Inspirations: The pitchfork murder

  • In 1945, Charles Walton was murdered with his own farming tools and pinned to the ground with a pitchfork.
  • There are many rumours occult involvement, but no evidence.
  • The prime suspect was his employer, Alfred Potter, but evidence was circumstantial.
  • No motive or murderer was ever found, and the case remains unsolved 70 years later.
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Dave (CC / Flickr)

At six o’clock in the evening of St Valentines Day 1945, Edith Walton returned home to find the food she had left for her uncle Charles untouched. Edith was concerned enough to go looking for him with her neighbour, Harry Beasley. Charles Walton was working at the Firs, a nearby farm, so they called on the manager, Alfred Potter.

There was a new moon that night, so it must have been pitch dark and very cold when Potter led Edith and Beasley to the hedgerow Charles had been working on. They can’t have seen his body until they were a few metres from it.

Edith had been orphaned at the age of three, and her uncle raised her as if she was his own daughter. She lived and worked in London for a while, but returned to live with her uncle during the Blitz. We can only imagine what went through her mind when she found Charles Walton pinned to the ground with a pitchfork.

Walton had been beaten about the head with his own walking stick, and his neck slashed with the trouncing hook he had been using to cut the hedgerow.

Charles Walton is the victim the oldest unsolved murder in the records of the Warwickshire Police.

Rumour hides the facts

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Gordon (CC / Flickr)

When a mystery gains notoriety, myths proliferate to fill the gaps between facts. In the case of Charles Walton’s
murder, the gaps are so large that the myths far outweigh the facts. As the origins of rumours are not documented, it’s impossible to tell which rumours emerged at the time and which appeared much later. Rumours of all vintages have spent 70 weaving together to overlay the facts.

My attempt to summarise the evidence is limited by my being a lazy armchair historian, and biased by my being a fiction writer looking for inspiration for my own work and to share with anyone else who is interested. My main sources are a half hour podcast of Punt PI and the thoroughly researched Wikipedia article on the murder.

The basic facts about Charles Walton are straightforward. He was 74 years old and although his rheumatism made him dependent on sticks to walk with, he still worked as a day labourer. He lived in Lower Quinton in Warwickshire, and was an inoffensive man with no enemies.

He was murdered between 1:00 and 2:00 in the afternoon. No motive has been identified, let alone a murderer.

Enter Fabian of the Yard

Bizarre murders being beyond the experience of the local constabulary, Scotland Yard sent a team under the command of Chief Inspector Robert Fabian. Fabian’s investigation involved thousands of statements, the most thorough forensics available and photography by a reconnaissance aircraft supplied by the Royal Air Force.

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Robert Fabian (L) and Charles Walton (R) (History Press blog)

While Fabian was a competent investigator, he was also an energetic self-publicist. The latter pursuit received his full attention when he retired. He styled himself ‘Fabian of the Yard’, a name he used as the title for a book that was adapted into a popular TV series. Some of the discrepancies between Fabian’s description of the case in his books and the police files may be due to his embarrassment over his most famous unsolved case.

For example, Fabian described a close-mouthed and unco-operative community in Lower Quinton, and blamed them for threats directed at himself and his family. He described a man saying, “He’s been dead and buried a month now. What are you worrying about,” and slamming a door in Fabian’s face. Yet his investigation collected 4,000 witness statements, which contradicts his description of a wall of silence. Perhaps Fabian preferred to imply he was defeated by a grand conspiracy than simply an elusive murderer. It’s possible that some of the rumours around Charles Walton were initiated by Fabian’s own account of the case.

The anomalies

Straightforward robbery was suspected early in the investigation. Walton was working beside a road, so he could have caught the attention of a vagrant thief who attacked him with the weapons to hand: his own walking stick and tools. The possibility is supported by the disappearance of Walton’s pocket watch. However, the watch was found in one of the farm outbuildings. How it got there remains a mystery.

Another unexplained fact regards Walton’s finances. He inherited £300 when his wife died, fifteen years before his own murder. It was a substantial sum for a day labourer in the 1930s and Walton worked regularly and spent little. Yet at the time of his death, his bank account was almost empty. No explanation as to where his money went was ever provided.

The theories

Several theories have been built on the very shallow foundation of the known facts. If the facts are scant enough that they can’t rule out the more outlandish suggestions, they provide no evidence for them either.

The fugitive Italian

Near Lower Quinton was an Italian prisoner of war camp at Long Marston. Most British PoW camps were hastily built and undermanned by troops unfit for active service. They were often unable to contain young, bored and ingenious men. It wasn’t unusual for prisoners to sneak out for a trip to the cinema or a drink or two at the local pub, and many camps bowed to the inevitable by allowing prisoners to go out on parole.

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Paulo Valdivieso (CC / Flickr)

By 1945, the regime in camps holding Italians was particularly lax. Italy had been over-run and the war in Europe was in its final months so there was nowhere for an escaped prisoner to go. Most prisoners preferred to wait for repatriation with regular meals and a regime that was probably less harsh than the army they had been captured from. Long Marston didn’t even record who was in or out of the camp at any given time.

While animosity between Italian PoWs and English villagers was rare, it’s a rare community that doesn’t blame outsiders for untoward events. If Walton was murdered by a vagrant thief, could the thief be an Italian who felt like a change from prison camp rations? Such a man would need money, and would have to obtain it by theft.

Soon after the murder, an Italian was found hiding in a ditch and cleaning blood off his coat. He was immediately arrested, but a forensic examination of the coat showed the blood was not human. The Italian confessed to poaching rabbits and was released.

No other PoW fell under suspicion.

Magicide

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Diego da Silva (CC / Flickr)

Belief in the supernatural was alive and well in 1945. Two women were convicted of witchcraft in separate cases the year before, and Lower Quinton had legends of ghostly black dogs that presage a death in the family.

The suggestion that Charles Walton practiced witchcraft has the ring of a rumour from after the event rather than a motive. The rumour stated he was killed because he used spells involving toads to make land barren.

The suggestion of witchcraft may have been inspired by his being pitchforked to the ground. Since Walton’s day, film and television have taught us that such impalement is the way to kill a vampire. That particular legend arrived in Britain from the Balkans via Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula, nearly 50 years before Walton’s murder.

Vampires were not a staple of film and television as they are now, but impalement has significance closer to home. As recently as the late 19th century, suicides were staked into their coffins to trap their souls, which would inevitably be excluded from Heaven and so tempted to wander around and make a nuisance of themselves. The ritual was abandoned before 1945, but it was probably remembered.

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Brenda Clarke (CC / Flickr)

Charles Walton was not a vampire or a suicide, but someone may well have read some significance in his being pinned to the ground. If he was pinned with a pitchfork rather than a stake, the pitchfork had local significance. In nearby Long Compton in 1875, a mentally impaired man called James Heywood pitchforked one Ann Tennant to death. Asked why he did it, Heywood said it was because she was a witch.

He spent the rest of his life in Broadmoor asylum.

Rumours linked the Walton and Tennant murders as they were both accused of witchcraft and both pinned to the ground with a pitchfork. In fact, Ann Tennant was not impaled but died of her injuries in her daughter’s house.

The rumour of her impalement may have emerged after Walton’s murder, while the pitchfork was probably the nearest available weapon in both cases. There is no evidence that Walton’s skewering was ritualistic. An attacker frenzied enough to slash Walton’s neck with a trouncing hook may well have concluded by stabbing him with the pitchfork.

Human sacrifice

If Walton was not killed because he had been practicing witchcraft, perhaps he was killed by someone who was. Rumours abound of pagan rituals to improve the fertility of the land by soaking the blood of a human sacrifice into it, and Walton was as likely to be pitchforked to the ground to symbolically connect him with it as to trap his unquiet soul.

Mid-February would have been the right time of year for a fertility ritual as the it is close to the end of winter and the beginning of spring. Rumours have suggested that the ritual was timed to coincide with Candlemas Day, although Candelmas Day would have been the following day, 15th February. Midnight might have counted as a Candlemas sacrifice, but if a deity cared what day the sacrifice took place, it would be unlikely to be impressed by early afternoon the day before. It’s more likely that someone simply picked the nearest significant date.

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Dauvit Alexander (CC / Flickr)

Another question is why a ritual sacrifice would be carried out with Walton’s tools rather than a weapon brought for the purpose. It implies a pagan priest set out with the hope of not only finding someone in a secluded enough place to be sacrificed without witnesses, but also of finding weapons of opportunity lying around.

The strongest argument that such rituals are merely rumours is that February in Warwickshire is better known for miserable weather than corpses pitchforked to fields. If this was a fertility ritual, it would be an annual event rather than a single occurrence.

As well as Ann Tennant’s murder, Walton’s murder was associated with a more recent mysterious death. Two years earlier, a woman’s decayed body had been found in a tree in nearby Hagley Wood. About six months before Walton’s murder, graffiti asking ‘who put Bella in the wych elm?‘ started to appear in the area. The possibility of an arcane rite, possibly by the ubiquitous scapegoats that were the Roma, was prominent in the local consciousness at the time. Could it have been a coincidence that two bizarre murders happened within four years and fifteen miles of each other? However, it was never established whether the dead woman was murdered, or even who she was. The only similarity between her death and Walton’s was that they both unexplained.

If Chief Inspector Fabian encountered as many rumours of occult involvement as are circulating now, he did not mention them in his reports. He changed his tune years later, when he supported the witchcraft theory in one of his memoirs. He called Walton’s death ‘the ghastly climax of a pagan rite’.

Did he really believe a man was sacrificed next to a road in broad daylight? Or did he simply think it was a more exciting conclusion than stating he didn’t know who killed Walton? Fabian’s motivations remain yet another unexplained element of the case.

Alfred Potter

Fabian’s prime suspect was Alfred Potter, the farm manager who had hired Walton that day and who was one of the three who found his body. However, the evidence is circumstantial at best and Fabian was unable to make a strong enough case to charge Potter.

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Jim Barker (CC / Flickr)

The finger of suspicion was first pointed at him within an hour of his finding the body. Edith and Beasley left Potter guarding the body while they called the police, and presumably while Beasley tried to comfort a distraught Edith. The first constable on the scene reported that Potter was more upset than he would have expected, and was shivering with cold in spite of being used to working outside at all times of year. However, the constable can’t have had much experience of how people behave around gruesome murders. Potter had been left alone with the mutilated corpse of a man he knew in the dark, so it would be more surprising if he hadn’t shown signs of shock.

Fabian was probably more interested by inconsistencies in Potter’s statements. Potter initially said he was removing a drowned cow from a ditch at 12:40, but the cow was not removed until 3:30. Later, Potter said he had gone home to read the paper and then worked on pulping mangolds. Fabian must have suspected that Potter realised his story about salvaging a dead cow was unconvincing and came up with a different story to account for his movements at the time of the murder.

A stranger discrepancy is that Walton’s body was found wearing his jacket and under it, a shirt with the sleeves cut off above the elbow. In the parlance of the day, ‘shirtsleeves’ meant sleeves that reached to the wrist. Potter could not have seen Walton in shirtsleeves, though he might have seen Walton at a distance and assumed his sleeves were rolled up to the elbow, which would be normal for a man engaged in manual labour.

On the other hand, if Potter had murdered Walton, why lie about his shirt? Potter knew Walton died wearing his jacket, so lying about his shirt would only draw suspicion to himself.

Potter said that when they found the body, Beasley asked him to check Walton was dead so he touched the pitchfork and the other weapons. Beasley refuted the suggestion. Fabian suspected that Potter was trying to explain any fingerprints found on the weapons although in the event, none were. Wooden handles do not hold prints well.

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♦ Peter & Ute Grahlmann ♦ (CC / Flickr)

Farmhands at the Firs said Potter had trouble paying them, which suggested he was having financial difficulties. Fabian suspected that the reason Walton’s bank account was empty was that he had lent most of his money to Potter. Could Walton have been running out of money and demanded his loan back? It would provide a motive for the murder, Fabian never proved that Potter owed Walton money. However, if Walton had lent Potter a substantial sum of money, he would have made a substantial withdrawal that would have appeared on his bank’s records. No such withdrawal is documented.

The only forensic evidence implicating Potter were marks on his trousers. A pathologist stated they could have been bloodstains, but had been too thoroughly cleaned to be sure. He certainly could not be sure they were human blood. Potter was a countryman at a time of strict rationing. He was probably supplementing his diet with rabbits or squirrels, which would explain the blood.

Unanswered questions

All Fabian had on Potter were inconsistent statements about his movements at the time of the murder. They suggested a man with something to hide, but were hardly proof of guilt. Perhaps Potter was up to something he didn’t want to admit to at the time, such as black marketeering. Alternatively, he was a farm manager rather than an owner, so perhaps he was less than keen to admit he’d spent the morning in the pub and then gone home to read the paper.

Then there’s the question of how Walton’s watch came to be in an outbuilding. Could it have been dropped by the vagrant thief who never became more than hypothetical? Fabian’s failure to find a murderer among the local community makes the theory of the vagrant thief more credible. If such a thief existed, he or she might have hidden in an outbuilding and left in a hurry when the police search got underway. Alternatively, could a cash-strapped Alfred Potter have taken it for the few shillings it was worth, and hidden it in an outbuilding in case his house was searched?

Unless the vagrant thief actually existed or he really was a human sacrifice, Charles Walton was killed by someone he knew. Perhaps an argument got out of hand, and someone lost their temper and seized Walton’s walking stick. If so, Walton’s last sight on earth was the man he never expected to kill him. He died knowing who killed him and why. It’s knowledge we cannot share.

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Posted in Inspirations, Wednesday Pontification

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