add to this melange of facts, rumours and myths the story of the ‘Black Dog of Meon Hill’ and the case truly becomes stranger than fiction.

Legend has it that a young boy was passed on three consecutive nights by a black dog, a supposed harbinger of death, on the lane next to Meon Hill. On the third night the dog turned into a headless woman in a black silk dress as it passed by the young lad. Returning home ashen faced, the boy was devastated to discover that his sister had died. Rumour has it that the young boy’s name was Charles Walton, the same Charles Walton that would later meet with such a grisly end on the bleak slopes of the hill.

Having had this tale recounted to him by Spooner, Fabian was startled to hear that a black dog had been found hanging from a tree close to the scene of the crime some three days after the murder.

It is entirely possible that whoever did kill Charles Walton knew of Meon Hill’s dark history and of the murder of Ann Turner and left the body in the way it was found to distract the police and frighten the locals into silence. This line of thinking is, of course, far more plausible and realistic than talk of Witchcraft and blood sacrifices.

Meon Hill as it appears today
Meon Hill as it appears today

The Leads Run Cold

 

The investigations into more mundane, Earthly reasons for Walton’s murder, however, still refused to turn up any firm evidence.

A man spotted crouching in the field where the murder took place and washing blood off his hands? An Italian POW from the nearby camp at Long Marston who took advantage of the laissez-faire manner of the prisoners’ internment to do a spot of poaching. The first real lead in the case was squashed when a blood sample taken from the Italian’s clothing was confirmed as belonging to a dead rabbit.

The possibility that Walton’s oldest friend, George Higgins, had committed the murder after the pair had fell out the previous Christmas was dismissed as the 72-year-old was deemed too old to have the strength to carry out such a vicious attack. A plain old act of robbery? The tin watch that Walton usually carried was missing, though Edith couldn’t be sure he had taken it with him on that fateful day. A money belt containing gold sovereigns Walton sometimes wore was safely tucked away in the cottage, another possible motive shut down as quickly as it was raised.

Suspicion quickly fell on the man for whom Walton had been working that day, Alfred Potter. Had the farmer killed his casual employee over a dispute about hours worked and money owed? On investigation of both Walton and Potter’s bank records, the former was barely solvent and the latter had no debts of note that might provide a motive for robbery. Potter, a live-in farm manager, was generally viewed in a good light, though occasionally he did have trouble paying wages.

The likeliest scenario for a dispute would be that Potter was claiming wages from the farm owners that exceeded the hours Walton had worked and pocketing the difference. Could Walton have known this and threatened to reveal it? This potential theory was never proven, but Potter still seems like the likeliest suspect. Why did Potter claim to have touched the murder weapons when the body was discovered? Was that in order to explain away any fingerprints?

Beasley strongly refuted Potter’s claim to have done so but, in any case, no prints were ever found linking the farmer to the murder weapons. Potter was provided with an alibi by two of his employees that covered the time period of Walton’s murder, but why did both men resign from their positions shortly afterwards? Though Potter was regarded by Fabian as the potential murderer, no firm motive or evidence came to light that warranted the farmer’s arrest. With nothing more to go on, Fabian and Webb returned to Scotland Yard having failed to clear up the case. Aerial photographs, the scouring of the area with metal detectors, 20 plus samples of hair and clothing sent for testing, plaster casts of boot prints taken from the field, over 4,000 statements and the questioning of vagrants from around the country all failed to turn up any solid clues as to the identity of Walton’s killer.

 

Egyptologist and folklorist Margaret Murray, second right
Egyptologist and folklorist Margaret Murray, second right

The Unquiet Dead

The murder of Charles Walton remains unsolved to this day, and the rumours of its link to Witchcraft and Black Magic persisted for many years after the killing. In 1952 a séance was held on Meon Hill in the hopes of shedding light on the murderer’s identity.

A Mr HR Mills, an avid researcher of psychic phenomena and a Mrs Higginbotham, a medium from Birmingham, braved bad weather in order to try and reach out beyond the grave to the spirit of Walton. Higginbotham claimed to have spoken to a man named Walton who said “I forgive, I forgive. I deserved what was coming to me but not in such a brutal way.”

Two years previously, esteemed Egyptologist and expert on primitive religions, Dr Margaret Murray, spent a week in Lower Quinton conducting her own investigations into the murder. “Almost satisfied” that it was a Witchcraft related murder, Murray said of the village “It is typical of those places where superstitions and beliefs in witchcraft still exist. One significant thing is that it occurred on St Valentine’s Day – February the 14th. In the pre-Christian era from which many rituals still live, February was a sacrificial month.”

The person most affected by the failure to solve the mystery of Charles Walton’s death, though, was Detective Chief Superintendent Spooner. Somewhat haunted by the murder, Spooner would visit Lower Quinton and the scene of the crime every year on St Valentine’s Day. If he was hoping to experience a Eureka moment where the truth of the case revealed itself to him or if he was praying that one of the locals would slip up and reveal the killer’s identity, he was never fulfilled.

After another dead end visit on the anniversary of Walton’s murder, Spooner was said to have proclaimed “the more I visit the village the more I am convinced that Walton died in some Black Magic ritual.”

Until it is proven otherwise, there is no way of knowing for certain that Spooner was mistaken in that belief.

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