Tag Archive for supernatural

Under a Bad Sign

Arthur Covell

CASSIUS:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Julius Caesar (I, ii, 140-141)

The supernatural figures into more than a few crimes that are chronicled in The Malefactor’s Register, although most, if not all, can be laid at the feet of killers who are very much of this world.
 
Few murderers, however, are like Arthur Covell, who in 1923 used a horoscope to plan the murder of his sister-in-law Ebba Covell. What makes Covell’s crime even more unusual was that he had a hypnotic effect over his nephew Alton, who he used as his murder weapon. Without Alton, Arthur never could have committed the crime for he was a bedridden paralytic (or as the press at the time referred to him, “a hopeless cripple”) who could not walk and who was barely able to sit up in bed.
 
Ebba was the second wife of Dr. Fred Covell, a chiropractor who lived in Bandon, Oregon, a beautiful small town along the Pacific Coast. Along with Ebba and Fred, the Covell household included two of Fred’s children by a previous marriage, Lucille, 14, and Alton, 16, as well as three children from Fred and Ebba’s marriage.
 
Apparently Lucille and Alton were developmentally disabled — Alton to the point that he had been institutionalized. When Fred remarried after the death of Alton and Lucille’s mother, Alton was returned to the home.
 
The situation in the Covell household — two teens with mental handicaps, a profoundly disabled adult, and the normal chaos that accompanies young children — was tense and according to contemporary accounts, there was particular hostility between Arthur and Ebba.
 
“Mother never went upstairs to see him and always fussed about how much he ate,” Lucille told authorities.
 
Arthur had been injured when a truck he was repairing fell on him and crushed his spine. As he recovered he began studying the pseudo-science of astrology and casting horoscopes for friends and family. Within a short time he gained a reputation as an accomplished seer and was running a lucrative mail-order horoscope business. His clientele included several Hollywood big-wigs such as movie director William Desmond Taylor, who would one day be murdered himself in one of Hollywood’s great unsolved crimes.
 
Arthur’s work in astrology was more than vaguely simple solar horoscopes of the type we see in many newspapers. Instead, he said he used the stars and planets to provide advice on when to make decisions and to predict what the future held.
 
Sometime in the spring or summer of 1923 the heavens revealed to Arthur a complex plot of mass murder and theft. Evidence uncovered after the murder of Ebba showed that Arthur had planned to use Alton to commit at least 27 murders in and around Bandon. Some of the victims were to be slain after being swindled while others would be killed after their wills were revised to make Arthur a beneficiary. Strangely, one of the families Arthur slated for death was to be sacrificed for the improvements they had made to their home.
 
“The plans of Arthur Covell were so minutely detailed that they even called for the removal of windows and doors before the home of the victim was burned,” said Detective Luke S. May after Arthur’s arrest. “The stolen articles were to be used in a home the Covells planned to build.”
 
Although Covell told Alton and Lucille that Ebba’s murder was fated by the stars, her arguments with Arthur and her apparent discovery of his plot also helped, police said.
 
On September 3, 1923 the time had come to get Ebba out of the way, Arthur told Alton. They had already talked over the plan in great detail, and even included Lucille in some of the discussions. Lucille later said that she was afraid to go to her father or stepmother for fear of what they would do to Uncle Arthur.
 
The stars told Arthur that the crime must occur at 11 a.m. on September 3, after Fred Covell went to work.
 
As Arthur lay in his bed on the second floor, Alton took the murder weapon — a rag soaked with ammonia — and sneaked up behind his stepmother. He clamped the rag over her mouth and nose, and after a painful struggle a few minutes long Ebba died. The only sign of injury was an red rash on her cheek caused by the chemical.
 
Alton carried Ebba’s lifeless body to her bedroom and gently placed her on the bed and told his uncle that it was done. Arthur called Fred at his office and told him to return home as “something terrible has happened.”
 
It didn’t take long for authorities to toss out the idea that Ebba, a healthy, middle-aged woman, would just keel over and die a natural death. However, they were stumped when an external examination did not reveal any evidence (except that strange red blotch on her cheek) of foul play. She had not been strangled and her neck was not broken.
 
Once the coroner ruled her death to be homicide, police began pressuring the most obvious suspect, Fred Covell. After all, there was no way that Arthur could have carried out such a crime, and the only other people in the house were Alton and Lucille, neither of whom had any reason to want Ebba dead.
 
Within 48 hours, however, Fred was out from under suspicion while Alton and Arthur were in jail awaiting arraignment on murder charges. The case broke open after police questioned Lucille who told them everything she knew about Arthur’s plans. Confronted with her information, Alton confessed to killing Ebba at Arthur’s direction.
 
I put the ammonia on the rag,” he said, “and Ebba was standing by the stove. I walked up to her from behind and on the right side. I put the rag over her nose with my right hand and held her arms with my left. I held it on her nose, pressing hard, for about three minutes before I let her down on the floor.”
 
In Arthur’s bedroom police found a journal filled with encoded entries and astrological symbols. It didn’t take them long to decipher the code which amounted to a written confession of the entire plan by Arthur. The notebook contained messages such as “Today is the day. I wonder if Alton will go through with it.”
 
Interestingly, it also contained a note from Arthur to himself detailing how he had miscalculated the appropriate time for Ebba’s death: “Sept. 3. 11 A. M. Made mistake about con. Should have been 11:14:14.”
 
To police, however, Arthur admitted nothing except knowing that “September would be a bad month for Ebba.”
 
The trial of Arthur and Alton was pretty much a perfunctory affair. Both were convicted of murder; Alton received a life sentence while Arthur, who observed his trial from a cot in the courtroom, was sentenced to hang.
 
Arthur was carried to the gallows by a group of prison guards on May 28, 1925 and hanged. Alton was paroled after serving about eight years.

Fabian of the Yard

Charles Walton was loner who lived in a very small village near Stratford-on-Avon, home to William Shakespeare. He had always been considered a bit odd by the 450 other people who lived in Lower Quinton village. He wasn’t disliked, but Charlie apparently preferred the company of the birds and animals to his human companions and claimed that he could communicate with the birds. When he was younger, Walton had also been an accomplished horse whisperer, a person who could control a horse from a distance with just a motion of his hand or a glance. This ability only increased the awareness of the community that Charlie was different.
 
Although it was 1945, the people of Lower Quinton were a superstitious bunch quite willing to believe in the paranormal. This was an area of England that had a long history of belief in witches and supernatural occurrences. As late as the 19th century an elderly woman had been murdered by the “village idiot” because he suspected her of being a witch. The man confessed that his victim was “a proper witch” and the description of how he had pinned her to the ground with a pitchfork and then carved the sign of the Cross on her body with a knife would be eerily similar to how Charles Walton’s body was found.
 
Beyond the witchcraft that was so prevalent in Lower Quinton, the community also had the Legend of the Black Dog. According to local legend, when the Black Dog of Lower Quinton appeared, someone one was going to die. Many of the townspeople of Lower Quinton believed in the legend, and some believed that Charles Walton had some connection to the animal.
 
The Black Dog was larger than most dogs and apparently had glowing red eyes. The hound would appear out of nowhere and disappear the as mysteriously as it came.
 
Charles Walton was linked to the black dog because back in the late 1880s as a young man he reported seeing the dog nine straight days. On the last day, Walton told his fellow villagers, the dog turned into a headless woman. The next day, Walton’s sister died.
 
All of this, plus Walton’s fondness for toads — often believed to be connected to witchcraft — set him apart from his fellows.
 
Someone killed Charles Walton because they thought he was involved in witchcraft. There is really no other reasonable motive. He wasn’t rich, although he did have a bank account, and he had no known enemies – except those who apparently blamed him for the bad luck area farmers had experienced in prior years.
 
Despite decent weather, crops in the area had failed and, according to some of the very few people who would even talk to the detectives sent by Scotland Yard, the beer made from the last wheat harvest was especially bitter and barely tolerable.
 
On February 14, 1945, someone attacked Charles as he headed out to trim some hedges for a neighbor and viciously murdered him.
 
He was last seen alive when Alfred Potter, the farmer for whom Charles was cutting hedges, observed a man he thought to be Charles Walton swinging a sharp trimming hook on the hedgerow that ran up the crown of Meon Hill. However, Potter stood more than a quarter-mile away from Walton and could not testify positively to the man’s identity.
 
Charles told his niece, Edith, that he would be home at 4 p.m. to make his own evening meal, and if anything Charles was a stickler for routine. Thus, when 6 p.m. came by and he had not returned from Meon Hill, she became convinced that the septuagenarian had fallen or otherwise injured himself.
 
She contacted Potter and along with another farmer, Harry Beasley, the group went in search of Charles.
 
Potter was several steps ahead of Beasley and Edith Walton, carrying a flashlight. As he approached a hedgerow at the foot of Meon Hill, he saw Charles’s body. The flashlight revealed a grisly sight.
 
Charles lay on the ground, awash in blood. His walking stick lay nearby, covered in blood. His sightless eyes were still open and, according to witnesses, his face bore an expression of great fear – not unexpected considering how he had died.
 
His pitchfork had been driven through his throat with such force that the tines embedded themselves six inches into the peat. The trimming hook he had been using on the hedges had been used to scratch a sign of the Cross in his face, throat and chest. The hook was still hanging from a gaping wound in his chest when the searchers found him.
 
The way Charles was found was identical to the way 80-year-old Ann Turner had been slain in 1875 by “feeble-minded” John Haywood.
 
With absolutely no leads, the Warwickshire police force turned the case over to Scotland Yard for help.
 
Detective Superintendent Robert Fabian and his able partner Detective Sgt. Albert Webb arrived shortly after the body was found to take charge of the investigation.
 
Fabian was known among law-enforcement as “Fabian of the Yard,” which conjures up images of dime novels and Agatha Christie parlor murders, but Fabian was a skilled and relentless detective. He and Webb, along with Warwickshire detective Alex Spooner, began to look at the clues.
 
The crime scene had been hopelessly trampled by the search party and the local constabulary had removed the body from the scene without appropriately marking the location and conditions.
 
Fabian and his team found the locals equally unhelpful. Their only assistance was that the murderer could not have been a local. There was a prisoner-of-war camp located nearby, but after interviewing the 1,000 internees, the police came back to Meon Hill empty handed.
 
Reverting to the tried-and-true approach of re-examining the crime scene in hopes of locating that one overlooked clue that would unravel the mystery, Fabian walked the route Charles Walton followed to his death over and over.
 
One evening around dusk, he was walking along the slope of Meon Hill when he had an encounter with a mysterious black dog. There are two different accounts of how he spotted the dog – one states that he noticed the dog sitting on a stone wall watching him, while the other says it merely ran past him. A few moments later, a young boy traipsed past Fabian.
 
“Are you looking for your dog?” Fabian asked the child.
 
“What dog?” the boy asked.
 
Fabian said later that he noticed that the dog had vanished and the boy, knowing the local legend, fled down the hill in terror.
 
Fabian told of the encounter while he was interviewing residents in the local pub – interestingly known as The Gay Dog, and they, in turn, told him of the Legend of the Black Dog. Fabian did some investigating and uncovered a reference to a young Charles Walton and his encounter with the black dog in a book on local superstitions.
 
Shortly afterward, a black Labrador Retriever was found hanged on Meon Hill.
 
Fabian was soon forced to admit defeat. Stonewalled by the locals, having conducted well over two thousands interviews and examining samples of blood, skin and hair, he was unable to uncover anything that pointed to Walton’s killer.
 
“When Albert Webb and I walked into the village pubs silence fell like a physical blow,” Fabian wrote in his memoirs Fabian of the Yard. “Cottage doors were shut in our faces and even the most innocent witnesses seemed unable to meet our eyes.”
 
The local press considered the matter part of a local “fertility rite” and published an interview with a woman from nearby Birmingham who claimed that Charles had been murdered by members of an ancient cult still active in the area.
 
Police pooh-poohed that idea, but acknowledged that there were “black magic” groups active in the area.
 
While Fabian and Webb returned to Scotland Yard to investigate more run-of-the-mill crimes, Detective Alec Spooner of the Warwickshire Criminal Investigation Division remained on the case. For the next 19 years he returned to Meon Hill on the anniversary of Walton’s murder, hoping that either the murderer would return to the scene of the crime or that some clue would present itself.
 
“Detectives deal in facts, ” Fabian told a newspaper years later. “But there was something uncanny about that investigation.”
 
The murder remains unsolved to this day.