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England's Last Witch Killing

Chuck Lyons lives in upstate New York with his wife Brenda and a golden retriever named Jack who chases ghosts and barks at shadows.

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On Valentine’s Day 1945 a 74-year-old Warwickshire man named Charles Walton was found dead in a Cotswolds hamlet in southcentral England. He had been beaten with his own cane and his neck had been cut open with his slashing hook. The prongs of his pitchfork pinned him to the ground, and a rude cross had been cut into his chest. The killing “looked like the kind of killing the Druids might have done in a ghastly ceremony at full moon,” Scotland Yard’s Chief Investigator Robert Fabian would write in his 1972 memoirs.

Besides the strange, ritualistic aspects of the crime scene, as Fabian investigated the killing he frequently ran into the tales of witchcraft in the area and of Walton’s involvement, all of which he tended to dismiss as against his training as a scientific investigator. He was skeptical of them and of witchcraft in general until one day on Moen Hill he was himself touched by the unknown/

Walton’s death came to be considered the last witch killing in Britain.

Charles Walton

Charles Walton

The KIlling

For centuries England and Scotland had been awash in “witchcraft” with many of those accused of its practice burned at the stake or hanged including a woman named Janet Horne who went to the stake in 1727, the last legal British execution of a witch. But she was not the last witch. In 1944, the year before Walton’s death, two elderly women, Helen Duncan and Jane Yorke, both of whom claimed to be mediums stood trial in London’s Old Bailey and were convicted under the Witchcraft Act of 1735. Yorke was given probation while Duncan was sentenced to seven months imprisonment.

Over the centuries, other “witches” had been dealt with locally and in less formal ways.

Walton had resided all his life in the Cotswolds hamlet of Lower Quinton. He was a widower and shared a small cottage with his 33-year-old niece, Edith Walton. He was well known in the village but considered “unusual.” He was a loner who seemed more comfortable with animals than people. He had a reputation as being good at training horses, and there were rumors that wild birds ate out of his hand and dogs were attracted to him, and that he even raised giant toads and practiced horse-whispering, a dark art that allowed him to communicate with animals. In what may have been more crucial in what happened, some of his neighbors held him responsible for the poor crops of the preceding autumn and even believed he had a way of blighting the fields of people he disliked.

“Few areas of Britain have a deeper association with traditional witchcraft than Warwickshire,” one historian wrote, “and privately it was accepted that Walton was involved with the various covens operating in the area.”

On the morning of Feb. 14, Walton was seen leaving his cottage slightly after 9 a.m. walking as he always did with his cane and carrying a pitchfork and slashing hook (a curved blade on a rod used in pruning) heading to his work on the slopes of Moen Hill. He had no regular job and worked at whatever odd jobs he could secure. At the time, he was working trimming hedges for Alfred Potter who managed a farm known as The Firs.

Walton did not return home as expected at the end of workday.

Concerned, his niece contacted a neighbor and then Potter and the three went looking for Walton eventually findings his lifeless his body pinned to the ground where he had been working. It was later determined Walton had been killed between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. His silver pocket watch was missing from the body. (In August 1960, outhouses behind the Walton cottage were being demolished when a workman uncovered an old pocket watch that was identified as Walton’s. Inside the watch, a piece of colored glass was found that villagers said was “witch glass” used to deflect the evil eye. Local police said they had searched the same area at the time of the killing and the watch was not there.)

The use of a pitchfork to pin the body to the ground was known locally as “stacung” or “sticking” and was an ancient way of killing a witch and preventing the dead witch rising from the grave.

Robert Fabian

Robert Fabian

The Investigation

Scotland Yard was quickly brought into the case, and Fabian, the subject of a 1950’s BBC television series and the man generally considered the leading policeman of his age, was sent out from London to investigate. He and his assistant Sgt. Albert Webb interviewed each of the 493 residents of Lower Quinton but learned little.

“There were lowered eyes,” Fabian wrote, “reluctance to speak except to talk of bad crops—a heifer that had died in a ditch. But what had that to do with Charles Walton? No one would say.” One Lower Quinton man was, however, reported to have said that Walton was dead and buried so there was nothing to worry about!

British and American soldiers stationed or visiting in in the area—D-Day was less than four months away—were also interviewed as well as Italian prisoners of war being kept in the area. Again, little or no useful leads were developed. Meanwhile Fabian had also learned that Feb. 14 of 1945, the date of Walton’s death, would have been Feb. 2 in the old Julian calendar, a date locally believed to be ideal for a blood sacrifice to help guarantee a good harvest. He also learned that the location of the killing on Meon Hill had significance. For years there had been stories of devilish doings in the area including tales of phantom black hounds seen running in the area.

Slowly, Fabian’s attention began to focus on Alfred Potter, Walton’s employer, who was also rumored to have owed Walton money. When questioned, Potter said he had been in a local pub earlier in the say and had then walked home across the fields where he had seen Walton working.

Potter’s wife collaborated his alibi.

In an odd twist, Potter said that the person he had seen when walking home and taken for Walton was wearing a shirt with sleeves, but when Walton’s body was found, he was dressed in a sleeveless work shirt. Fabian wondered if Potter had seen the killer.

Meon Hill

Meon Hill

The End

At one point near the end of his investigation, Fabian revisited the area of the killing and was startled when a black dog ran down the hill. Shortly afterwards, a boy came along and Fabian asked him if he was looking for the dog.

The boy “went pale,” Fabian wrote and asked “’Dog, mister?’”

“A black dog,” Fabian answered and “without another word, [the boy] stumbled off in his earth-clogged farm boots.”

Before the day ended, a similar sized dog was found hanging from its neck from a tree near the murder scene. It was also reported that the same evening, a police car ran over and killed another similar dog in a lane near the village. The next day another heifer died in a ditch.

“When Albert Webb and I walked into the village pub that evening,” Fabian wrote, “silence fell like a physical bow. Cottage doors were shut in our faces, and even the most innocent witnesses seemed unable to meet our eyes.”

Walton’s murder remains unsolved.