Last time I described how rogue academics produced a mythology of continuing paganism and human sacrifice in supposedly Christian England, right up to modern times. The main rogue in question was an Egyptologist gone bad by the name of Margaret Murray. Supposedly, there was a continuing tradition of secret underground paganism linked to ancient cults and rituals, committing their misdeeds at the same sacred places, with a central element of human sacrifice. That folklore inspired the 1970s fictional genre of Folk Horror, the centerpiece of which was the 1973 classic The Wicker Man.
Feeding into the Murray mythology was a story that occurred in February 1945 in the Warwickshire village of Lower Quinton, a few miles from Stratford on Avon. It’s a large saga with huge resonances in popular culture, so I will sketch it briefly here. It’s suggestive about the making of wholly bogus modern legends, and how they come to be believed as sober fact.
From the outset, let me state one golden rule when you read anything about the Walton case: doubt pretty much every statement associated with it and you won’t go far wrong. Many of the major “experts” discussing the case were wildly unreliable, and one – Donald McCormick, or “Richard Deacon” – was a serial liar and regular fabricator of bogus sources. Many of the myths are debunked in Simon Read’s recent book on The Case That Foiled Fabian: Murder and Witchcraft in Rural England (History Press, 2014).
On Valentine’s Day in 1945, elderly agricultural laborer Charles Walton was found murdered, his throat slashed. A leading Scotland Yard detective, Robert Fabian, investigated the case, which remains unsolved to this day. Almost certainly, the death resulted from a local feud, quite unrelated to religion or the occult – it might even have been a fight over unpaid wages. However, the story soon acquired a vast attendant mythology. Walton, it was rumored, was killed because he was a witch, and there were many were stories of witch-like practices, and reputed visions of a demonic black dog.
Claims about the nature of Walton’s death escalated rapidly. Originally, the claim that this was a “witch-murder,” perhaps committed by someone who thought that the murdered man was a malevolent witch, and that violence was the only way of breaking his spells. Such an interpretation is not ridiculous in its own right, as such crimes have indeed happened in modern times. (One notorious Irish example occurred in 1895). There was in fact no evidence for such a motive in Walton’s case, but it was just within the realms of plausibility.
Soon, though, more extreme claims surfaced, charging that Walton was a human sacrifice, presumably killed by a pagan or Satanic ring or cult. That interpretation goes much further in its implications, attributing the crime not just to one deranged individual but to a whole organized clandestine subculture. In 1950, the 87 -year old Margaret Murray herself turned up in Lower Quinton to “investigate,” and to nobody’s surprise, she found the case supported her theories wonderfully. As the story grew and metastasized through the years, Walton became a sacrificial victim whose blood was shed for the good of the crops.
With a bit of sleight of hand, even the date could be made significant. The crime happened on February 14, but theorists like Murray soon pointed out that under the old British calendar that applied through 1752, there would be a twelve day difference in dates, so that Walton died on Old Candlemas, which coincided with Imbolc, one of the great feasts of the pagan Celtic year.
In his memoir, Fabian of the Yard (1950), the detective wrote that “on the hilltops round Lower Quinton there are circles of stones where witches are reputed to hold Sabbaths.” That is very problematic. Briefly, no, there weren’t sabbaths there c.1945, and never had been. Witches Sabbaths were unknown in England until they emerged as a modern literary concoction. The nearest plausible circle was Rollright Stones, twelve miles away, which is actually quite a distance in the micro-communities of this area of England. And no, Charles Walton’s body was not found in the heart of a stone circle, potent though such an image might be.
Many years after the event, Fabian also wrote the following: “I advise anybody who is tempted at any time to venture into Black Magic, witchcraft, Shamanism – call it what you will – to remember Charles Walton and to think of his death, which was clearly the ghastly climax of a pagan rite. There is no stronger argument for keeping as far away as possible from the villains with their swords, incense and mumbo-jumbo. It is prudence on which your future peace of mind and even your life could depend.” Fabian even claimed a personal encounter with the black dog.
His occult emphasis is really surprising for the time, and requires some explanation. The main other name in the story was thriller writer Dennis Wheatley, who in 1934 published the very influential The Devil Rides Out. This not only imported the theme of occult cults and conspiracies to modern Britain, but also integrated the originally separate mythologies of Witches Sabbaths and Satanic black masses. Among other things, that brought the Celtic ritual calendar into the mix, with demonic dates like Halloween, Beltane/Walpurgisnacht, Lammas, and Candlemas. Wheatley was also innovative in depicting such cults in the present day, as a manifestation of elite decadence. He continued to build on and recycle his books right through the 1940s and beyond, with a couple of later rehashes into the 1960s. (One reviewer calls Wheatley “the suburban bluffer who sold 20 million books,” and draws a comparison with Dan Brown).
Fabian must have been getting his material from Wheatley, directly or otherwise. (For the cultural overlaps between the two men, see Gareth Medway, Lure of the Sinister: The Unnatural History of Satanism, 2001). In his 1954 book London After Dark Fabian has quite a bit to say about alleged Black Magic and Satanism in modern London, but the events he claims to have witnessed sound like sado-masochistic vice operations rather than anything more devotional, still less homicidal.
Incidentally, the date of Charles Walton’s death followed by only a few months the trial and conviction of Helen Duncan, one of the last people to be convicted under England’s 1735 Witchcraft Act – and in fact, she was jailed. She was in no sense a witch, but rather a (admittedly bogus) medium, but it is amazing to think that the legal apparatus against witchcraft still existed in this time. But that case was in the news at the time of reports of Walton’s death, and it sensitized journalists to the appeal of a juicy occult story with a “witch” tag.
I would add one other influence. In the 1910s and 1920s, there was a whole school of popular English writing that depicted dark and nameless horrors in degenerate rural villages, a best-selling genre represented by the works of Mary Webb. Although not centrally concerned with occult matters, witches and spells did feature regularly. Today, that writing is recalled, if at all, through the riotously funny parody found in Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm (1932), where the characters can never quite bring themselves to describe the “something nasty in the woodshed,” the ineffable horror that blights their lives. But such writing left its mark in the popular consciousness. (The 1995 film of Cold Comfort Farm is wonderful).
Whatever its sources, the Walton story seemed to confirm the idea of paganism and witch murders continuing in modern England. The story grew and metastasized through the years – although one of my complaints about Simon Read’s book is that he really says surprisingly little about this popular culture afterlife. The Walton case supplied the essential foundation for the whole folk horror genre, and beyond that, contributed mightily to the Satanism and Ritual Abuse panic of the 1980s and 1990s.
I’ll expand on that next time.
In his 2013 book Pagan Britain, Ronald Hutton includes an excellent chapter on what plausibly can and cannot be said about possible pagan survivals into Christian and modern times. I may disagree with him on specifics, but this is a solid basis for any future discussions.