Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Black Dogs on Meon Hill

At early dusk on St. Valentine's Day, 1945, a body was discovered near the village of Lower Quinton in the English county of Warwickshire. It had belonged to 74-year-old Charles Walton, a laborer and handyman. A pitchfork had been thrust through his neck with sufficient force to stand upright while pinning him to the frozen ground. A hedge-cutting implement called a billhook, or trouncing hook, was embedded in Walton's torso, and a symbol resembling a cross carved into his throat. Both hook and pitchfork belonged to Walton: in fact, he had been chopping hedges that morning, near the foot of a huge, flattened rise called Meon Hill.

This harmless, by all accounts fairly dotty old man is considered to be the last victim of a ritualistic witch-killing in England's long history of ritualistic witch-killings.

I first came upon the Charles Walton case as a youngster, by way of a brief but intriguing account in Strange Stories, Amazing Facts (1976), a miscellany from the folks at Reader's Digest. "The Pitchfork Murder" explained that Walton had lived alone with his niece in a thatched cottage, favoring homemade cider to public-house ale, and the beasts of the field to human society. "He apparently spent many hours in the fields talking to the wild birds, and he believed that there was an understanding between them." Some felt they knew the identity of the guilty party, "But no evidence could be produced to justify a prosecution. Only tales of Walton's communion with the birds ... and sinister whisperings that he was killed because he was a witch."

The story stayed with me. I thought of Walton's pierced and bloody body lying near the hedgerow on that cold, silent stretch of desolate hill, near a tiny village in a hidden part of the world that looked, sounded, and behaved much the same then as it had centuries before. There was something haunting to the anachronism of the crime, the brutality of it, and the fact it had never been solved.

I encountered no further details of the case until reading, years later, the Encyclopedia of Murder, a cultishly famed 1961 compendium of famous and forgotten homicides by Patricia Pitman and Colin Wilson. (Wilson was acclaimed at the time for The Outsider, a social and literary study of existentialism; thereafter, he became known mainly as an authority on murder and murderers, but also wrote a number of books on paranormal subjects.) In laying out "the Lower Quinton murder," Wilson and Pitman described how the Scotland Yard investigator on the case, the once-famous Chief Inspector Robert H. Fabian, "found [in the village] a reluctance to discuss the crime, although he heard rumours that this was an evil-eye killing." (Note how that witchy term is used as casually as we'd say "crime of passion.") "Some villagers," the authors continue, "referred darkly to bad crops 'despite the good weather,' others mentioned a heifer that was found unaccountably dying in a ditch ..."

Fabian and his assistant, Sergeant Andrew Webb — outsiders snooping into village business among hostile natives — worked in coordination with a local officer, Superintendent Alec Spooner of Warwickshire's Criminal Investigation Division. Through Spooner, Fabian learned that an eerily similar murder had occurred in the neighboring village of Long Compton in 1875. An 80-year-old woman (identified in other accounts as Ann Turner, or Anne Tennant) had been killed with a pitchfork by a man named John Haywood (or James Heywood), part of whose confession was recorded in the book Warwickshire (1906), by Clive Holland. Haywood evidently promised the apprehending authorities "that he would kill all the witches in Long Compton, and that there were sixteen of them."

At his trial for murder, during the course of his defence, he said, "If you had known the number of people who lie in our churchyard, who, if it had not been for them [the witches] would have been alive now, you would be surprised. Her [the deceased] was a proper witch."

It came out in evidence that this man for years had honestly believed that when cattle or other animals died, or any evil fortune befell his fellow-villagers, such things were the direct result of the "Evil Eye" of some unfortunate old women he asserted were "proper old witches."

His mode of killing the unfortunate woman he attacked was evidently a survival of the ancient Anglo-Saxon custom of dealing with such persons by means of "stacung," or sticking spikes into them; whilst at the same time wishing that the portion of the body so wounded might mortify or wither away.

(For some reason, the passage on Evil Eye killing was removed from later reprintings of the Holland book — rather as the chapter on the Process Church did not survive the first edition of Ed Sanders' The Family. To read the 1906 edition, find Warwickshire on Google Book, not Internet Archive.)

Once, witches were thought to fly in profusion over England; fear of them nestled securely in the British heart. In his own account of the Walton case, in Fabian of the Yard (1950), Inspector Fabian notes that England's Witchcraft Act of 1735 "is still unrepealed upon the statute books." But apparently the area around Lower Quinton reeks particularly strongly of witchery and its ancient symbols. Near the Hill is a circular collection of tall, knobby rocks known as the Rollright stones. "Like mighty Stonehenge," writes Dr. Abner Mality, "the exact origin of the Rollright Stones remains a mystery, but there is no doubt they predate Christianity by many, many generations. The Stones have been the site of occult practices and occurrences for as long as there has been a record." It was said even after World War II that the stones formed a sabbath circle for local covens.

As well as a gifted detective, Robert Fabian was an inveterate celebrity-hound and self-promoter: a 1950s BBC-TV series was based on his exploits, and he played himself in a couple of movies. His recollections of the Walton murder and other notorious cases is fanciful and surely semi-fictional, but he writes with descriptive color and an affectionate smirk of Lower Quinton, "its thatched roofs golden among the Cotswald hills, [where] they speak of witches with a wry grin and many people will not pass from Bidford down Hillborough-lane for fear of a headless horseman and a ghostly woman in white." Superintendent Spooner — who had seen at once the ritualistic nature of the killing — gave Fabian, along with the Holland book, another one called Folk Lore, Old Customs and Superstitions in Shakespeare-Land by J. Harvey Bloom, a local clergyman.

Published in 1930, the Bloom book is a modestly-worded, often twee but thoroughly interesting work of regional history, peculiar facts, and stories once passed by lamplight. A chapter called "Occult Influences" mentions the murder of Ann Turner in passing, as well as recording such local legends as the ghostly carriage of Hilborough Lane, and the lady in white who was said to haunt Ragley Park. But near the chapter's end is the most arresting paragraph:

At Alveston a plough lad named Charles Walton met a dog on his way home nine times in successive evenings. He told both the shepherd and carter with whom he worked, and was laughed at for his pains. On the ninth encounter a headless lady rustled past him in a silk dress, and on the next day he heard of his sister's death.

Evidently, Walton was marked by fate from an early age. 15 years after Bloom's book was published, and some 60 after the event thus recorded, the "plough lad" lay skewered outside the village where he'd lived all his life — done in, no doubt, by someone who was likewise a lifelong inhabitant of Lower Quinton.

Bloom goes on to recount some facts about Britain's legalized persecution of "witches" over the centuries, and estimates "that nearly 2000 persons must have perished in England under these various legal enactments." Perhaps the most amazing thing is that Charles Walton, growing up under such clouds of doom and foreordination, escaped righteous execution for as long as he did.

Back at the crime scene, Inspector Fabian called in aircraft from a nearby RAF base to take aerial photos of the plains under Meon Hill. Mine-detectors swept the fields in search of Walton's tin watch, which had gone missing; Fabian hoped it would bear telling fingerprints. The good Inspector narrowed the field down to a single juicy suspect: "a swarthy Italian," with suspicious bloodstains on his coat. Despite blood and swarthiness, though, the Italian was soon cleared.

Things got strange toward the end. Spooner informed Fabian of the legend around Walton's boyhood encounter with the black dog. "That afternoon," Fabian writes, "a police car ran over a dog. Next day another heifer died in a ditch. And when Albert Webb and I walked into the village pub that evening silence fell like a physical blow. Cottage doors were shut in our faces, and even the most innocent witnesses seemed unable to meet our eyes. Some became ill after we spoke to them." At last, a final promising interrogatee slammed his door on Fabian, wondering why the police were still curious about the murder, Walton having been "dead and buried" a month already by then.

At which point, Fabian threw up his hands and returned to London, helpless in the face of inbred superstition and tribal hostility. "Maybe somebody in that tranquil village off the main road," he asks in conclusion, "knows who killed Charles Walton, who lies buried among the neat grey tombstones of Lower Quinton churchyard? Maybe one day somebody will talk? Not to me, a stranger from London, perhaps — but I happen to know that in the offices of Warwickshire Constabulary the case is not yet closed."

By now, it most certainly is: whoever killed the rheumatic, eccentric hermit Charles Walton surely fed the worms himself some time ago. But as with anything that holds your imagination and compels your return over a period of years, there's that gap in the storyline you can't get over. The lock not secured, the question unanswered.

The black dog out of nowhere. Supposedly, Walton saw a black dog as a boy; and the black dog was thought in the village, as in many locales around the world, to be a ghostly harbinger of death, a curse made flesh, as in Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles. But even in more recent times the image has been so employed: think of the "black dog man" of Dealey Plaza, the canine shape claimed by conspiracy buffs to be hiding behind the stockade fence on the grassy knoll; or of "Black Eyed Dog," one of the last songs written and recorded by Nick Drake, the gifted British singer-songwriter who killed himself at the age of 26:

A black eyed dog he called at my door
A black eyed dog he called out for more . . .

I'm growing old and I want to go home

Robert Fabian saw the black dog, too, during his time in Lower Quinton.

Once a black dog came running down Meon Hill, and a moment later a farm lad followed. "Looking for that dog, son?" I said.

He went pale. "Dog, mister?"

"A black dog." But without further word he stumbled off in his heavy earth-clogged farm boots.

Was this frightened boy destined to be the next Charles Walton? Was he running away from the curse of the black dog, or towards it? Was he cursed from that day onward, if only in his own mind, and the minds of the villagers all around him? How old would that boy be now? Coming up on Charles Walton's age, perhaps? Is he even alive today? Or did the Warwickshire witch-killer — the half-wit John Hayward in some later incarnation, actual or spiritual descendent of the person or persons unknown who slashed and speared old Charles Walton — get him too?

As of today, Charles Walton has been dead for 61 years.

Happy Valentine's Day.