One of the strangest of all “classic” true crime cases is the 1945 murder of seventy-four-year-old Charles Walton of Lower Quinton, Warwickshire, UK, which combines an unsolved mystery with tales of witchcraft and ghosts.
Warwickshire is, as one chronicler describes it, Shakespeareland; the great Tudor playwright was born in Stratford-on-Avon. It was also, in 1945, still quite rural, small farming villages being the norm. Charles Walton lived and died in the village where he was born, Lower Quinton, which in 1945 had a population of 493.
Old Charlie Walton was well-liked by his neighbors, although they regarded him as “strange.” He had an almost uncanny rapport with horses, wild birds would eat from his hands, and rumor had it that he kept an odd kind of toad—natterjacks, which run instead of hop—for pets. He was a widower with no children, although he and his wife had adopted his niece, Edith Walton, when the girl was three. His wife had died in 1927, and Edith stayed on to keep house for him; she also worked days at a local factory. Charlie had always been a hard worker, although rheumatism compelled him to walk with a stick for support, and he still performed odd jobs for the villagers. On February 14, 1945, he had been hired to cut brush on Meon Hill for a farmer named Alfred (or Albert; both names have been given for this man) Potter, whose farm was called The Firs. He left early that morning, taking his tools—a pitchfork and a device variously called a billhook or a trouncing fork, with which he actually cut the brush–, his lunch and his walking stick with him. Potter apparently was the last person to report seeing him alive, around lunchtime.
Ordinarily, Walton would have been home by 4 PM, as the advancing February darkness made working difficult and temperatures dropped. Edith, therefore, was alarmed when she arrived home at six o’clock to find the cottage they shared deserted. Had it been anyone else but her uncle, she might have thought he had stopped in at the local pub, but Charlie Walton was not a pub type of man. She finally summoned a next-door neighbor named Harry Beasley, and they set out looking for Walton. They first stopped in at Potter’s, since Charlie had been working for him that day. Potter led them to the place where he had last seen Charlie.
Charlie was still at that spot, but he was dead. He had been beaten over the head with his own stick; his throat had been slashed with the billhook, then the pitchfork driven through his neck at an acute angle. That wound appeared to have been the one that killed him; it had bled far more copiously than the other. The tines of the fork were driven so far into the ground, moreover, that it took two constables to remove it when the body was taken from the crime scene. Worse yet, the billhook had been used to carve a cross into his neck and chest.
Granted, the story is strange enough to this point, but it got stranger.
Warwickshire had—may to some degree still have—a long tradition of witchcraft and ghost stories. Some of Charlie Walton’s neighbors seem to have regarded him as a witch, because of his uncanny way with animals. Certainly that aspect was in the mind of the first man in charge of the investigation, Superintendent Alex Spooner of Warwickshire CID. Joined shortly by Robert Fabian and Albert Webb of Scotland Yard, Spooner pointed out a number of oddly coincidental occult links. The first one was a mention, in a 1929 book about Warwickshire folklore, of a story about an adolescent boy named Charles Walton who had seen, in 1885, a ghostly black dog for nine days straight, after which the boy’s sister died. Spooner was of the opinion that the 1885 Charles Walton was the dead man of 1945, grown up.
Then the tale was raised that the murder was an exact duplicate of one committed in the nearby village of Long Compton in 1875. The perpetrator, one John Haywood, is described as “simple”; he was also drunk on hard cider the day he attacked an old woman named Ann Tennant, who died of her wounds later that night. Heywood was convinced his victim was a witch and had put a hex on him. Spooner wondered if perhaps Charlie Walton’s killer had committed the murder in the same fashion because Charlie Walton was a “witch,” a supposition not easily shaken off when some neighbors mentioned a poor harvest the previous year and left the inference dangling that it might have been the result of witchcraft.
And then the witchcraft “expert” Margaret Murray—she of the theory that a witch-cult had survived intact, running parallel but secret to Christianity, for many millenia in Europe—weighed in. According to Murray, it was a case of blood sacrifice; she argued that February 14 was, on the old Julian calendar abandoned in 1752, February 2, Candlemas Day, a day when a blood sacrifice was made by “witches” for the sake of the coming crops. Her argument was promptly contradicted by Gerald Gardner, founder of one branch of the modern practice of Wicca, who said that Charles Walton was far too old to make a suitable blood sacrifice; a sacrifice had to be a person at the peak of youth and strength.
Fabian and Webb of the Yard found all this highly diverting but impractical; they were convinced that Walton had been murdered by a maniac, but came up frustratingly short on evidence. Another motive they tried diligently to follow up was raised when it was learned that Charles Walton’s wife had, on her death in 1927, left Walton nearly three hundred pounds, which he had banked and had never been known to draw from—yet it was discovered that at his death barely three pounds of the money was still in the account. Edith, who had her own job and account, knew of the money but had no idea where it had gone, leading to another dead end.
By the time the investigation was closed, all four hundred ninety three residents of Lower Quinton had been interviewed. Not one of them gave Fabian and Webb any usable information. In part this could be laid to the clannishness of small communities and the pair’s “outsider” status; in part, it may have been fear. It may have been they knew who committed the crime—and covered up for that individual or individuals.
The only arrest ever made in the case was of an Italian POW from a nearby camp who was in the habit of sneaking out of the camp to supplement his diet by poaching rabbits; found hiding in a ditch shortly after the murder, covered in blood, he was released when the blood proved to be rabbit.
The case was officially closed when a coroner’s jury brought back a verdict of “murder by a person or persons unknown.” Charlie Walton was buried at St. Swithins, the parish church directly across the road from his cottage. He had a headstone which is no longer extant; it was apparently lost when the churchyard underwent renovation some fifty years after his burial, and his gravesite cannot be pointed out with any precision.
Some of the wilder tales have been disproven in the sixty-four years since his death. The Charles Walton mentioned in the 1929 book as having seen a ghost dog, the sighting followed closely by the boy’s sister’s death, can be proven genealogically not to have been the murder victim of 1945; the victim had two sisters, both of whom married in 1891 and lived into the twentieth century.
The murder was not identical to the Ann Tennant murder at Long Compton; Heywood’s attack on the old woman was witnessed by several people who testified that he used only a pitchfork, with which he stabbed her several times; there was no billhook involved, nor, apparently, was a cross carved into her chest, although legend insisted that it was, based on Heywood’s own rather incoherent testimony.
The most prevalent theory nowadays is that Alfred Potter, the man who hired Charles Walton to cut brush that February day, was the murderer; this one posits that Walton’s bank account was drained because he had loaned money to Potter to cover his gambling debts, and Potter murdered him to avoid repayment he was unable to make. The overkill aspect of Walton’s death could be explained by Potter having panicked when the old man put up a more vigorous struggle than expected; the cross carved into the chest likewise might have been inspired by the legend of Ann Tennant’s death.
But we’ll never know for certain; all the major characters are long in their graves.
One last legendary aspect of the case insists that Fabian of the Yard, on his last day in Lower Quinton, actually saw the black dog who runs like a shadow through the whole story. Fabian wrote of the case in his autobiography, melodramatically describing it as having happened in the shadow of a druidical circle called the Whispering Knights; Gerald Gardner, upon reading this description, drily pointed out that the Whispering Knights is a Stone Age construction, was never the site of druidical rites, and moreover was located some twelve miles from Lower Quinton and did not cast quite that long a shadow, but Fabian never changed that part of the story.
The one most haunted by the case was, however, Superintendent Spooner of Warwickshire CID. He made a pilgrimage to the site on Meon Hill every February 14 for nineteen years, dying shortly after the last one. It galled him till the end of his days that he never caught Charlie Walton’s killer.