I published a couple of posts on the Charlotte Dymond murder a few years ago (here and here) and in that time I have developed quite an interest in the story. I’m rather ashamed to admit that I hadn’t read ‘The Charlotte Dymond Murder’ by Pat Munn previously, but now I’ve finally gotten round to it, I wanted to share some of my immediate thoughts.
The book was published in 1978, after Munn’s interest was piqued by a surprise telephone call from an author friend in 1973, asking if she knew anything about the story. Pat soon found herself gripped by the case and began what can only be described as a tireless crusade to uncover what she felt to be a gross miscarriage of justice.
Before going any further, it’s worth saying that the book is a testament to Munn’s years of painstaking and meticulous research. Pat, who died in 2009, was a well-respected local historian, Cornish Bard and academic and nobody can possibly find fault with the lengths she went to in researching the case. Her efforts were truly exemplary.
Still, being a rather critical kind of chap, I’m going to focus on what I didn’t like about the book (and there are quite a few things). Sorry.
To begin with, the biased standpoint Pat adopted was strangely ironic given many of the points about justice and objectivity she goes on to make. I found her bias grated on me considerably - principally because she went out of her way in the introduction to proclaim her objectivity.
“[T]he facts, as I have been given to understand them, are set out for readers to draw their own conclusions.”
Sorry, everyone - that’s utter poppycock.
It’s abundantly clear that during the early stages of her research, Pat came to the firm conclusion that Matthew Weeks was innocent. Indeed, she essentially devotes the book to establishing his innocence. The text is not slightly biased – it is gravely so. None of this undermines the quality of Pat’s research, but the bias is simply too great to ignore.
Secondly, the style of writing in the book is patchy and, in the main, surprisingly poor. After a well-written introduction and opening chapter, the writing style adopted in the main section of the book is awkward, clumsy and, in many places, difficult to follow. Curiously, the final two chapters return to a better and clearer style of writing. The quality of the writing is surprising given that Pat was a graduate and lectured in English and religious studies at Cornwall Technical College. Pat herself remarks on the change in style in her introduction.
“When I came to write up my findings, even the style was not really mine. This may be apparent in chapter two, where the formal lapses into the vernacular; and that way it stayed for the rest of the book.”
But that doesn’t explain the whole story. The style is not merely vernacular; the majority is paraphrased from the evidence she unearthed in her research, but such paraphrasing is badly structured and poorly chosen. For someone who went to such great pains in her research, it is difficult to understand why the writing was not a bit more polished. That it passed through the editing process is even more odd.
Thirdly, Munn placed a strange amount of importance on rather flimsy (nay – almost worthless) evidence. The two best examples of this are the ‘ghost evidence’ and a bizarrely held focus group in which she tasked local schoolchildren with writing an essay on all they knew of the Charlotte Dymond story.
As regards the ‘ghost evidence’ (an apt term actually), Munn suggested that as all the reported supernatural activity surrounding the story - alleged sightings of apparitions and suchlike - involved Charlotte’s ghost and not Matthew’s, this should be treated as evidence that something was amiss in Matthew being found guilty. Alongside the credible arguments Munn advances which have their basis firmly in the real, physical world, giving such credence to supernatural ‘evidence’ inevitably detracts from the strength of her argument as a whole.
As much as I disapproved of the evidential weight Munn attached to the reported supernatural activity, I found the section detailing the mysterious events that she and others had apparently experienced utterly gripping.
- Coffee which had an inexplicably heavy scent of female perfume (that same smell was smelt by someone else at the suspected scene of Charlotte’s death).
- During the writing process of the book, the sound of Pat’s typewriter being used without anybody being near it at the time.
- Flowers which mysteriously appeared on Charlotte’s grave from time to time and rose bushes which miraculously changed location (and back again) seemingly at will and with no damage to the plant.
- Drivers witnessing a female figure clad in period clothes similar to Charlotte’s when driving across Bodmin Moor.
- Bloodstains mysteriously appearing on the wall near her grave from time to time.
- Battle-hardened soldiers training on the moor being spooked by various apparitions.
- The fragment of a ghostly conversation overheard by a woman in the middle of the night living in a cottage near to where Matthew claims he left Charlotte to continue her journey alone.
These details make for a tantalising layer to the story, but they have no place alongside the factual evidence recorded contemporaneously – regardless of your belief in the supernatural.
Returning to her strangely concocted focus group, Munn felt it was important to test the extent to which the Charlotte Dymond story had pervaded local history and the locals’ knowledge. To achieve this, she asked pupils of a variety of ages to write essays on all they knew about Charlotte Dymond. This included children of native families who had been based in the local area for generations as well as from families who had moved there in recent times. Some were set the task as homework; others had to write their essay in exam-like conditions. Pat acknowledged that a television documentary about the Charlotte Dymond murder, filmed for the popular Pebble Mill show, was aired some weeks prior to the essays being written and was forced to admit that this necessarily coloured the results.
Despite the unscientific set-up, Pat attaches a good deal of importance to the results of this experiment which doesn’t quite square with her otherwise meticulous and methodical approach to research.
However, when you stop to examine the later chapters, her gambit becomes clear. Munn tries desperately to persuade the reader that the relative ignorance of the story amongst the younger generations of indigenous families in the local area is because the story regarding Charlotte’s death was and is taboo. The reason for this taboo status, Pat argues, is that the local folk at the time knew Charlotte killed herself and Matthew served as the perfect scapegoat to divert the shame and guilt that a suicide would bring with it. Pat further muses that the common bloodlines (which includes a wild-guess at the identity of Charlotte’s mother), coupled with the close-knit nature of the Cornish, meant that Charlotte was related to many of the key characters involved. Their relationship with a suicide victim apparently meant that the associated shame and guilt would be intolerable. To combat this, Munn theorises that the local inhabitants closed ranks and embarked on a conspiracy of huge proportions.
In an attempt to back this up, Munn points to the erection and maintenance of a memorial stone on Bodmin Moor as a tacit admission of the locals’ knowledge of the real circumstances behind Charlotte’s death.
It’s worth considering Munn’s conclusion of suicide a little further. After building up a relatively credible story of a grotesque miscarriage of justice, Pat’s final conclusion that Charlotte killed herself for reasons unknown (maybe she thought herself pregnant, she muses…) falls woefully short of plausibility.
The biggest problem with the suicide theory is the wound inflicted on Charlotte’s neck. The surgeon who gave evidence at the trial consistently emphasised that while it was not impossible for a wound of that type to have been inflicted by Charlotte herself, he thought it extremely unlikely that she could have inflicted upon herself the wound which ended her life. Indeed, after the defence argued their case, he returned to the stand to clarify, lest there be any confusion, that in all the circumstances, he did not believe Charlotte capable of inflicting the wound herself.
Let’s not forget the nature of that wound (quoted from Linda Stratmann’s comments on the murder):
The wound that had ended Charlotte’s life had been terrible indeed. It was eight and a half inches in length, starting on the left side of her neck and extending all the way around to the right. It passed two and a half inches below her ear and was two and a half inches deep. It was deeper on the left side, where the whole of the soft tissues were divided right down to the bone. The windpipe was completely divided, the oesophagus partly. The instrument had even gone between two vertebrae partially separating them. It was clear that great force had been used. The roughness of the sides of the wound meant that the instrument was unlikely to have been very sharp.
There were no initial, tentative cuts, but two great scything incisions with a weapon of relative bluntness. That’s not consistent with your average neck-slitting suicide wound – no matter how convinced you are of Matthew’s innocence.
On balance, I find it impossible to regard Munn’s theory of suicide as anything other than hugely wide of the truth.
Putting Munn’s preposterous theory of mass conspiracies and suicide to one side, the book’s greatest achievement is that it throws light on a grotesque miscarriage of justice.
It is clear that the criminal justice system left an awful lot to be desired in the mid 1800s. In her closing chapter, Pat remarks candidly that Matthew’s trial was a farce. When all of the details are considered, nobody can possibly argue otherwise. The quality of the investigation was sloppy, inaccurate and inconsistent, Matthew’s treatment at the hands of the police was horrifyingly unjust and the committal hearing and the trial were both a fait accompli. The absence of justice in this case wasn’t just lacking – it was disgusting.
But let’s not confuse the problems with the lower standards of care and accuracy taken in preparing and trying criminal cases in those days with Matthew’s innocence.
Before reading the book, I had always felt that despite the conviction resting on circumstantial evidence (which was rather flimsy in places, at that), the guilty party had been found and convicted. But, on greater reflection, when you stop to consider the facts and the treatment that was meted out to Matthew, it’s tough to come to the conclusion that his conviction was safe.
So in this respect, if no other, the book has successfully persuaded me and altered my opinion of Matthew Weeks’ guilt.
Put simply, I’m not sufficiently convinced that Matthew murdered Charlotte to regard his conviction as safe. By the same token, I’m by no means convinced of his innocence, either. But there is simply no way that his being found guilty by the Cornish jury with the circumstances as they were, can be safely relied upon as a measure of his guilt.
I would be very surprised if most other readers didn’t come to the same conclusion. On that basis, Pat’s book must be regarded as a success.
The book provides a great read for those who have a particular interest in Cornish history, as well as lovers of true crime stories. Even with all its faults, it does a superb job of highlighting one of the most grotesque failures of criminal justice that you’ll ever likely meet.
The book’s publication also helps to keep alive a story which has captivated countless locals, visitors and schoolchildren over the years. It’s a tale full of sorrow, of injustice, of the flaws and vices of humanity, but above all, it’s an unsolved ‘whodunit’.
We’ll never truly know how Charlotte Dymond met her death all those years ago on Bodmin Moor, and there’s little point pretending otherwise.
But if you are so inclined, this book will allow you to revel in the mystery and to do so with a wealth of facts at your fingertips.