When Charlotte Dymond’s body was found on the lonely moors near Camelford in April 1844 Cornwall was overcome with shock snd horror. But strangely there was something else too – a kind of unsavoury excitement. This was the stuff of Penny Dreadful fiction, and to be frank the public was loving it.
The story had everything going for it – the beautiful and pious young maid brutally murdered on a Sunday, a lonely moorland location, the rumours of jealous lovers and secret rendezvous’. It was all rather exciting, melodramatic and morbidly romantic. The kind of story that the rather death-obsessed Victorians just loved to read about while eating their boiled eggs and soldiers in the morning.
A Newspaper Sensation
The whole sorry story filled the newspapers’ columns for weeks. Every detail was published and pored over, from the search for Charlotte and her discovery lying in a river close to the austere Rough Tor to her clothes, her injuries and the manhunt for her killer.
Then the trial itself was all reported blow by blow.
It was a pretty much what you might call an open and shut case. Charlotte had known her murderer, the farm hand Michael Weeks, and he was apprehended quickly. The evidence against him was damning and before he was hung Weeks even left a written confession – which of course was printed in full in the papers too, as well as a private letter he had written to his family.
A Scrum of Onlookers
Charlotte’s death is a story that I have grown up with. I don’t really remember when I first heard about it but it has always stayed with me somehow, perhaps because I love the moors and their wild freedom. And to be honest in many ways it is the public’s reaction to what happened that shocks and fascinates me most about Charlotte’s case.
On the morning of the trial there was total chaos in the courthouse in Bodmin. The crowds had been gathering all night to try and get in and have a seat in the public gallery. The police had to intervene as so many tried to push their way inside there was danger of someone getting crushed in the scrum of onlookers. Then later when Matthew Weeks was hung an estimated 20,000 people turned out to watch.
Marking the Spot
But even before the trial had began or the verdict has been decided Charlotte’s murder had become a bit of a circus. A large fete was held at Rough Tor, very close to the site of the murder. The West Briton newspaper reported that around 10,000 people attended. There were donkey rides and wrestling matches as well as all kinds of entertainers and refreshment stalls. There was also a pole with a black flag on it marking the spot where Charlotte’s body had been found. According to the paper this attracted ‘much attention’ and penny ‘subscriptions’ were taken to view it.
Some of this money raised did go towards the granite memorial stone for Charlotte that can been seen at the base of Rough Tor to this day. But it is clear that an unsavoury amount of excitement and profit was generated by her death.
Today the little monument is a place often passed by with little notice as everyone strikes out to conquer one of the moors highest peaks (400ft, not exactly Everest but the view is lovely). The last time I visited it was on a very busy sunny Sunday. But I found some peace there at the memorial a little distance from the main track, and that certainly wasn’t available on the rest of the tor.
I can’t help wondering what the 18 year old dairy-maid was thinking about that day when she walked to this place to meet her mystery lover (I don’t believe it was ever established who she was supposedly meeting). She could have had no idea of what was coming. Charlotte was just an ordinary girl, an unknown, who would soon come to mean something to thousands of people, for all the wrong reasons, and still nearly 200 years later mean something to me too.
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