The Murder of Charlotte Dymond
The murder of Charlotte Dymond is written into the folklore of Bodmin Moor. It has all the ingredients of a classic tragedy; a brutal murder in a desolate location, a pretty young victim and a spurned lover who was hanged despite claims of his innocence. The murder took place on the 14th April 1844 and it is said that the ghost of Charlotte Dymond roams the moor on this date wearing the Sunday best clothes she was killed in.
Charlotte Dymond was a domestic servant working on a farm on the edge of Bodmin Moor, between Camelford and Davidstow, when she was 18 years old. Penhale farm was owned by an elderly widow and her son, and along with Charlotte there were two other live-in servants, John Stevens and Matthew Weeks, both aged in their early 20s.
At some point Charlotte and Matthew had become boyfriend and girlfriend. It is said Charlotte was a pretty girl with a flirtatious nature, whereas Matthew was described as not at all good-looking. Short, missing many teeth and with a heavy limp most people would not have put the two together. It is said that he liked to dress well though.
One possible reason for this unlikely couple could have been the combination of Matthew having come into a modest inheritance and Charlotte being illegitimate with no family.
Charlotte, however, had another suitor; Thomas Prout. The 26 year old was the nephew of Penhale Farm's owner and was a labourer who had worked with Matthew Weeks on occasion. It is said the two got on, but it appears Prout had intentions towards Charlotte. Another servant, John Stevens, had overheard Prout stating he could take Charlotte away from Weeks and at a later time it was revealed that the two may have been planning to elope.
The day of Charlotte's death was a Sunday and all the household would have had on their Sunday best outfits. Charlotte wore a green striped dress and a red shawl. The last time she was seen alive was soon after her and Weeks had left the farm together, heading towards the moor. The couple were spotted by an elderly farmer through the fog, he recognised Weeks from his pronounced limp.
Later that evening Weeks returned to the farm alone, although it appears that was not unusual. As the days went by and Charlotte still did not return, people began to notice things. Weeks's shirt was torn and his trousers were muddied, although he claimed he had not been on the moor. In response to the growing suspicion Weeks told the household that Charlotte had been offered a position in Blisland, some miles away and had set off with the intention of staying at an acquaintance's house on the way.
A week after Charlotte's disappearance the household decided action was needed and John Stevens and the farmer set off to check on Week's story. It was found that no position had been offered in Blisland and that Charlotte had not stayed at the acquaintance's house. On the same day Matthew Weeks put on his Sunday best and left Penhale farm with no intention to return.
The following day, the farmer's wife took Weeks' clothes to be washed. It was then that she noticed the torn collar, missing buttons and also some spots of blood on the shirt. The suspicion that Weeks had murdered Charlotte seemed beyond doubt now.
On the Tuesday, over a week after Charlotte had last been seen, a search party found her body on the banks of the river Alan in the shadow of Roughtor, Cornwall's second highest point. She had been killed by an extremely deep cut to her throat from ear to ear. Later examination suggested it was probably caused by two cuts.
With a body being found and the amount of circumstantial evidence linking Matthew Weeks to the murder a warrant was issued for his arrest but first he needed to be found. He was found in Plymouth, at his sister's house; apparently he had been planning to flee to the Channel Islands. Upon searching Weeks a pair of ladies' gloves and a blood-spotted lady's handkerchief were found.
The murder of Charlotte Dymond had shocked the local community and they demanded justice. Weeks was tried at Bodmin Assize Court on August 2nd. Bodmin was the county town in those days and this reflected the attention the case had received. In addition to further circumstantial evidence the coroner made it clear that he believed the wound that killed Charlotte could not have been self inflicted.
Weeks had pleaded not guilty but it took the jury little over half an hour to return a guilty verdict. The sentence was death by hanging.
In the ten days Matthew Weeks spent in Bodmin Gaol awaiting execution two letters were attributed to him. Being illiterate these were dictated. The first was to his family and the second a confession. It is this confession that has probably provided more weight to the argument of Weeks' innocence than anything else. It was written in a style far more eloquent than one would have expected from the mouth of an uneducated farm labourer:
"I hope young men will take a warning by me and not put too much confidence in young women, the same as I did; and I hope young females will take the same by young men. I loved that girl as dear as I loved my life; and after all the kind treatment I have showed her, and then she said she would have nothing more to do with me. And after this was done, then bitterly I did lament, thinking what would be my end. And I thank the judge and jury too, for they have given me no more than was my due."
At 12.00 noon on 12th August 1844 Matthew Weeks was hung in front of a crowd of several thousand outside Bodmin Gaol. His body was buried in the prison's coal yard.
From the above short account of the events surrounding this tragedy the case would seem fairly clear cut. However, people love a mystery the story of a spurned lover and murder at such a bleak, desolate spot lends itself to this.
One explanation of the events put forward is it was suicide; Charlotte had believed herself to be pregnant and to avoid the shame she had cut her own throat. This seems fanciful given there appeared to be two suitors willing to marry here and the extreme force used to inflict the wound. Along with this are suggestions the three eyewitnesses were unreliable and the confession was obviously fabricated. With no other obvious suspects and so much circumstantial evidence even in the absence of witnesses and a confession the weight of evidence seems to be compelling.
It seems there is little mystery to the tragic death of Charlotte Dymond and it is just another sad example of the age old crime of passion. The local community were in little doubt of Weeks' guilt and a memorial was erected on the spot of crime and reads:
"This monument is erected by public subscription in memory of Charlotte Dymond who was murdered here by Matthew Weeks on Sunday April 14 1844"
For those interested there is a mock courtroom experience in the old County Assizes in Bodmin's Shire Hall. You can watch a re-enactment of the trial of Matthew Weeks and decide for yourself whether he was convicted of a crime he did not commit.
The Ballad of Charlotte Dymond
The tragic events involving Charlotte Dymond and Matthew Weeks inspired poet Charles Causley to pen the Ballad of Charlotte Dymond. This poem beautifully summarises the story with an appropriately haunting melancholy.
It was a Sunday evening
And in the April rain
That Charlotte went from our house,
And never came home again.
Her shawl of diamond redcloth,
She wore a yellow gown,
She carried a green gauze handkerchief
She bought in Bodmin town.
About her throat her necklace
And in her purse her pride
As she walked out one evening
Her lover at her side.
Out beyond the marshes
Where the cattle stand,
With her crippled lover
Limping at her hand.
Charlotte walked with Matthew
Through the Sunday mist,
Never saw the razor
Waiting at his wrist.
Charlotte she was gentle
But they found her in the flood
Her Sunday beads among the reeds
Beaming with her blood.
Matthew, where is Charlotte
and wherefore has she flown?
For you walked out together
And now are come alone.
Why do you not answer,
Stand silent as a tree,
Your Sunday woollen stockings
All muddied to the knee?
Why do you mend your breast-pleat
With a rusty needle’s thread
And fall with fears and silent tears
Upon your single bed?
Why do you sit so sadly
Your face the colour of clay
And with a green gauze handkerchief
Wipe the sour sweat away?
Has she gone to Blisland
To seek an easier place,
And is that why your eye won’t dry
And blinds your bleaching face?
“Take me home!” cried Charlotte,
“I lie here in the pit!
A red rock rests upon my breasts,
And my naked neck is split!”
Her skin was soft as sable,
Her eyes were wide as day,
Her head was blacker than the bog
That licked her life away.
Her cheeks were made of honey,
Her throat was made of flame
Where all around the razor
Had written its red name.
As Matthew turned at Plymouth
About the tilting Hoe,
The cold and cunning Constable
Up to him did go:
“I’ve come to take you, Matthew,
Unto the Magistrate’s door.
Come quiet now, you pretty poor boy.
And you must know what for.”
“She is pure,” cried Matthew,
“As is the early dew,
Her only stain it is the pain
that round her neck I drew!”
“She is guiltless as the day
She sprang forth from her mother.
The only sin upon her skin
Is that she loved another...”
They took him off to Bodmin,
They pulled the prison bell,
They sent him smartly up to Heaven
And dropped him down to Hell.
All through the granite kingdom
And on its travelling airs
Ask which of these two lovers
The most deserves your prayers.
And your steel heart search, Stranger,
That you may pause and pray
For lovers who come not to bed
Upon their wedding day.
But lie upon the moorland
Where stands the sacred snow
Above the breathing river,
And the salt sea-winds go.