Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Month: March 2018

From dreams of Valentino to death on the beach

Rudolph Valentino, heartthrob of 1920s cinema

 

“Why is it so quiet, what are they hiding?” (Sylvia Plath, Berck-Plage)

It was 1934, and a beautiful blonde woman named Rachel Mery was about to die.

Rachel was a romantic, who fell headlong in love, and who loved grand gestures. She was now about to embark on her grandest, carrying out a suicide pact with her lover on the beach at Berck, near Le Touquet in northern France. She was only 23 years old.

She was born in Paris, the ‘youngest and prettiest’ daughter of a wealthy estate broker. She was always a dreamer – a girl whose health was deemed so delicate that she had not been sent to school, but instead kept at home to read and dream, and given an unusual amount of freedom by her doting parents.

It is no surprise that, lonely and in need of romance, she had developed a passion for the cinema, being described as ‘cinema mad’. She became obsessive, not just about the cinema, but about its stars – and in particular, about Rudolph Valentino – as had thousands of others. When he died, prematurely, in August 1926, she had joined hundreds of these other mourning women to burn candles in his memory; she had also built an altar to him.

Valentino – as he was in his films – had shown Rachel an idealised view of men and of love. Having lived her life to date in books and in films, with their often unrealistic view of life and passion, she believed this is what life was really like, and the reality would never be able to match it. For the rest of her life, Rachel seemed to be searching for the dramatic, passionate love affairs that were the mainstay of fiction.

Paris in 1934

However, ‘real’ men failed to live up to her ideals. In 1929, she had fallen ‘violently’ in love again – this time with a well-known orchestra leader, Fernand Heurteur, of the Grand Kinema in Paris. Fernand was regarded as something of a Don Juan, and it is clear that this middle-aged, successful man would never be the soulmate of a romantic young woman.

A year later, then, unsurprisingly, Rachel found out that 41-year-old Fernand had, in fact, been living with another woman, and had never mentioned this fact to her. They had initially argued at his flat, and then, on his agreeing to go for a drive, they argued again.

As they bowled along the Rue de Pyramides, she asked Fernand to leave his lover, but he responded, “Never”. She then took her father’s revolver out from her pocket, showing it to Fernand and saying, “It’s either for you or for me.” An unphased Fernand answered, “I don’t care. You may kill me or kill yourself.” So Rachel chose to kill Fernand – and he had been killed instantly, leaving the car to career along the road and crash into a lamp-post.

The police arrived, and she calmly surrendered to them, saying, “He is dead. I shot him because I loved him too much.” She continued to tell them what happened as she powdered her nose. “He wanted to abandon me – I told him so,” she sighed, before pointing with her ‘daintily-shod foot’ to the revolver on the floor of the car.

She was sent to prison to await trial, but while incarcerated, doctors discovered that she had tuberculosis, which was causing her to lose weight drastically. She was taken to her trial on a stretcher, and, due to her health, was given only two years in prison, as a first offender, and was actually released immediately, on payment of 100,000 francs in damages.

A railway poster for Berck

She then went as a patient to a sanatorium near Berck. Whilst there, a 34-year-old man named Georges Veron was admitted, also suffering from advanced tuberculosis, and fell in love with her. They spent much of their time going for rides in a pony-carriage, and writing romantic verses to each other. On Sunday, 21 January, they went out again for a ride, but never returned.

A coastguard found the lovers’ bodies, still in their pony-carriage, on the sand dunes. Rachel was lying back with her arms folded, looking as though she was asleep. Georges was lying across her body.

It was found that Rachel had first drunk a vial of a sleeping draught, and then, once she was asleep, Georges had shot her in her right temple, before shooting himself in the mouth. Their intention to carry out the pact was set out in a bundle of letters Rachel had written and posted – they arrived with their recipients nearly a week after the bodies were discovered.

Rachel’s death was as romantic as she could have wanted. She had finally found a lover who believed in a big statement as she did; neither of them had anything to lose, as they were faced with death sentences anyway. They died on a windswept beach, their deaths making the headlines just as Valentino’s had less than a decade before.

 

Details taken from British newspaper accounts, 1930-1934, of Rachel’s escapades, found on the British Newspaper Archive.

An Edwardian bicycle advert

I love looking through newspaper reports of court cases, but some Edwardian examples I’ve found recently make me feel quite sorry for the individuals named, as they seem to have been fined for simply trying to have fun, or keeping fit. In just one newspaper from 1909, I’ve found:

  • Morris Keen, of 8 Kilburn Square, Kilburn, fined a shilling for playing cricket at Kilburn Square
  • Edward Baker, of Kensington, fined 2s 6d for riding his bike at night without lights
  • Nelson Gowlett, of 38 Mora Road, Cricklewood, fined 2s 6d for playing football in the street
  • Harold Peacock, William Mudge and Leonard Andrews, all of Kilburn, and Reginald Travers of Willesden Green, fined 2s 6d each for cycling on a footpath leading to a park

Some of these named men, at least, were in their teens at the time of these offences – Nelson Gowlett, for example, from what I can see on Ancestry, was only 17 at the time, and Harold Peacock and William Mudge were both 15.

Of course, rules and regulations had to be obeyed; but it all seems a bit trivial and sour-faced to me – but it also conjures up an image of Edwardian London, where local youths spent their time playing cricket or football, and cycling with their mates. Maybe the past isn’t a different country after all?

Source: Kilburn Times, 18 June 1909

Super Spooner and the Witchcraft Murder

A unsolved murder in 1945 haunted Superintendent Alec Spooner of the Warwickshire police force for the rest of his life…

Superintendent Alec Spooner (from the Birmingham Daily Post, on the British Newspaper Archive)

Superintendent Alec Spooner, who joined the Warwickshire force in the 1930s after an earlier career as a Staffordshire miner, had conducted many murder investigations prior to his retirement in 1964. However, one stayed with him long after it had been given up as unsolved, and unsolvable. This was the so-called ‘Witchcraft Murder’ at Meon Hill, near Upper Quinton, in 1945, when a crippled hedge-cutter – 74-year-old labourer Charles Walton –  was killed by what newspapers described as ‘methods suggesting a ritual sacrifice’, with a cross carved into his chest.

Alec William Spooner was born in Amington, near Tamworth, in Staffordshire, the son of a hospital labourer. On joining the police, he served in Solihull and Sutton Coldfield, before being appointed as head of the county CID as a detective superintendent in May 1939, based in Stratford. One might expect Stratford to be a nice, gentle, patch for a policeman, but this was not the case.

On 14 February 1945, a cold, misty night in the middle of the muckspreading season, Charles Walton had been found in a field on the slope of Meon Hill, with his throat cut and a pitchfork thrust through his body. The murder weapon, Charles’ own trouncing hook, was still embedded in his neck.

Charles had married relatively late in life, aged 44, but had been widowed just 13 years later, and for the past 18 years, he had been living just with his niece, Edith Walton, in Lower Quinton. He was a harmless individual who spent time talking to the birds and animals he came across, and who was currently employed by Alfred Potter, whose farm, The Firs, had required extra labour.[1] There were signs of eccentric behaviour, for sure; he was once seen harnessing a toad to a toy plough and watching it drag the plough across a field. But that was the strangest thing that happened to Charles – until his death.

However, something odd had happened to Charles as a child. He was living then with his parents, Charles – an agricultural labourer – and Emma, and his siblings – Harriet, Mary, Martha, George and Richard – in Upper Quinton.  As was common amongst labouring families, the children were expected to start work young, and Charles was working as a ploughboy. On nine nights running, he saw a big black dog run across Meon Hill; on that final night, a headless woman walked past him in a silk dress, and the day after that he heard that his sister had died.

Coverage of the murder, from the following day, 15 February 1945 (Gloucestershire Echo, on the British Newspaper Archive)

Superstition and a belief in ghosts was rife in the area at the time of Charles’ childhood, and it seems to have continued: shortly after Charles’ death, the famous Scotland Yard detective Robert Fabian, drafted in to help the local police with the case, saw the same black ‘ghost’ dog; and a few days later, locals found a black dog, dead, hanged from the branch of a bush by its collar, close to where Charles’ body had been found. This time of the year, it was noted, was the Roman Feast of Lupercalia, when dogs were sacrificed to ensure good crops.

Despite the victim being old and frail – facts one would have thought would make local people want to help the police, and think of clues – they in fact avoided participation; another police superintendent, Bob Fabian commented that when he tried to interview local people, they displayed, “Lowered eyes, [a] reluctance to speak, except to talk of bad crops or a heifer that died in a ditch.” The detectives were ‘baffled’ by this reluctance to speak, and a decided ‘attitude’ on the part of locals.

Mediums were keener to help, however, with several holding séances on subsequent Valentine’s Days in the hope that they might uncover information that would help the police; however, their involvement might help explain the villagers’ reluctance to speak out. Far later on in time, they said that ‘they have never ceased to be pestered by occultists, psychic researchers, writers, the morbidly curious and others’ when all they wanted to do was to ‘live out their lives quietly in one of the most attractive corners of the county.’

Alec Spooner continued to work on other cases – in 1948, for example, he received acclaim for breaking up a nationwide gang of car thieves, who were so numerous that their case had to be held at a special Assize court in Warwick. But the case of the Witchcraft Murder continued to haunt him. In 1954, the Birmingham Daily Gazette reported that Spooner ‘probably saw a murderer yesterday – the man he has sworn to catch for killing an old hedger at Upper Quinton on St Valentine’s Day nine years ago.’

This story focused on a visit Spooner had just made to the village; he spent six whole hours walking round it, talking to men and women he had talked to nine years earlier. “I have sworn to solve this murder, and I am not going to give up,” he told reporters, stating that he intended making such regular ‘sudden’ visits to the village in order to spook the killer, who he suspected lived, and still lived, in the village. He believed the murder was a ritual killing, as it was committed on a day regarded as ‘the witches’ Sabbath’.

The baptism of Charles Walton in 1870, from Ancestry

In 1959, Spooner, who had been in charge of the Warwickshire CID for 20 years, was transferred to Nuneaton as the Divisional Superintendent. This change was ordered by PE Brodie, the fairly new Chief Constable of Warwickshire (a former Scotland Yard inspector, he had become the Chief Constable in 1958), as part of a ‘routine’ personnel change. On then retiring from the police in 1964, Spooner continued to live in Nuneaton, working as a security officer for the National Coal Board. He died in the town’s George Eliot Hospital in December 1970, aged 66 and two months, after an operation.

At his funeral, policemen acted as pallbearers. It sounded like as lovely a service as funerals can be; as it was Christmas time, Sylvia Spooner, Alec’s widow, asked for carols to be sung, and Christmas decorations lit at the location, Nuneaton’s parish church. His obituaries in the Birmingham and Coventry newspapers still recorded him as ‘CID’s witchcraft hunt man’.

Sadly, the ‘witchcraft’ case remained unsolved; in 1975, an article to mark the 30th anniversary of the crime stated that Charles Walton’s murder had ‘passed into Warwickshire folklore’. Was the killer still alive in the village, or elsewhere? ‘Most probably, the vicious murderer’s secrets died, or will die, with him or (less likely) her.’

Today, Charles Walton’s body remains buried in St Swithin’s Churchyard in Lower Quinton, across the road from a large house that was, in his time, a row of old thatched cottages named Meon Cottages – one was his home. In 1975, one female resident of the village had told a Coventry Evening Telegraph reporter that “it’s time they closed the book” – but in 2018, the case of Charles Walton is still very much open.

Sources: Coventry Evening Telegraph, 19 December 1970; Coventry Evening Telegraph, 24 December 1970; Coventry Evening Telegraph, 14 February 1975; and other issues of the Coventry Evening Telegraph and Birmingham Daily Gazette, all on British Newspaper Archive; plus census returns for Upper and Upper Quinton and Tamworth, all on Ancestry.

[1] Although some sources stated that Charles was an elderly bachelor, he was, as his Wikipedia entry states, a widower. His wife had died on 9 December 1927 – this information was taken from Edith Walton’s police interview about her uncle. Charles married Isabella Caroline Walton – perhaps a cousin – in 1914, and FreeBMD records her death aged 45 in October-December 1927 (vol 6d, page 866). The National Probate Calendar on Ancestry shows that ‘Isabel Caroline Walton, otherwise Isabella Caroline, of 15 Lower Quinton’ left effects of £297 4s 3d to ‘Charles Walton, cowman’. Isabella was born in 1882 in Binton, Warwickshire, but her father George, a carpenter, was a native of Quinton; Charles Walton Sr was baptised at Quinton on 28 April 1844, the son of William and Mary Walton; in the 1851 census for Lower Quinton, both Charles Walton, 7, and George Walton, 1, are listed as the sons of William and Mary Walton, so Isabella could well have been the younger Charles’s first cousin.

The 1939 Register on Findmypast also clearly records Charles as a widower. It states that he was born on 12 May 1870, and was living at Lower Quinton with Edith Walton, born 23 May 1911, who later married a man named Goode.

A shorter version of this piece appears in the March issue of the Stratford Herald‘s Focus magazine.

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