True Grit

Image of 1850s Newgate Calendar publication

While I put the finishing touches on a new article, here is a story from The Newgate Calendar, or the Malefactor’s Bloody Register about how a young girl’s valor saved the lives of her family. Apologies to those Irish offended by the small amount of bigotry. The quote from King John was my idea.
By how much unexpected, by so much
We must awake endeavour for defence;
For courage mounteth with occasion.

~William Shakespeare, King John (1598)
These men were of that class who usually visit England during harvest, from the sister kingdom, and who, if they possessed honesty, would prove most useful to the community of this country.
It appears that in the year 1751, Mr. Porter, a farmer of great respectability, residing in Cheshire, had engaged a number of Irish people to assist in gathering his harvest, when on one evening in the month of August he was alarmed, while sitting at supper, by hearing that they had attacked his house. Every effort was employed by him and his family to oppose the entry of their assailants, but their power being small, in the course of a few minutes the doors were burst in, and they found themselves surrounded by a gang, whose ferocious demands for money or blood convinced them of the uselessness of resistance.
Mr. Porter, however, for a while delayed meeting the demands which were made upon him, in the hope that some assistance might arrive; but his ruffian assailants bound him with cords, and threatened instant destruction if his money and plate were not instantly brought forth. Miss Porter at this moment made her appearance, supplicating for the life of her parent, when she in turn was seized and bound, and was compelled to discover the chest in which the valuables were kept.
In the confusion created by these proceedings, the youngest daughter, a girl of thirteen, whose presence of mind and courage were alike admirable, made her escape, and determined to procure some assistance to repel the attack which had been made; and running into the stable, she got astride the bare back of a horse, with the halter only in his mouth, and galloping over hedges and ditches, so as to avoid the house, from which she might be seen by the villains, she rode to Pulford, a village at a short distance, to inform her eldest brother of the danger to which their relations at the farm were exposed. Young Porter, with a friend named Craven, (whose conduct certainly was the very opposite of his name,) immediately resolved upon attacking the villains in turn, and, with the girl, set off at full speed to render such aid as lay in their power.
On their reaching the farm, they discovered a fellow on the watch, whom they instantly killed with so little noise as to create no alarm, and then proceeding to the parlour, they found four others in the very act of placing old Mr. Porter on the fire, having deprived him of his clothes, in order to extort from him a confession of the depository of his money, his daughter being on her knees at their side praying for his life.
The appearance of two strangers was sufficient to induce the villains at once to desist from their horrid purpose; and being now violently attacked, they were compelled to use their utmost exertions to defend themselves. A desperate conflict took place, but one of the robbers being felled senseless to the ground, and the others wounded and deprived of their arms, they jumped through the window and ran off.
They were instantly pursued by the young men, and the alarm having by this time been given, M‘Canelly and Morgan were secured on Chester bridge. A fellow named Stanley, who turned out to be ringleader in this desperate attack, was subsequently apprehended on board a vessel bound for the West Indies, at Liverpool: and with M‘Canelly, Morgan was committed to Chester jail for trial.
On the night before the execution, Stanley slipped his irons, and got clear off from the jail, not without some suspicion that his escape was connived at by the keeper.
On the 25th May, 1752, M‘Canelly and Morgan were brought out of prison in order to be hanged. Their behaviour was as decent as could be expected from persons of their station. They both declared that Stanley, who escaped, was the sole contriver of the robbery. They died in the Catholic faith, and were attended by a priest of that persuasion.

Fabian of the Yard

Det. Insp. Fabian of Scotland 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.