Witches, phantom dogs and pitchfork killers… Welcome to Meon Hill

witches

This week I’m getting in the spirit of Halloween by investigating the mysterious Meon Hill, on the edge of the Cotswolds in Warwickshire. It’s a place of Satanic legends, phantom black dog sightings, alleged witches and shadowy pitchfork-wielding killers. Anyone fancy pitching a tent there on October 31st?

Meon Hill is nestled between the sleepy Cotswold villages of Mickleton, Upper Quinton and Lower Quinton. An 8th century legend says that it was actually formed by the Devil. Frustrated by the growth of Christianity, the Devil chucked a large clod of earth at the recently built Evesham Abbey, intending to destroy it. However, the bishop spotted him and prayed for the clod of earth to miss its target. It did, landing and forming Meon Hill.

Another legend from Celtic Welsh folklore says that Meon Hill is haunted by the phantom dogs of Arawn, king of the ‘otherworld’. For centuries, numerous sightings of stray black dogs have been reported in the area. Black dogs are said to be nocturnal apparitions, bringers of death and agents of the Devil (think the Rottweilers guarding Antichrist Damien Thorn in The Omen).

But it’s what happened on 14th February 1945 — Valentine’s Day of all days—that really put Meon Hill on the map. This is when 74-year-old Lower Quinton farm labourer Charles Walton was murdered on its slopes.

Walton’s murder was brutal, gruesome and unusual. He was killed with his own instruments. His head was smashed in with his walking stick. His throat was cut with the trouncing hook he’d been using to trim hedges, which was found buried in his neck. And he was impaled and pinned to the ground with his own pitchfork.

There was a conspicuous further detail: a cross-shaped symbol was carved into his chest.

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“She is not my mummy.” Madeleine McCann spotted in Amsterdam

Madeleine McCann, aged 3, and how she might have looked aged 9

Madeleine McCann, aged 3, and how she might have looked aged 9

In May 2007, Madeleine McCann disappeared. A few days later, Dutch shop assistant Anna Stam had a disquieting conversation with a little English girl called “Maddie”, who came into her shop and claimed the woman she was with had snatched her…

On 3rd May 2007, the still unexplained disappearance of Madeleine McCann sparked the same kind of obsessive media coverage as Princess Diana’s death. The 3-year-old was on holiday in Portugal with her parents, Kate and Gerry McCann, and her two younger siblings, and vanished from their apartment while the parents dined at a nearby restaurant with friends. The apartment was unlocked, but the McCanns checked on the children throughout the evening. Then Kate McCann discovered at 10pm that little Maddie was gone from her bed.

Initially the Portuguese police believed Madeleine had been abducted. However, after misinterpreting a British DNA analysis of the McCanns’ holiday apartment, they came to believe that Madeleine had died in the apartment, so suspicions fell on the parents. It was said that Madeleine had died in an accident, and Kate and Gerry McCann had covered up the incident by getting rid of the body. Even though the McCanns have now been exonerated of any involvement in Maddie’s disappearance, some conspiracy theorists continue to point the finger at the parents.

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Was Queen Victoria behind the Jack the Ripper murders?

Queen_Victoria_by_BassanoBetween August and November 1888, Jack the Ripper struck Whitechapel and brutally killed five prostitutes. Was he a lone nutjob? Or was he part of an elaborate conspiracy involving the police, the Prime Minister and Queen Victoria?

Sounds nuts, doesn’t it. But this is the conspiracy theory that’s at the centre of the Johnny Depp-starring 2001 movie From Hell (and the graphic novel it’s based on). And it originates in a 1976 book by Stephen Knight called Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution.

The secret marriage of Prince Albert Victor

The story goes that Queen Victoria’s grandson, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, met and fell in love with Annie Elizabeth Crook, a working class Catholic girl who was one of the models for famous painter Walter Sickert. They married in a secret ceremony where the witnesses were Walter Sickert and Annie’s friend Mary Jane Kelly (who later became the fifth and final victim of Jack the Ripper). Prince Albert Victor and Annie Crook had a daughter together – Alice Crook – who was an heir to the British throne.

Prince Albert Victor

Prince Albert Victor

In 1888, Queen Victoria and Prime Minister Robert Cecil discovered Prince Albert Victor’s secret. Not only was the prince’s secret marriage to a working class girl scandalous for the Royal Family, but the heir produced by the marriage was Catholic, and Catholics were forbidden from the throne.

Basically, this needed sorting.

So Queen Victoria and the Prime Minister ordered the kidnapping of Annie and Alice. A raid of Annie’s apartment on Cleveland Street, London, was arranged, and Annie was placed into the custody of Sir William Gull, Queen Victoria’s physician. He certified her as insane, with some versions of the story contending that Queen Victoria instructed Gull to make her insane by impairing her brain functions, so she could never reveal the secret.

However, Alice Crook was not in the apartment when it was raided. She was being looked after by Mary Jane Kelly, who – along with her prostitute friends Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes – decided to blackmail the government.

Sir William Gull - the Ripper?

Sir William Gull – the Ripper?

At this point Queen Victoria, the Prime Minister and his fellow Freemasons, including senior London Met Police officers, are said to have conspired to put an end to the scandal once and for all. They decided to stage the murders of Mary Jane Kelly and her friends and retrieve Alice. Sir William Gull was given the task of murdering the women. With the assistance of coachman and accomplice John Netley, Gull became Jack the Ripper. And he clearly got a taste for murder and mutilation. The final victim was Mary Jane Kelly herself; she was basically torn to bits, her face carved off and her internal organs spread around her bedroom.

Still, Gull never got his hands on Alice, and it’s said that she lived well into old age and became Walter Sickert’s mistress.

All seems quite sensational, but could any of it be true?

The evidence for the conspiracy

There were already theories that Jack the Ripper might’ve been a physician or a surgeon because of the anatomical knowledge he displayed when he committed the murders. But the story I’ve detailed above pretty much all came from one man – Joseph Gorman, aka Joseph Sickert and allegedly the son of Walter Sickert and Alice. He was told the story about the secret royal baby, the conspiracy and Sir William Gull being the Ripper by his parents. Joseph Gorman revealed all of this as part of a BBC documentary series on Jack the Ripper in 1973.

Stephen Knight, when he heard about all this, conducted his own investigation and found a number of facts and coincidences supporting Gorman’s claims. Among these were the following:

  • It’s a fact that Annie Elizabeth Crook was institutionalised.
  • There really was a man called John Netley.
  • A woman named Elizabeth Cook – who Knight thought might be “Annie Elizabeth Crook” misspelt – did live on Cleveland Street.
  • Both Prince Albert Victor’s mother and Alice Crook were deaf. An inherited disability?
  • Knight identified similarities between the Ripper murders and alleged Masonic ritual killings, supporting the claim that Freemasons were involved in the conspiracy.
  • Clairvoyant Robert James Lees claimed to have identified Jack the Ripper using his psychic powers; his description of the Ripper matched Sir William Gull.

While none of it was concrete, it was enough to convince Knight that Gorman’s story was true. He believed that the lack of any tangible evidence was because of the government cover-up and the police destroying evidence. This led to him publishing Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution.

After this, Sir William Gull became one of the prime Ripper suspects.

Nail in the coffin

While it’s a truly fascinating tale, most modern historians reject the royal conspiracy theory, and with it, the idea of Sir William Gull being the Ripper. Why? It’s because, regardless of the coincidences, the main source of this conspiracy theory is Joseph Gorman. And Gorman retracted his story in 1978, telling The Sunday Times, “It was a hoax. I made it all up. It was a whopping fib.”

So that’s that then!

The mystery persists. I wonder if we’ll ever know the true identity of this infamous killer…

Next week: Queen Elizabeth I was a man!

Before the Princes in the Tower, there was the ‘Duke in the Castle’

Prince Arthur and his guard, Hubert de Burgh

Prince Arthur and his guard, Hubert de Burgh

We’re all familiar with the story of the Princes in the Tower, when 12-year-old Edward V and his 10-year-old brother Richard disappeared without trace in the Tower of London in 1483. But do you know the story of 16-year-old Prince Arthur, Duke of Brittany – the ‘Duke in the Castle’?

Arthur, Duke of Brittany and Earl of Richmond, was grandson to Henry II of England, nephew to King Richard I (aka the Lionheart) and King John, and heir to the throne of England. In 1203, he was incarcerated at Rouen Castle by John – aged just 16 – and was never seen again. Arthur’s is one of the earliest unexplained disappearances on record.

Arthur versus John: the build-up to his disappearance

The man who eventually became King John is probably best known today as ‘Prince John’, Richard the Lionheart’s younger brother and the main antagonist in stories and legends about Robin Hood. Historians generally regard him in a negative light; he had a reputation for cruelty and spitefulness, and John Gillingham describes him as “one of the worst kings to ever rule England”. While Richard the Lionheart was away fighting in the Third Crusade, Prince John was left in charge of England and led a rebellion, trying to seize power for himself. He ultimately failed when his brother returned to England and John’s forces surrendered.

Robin Hood stories usually take place during King Richard’s absence and Prince John’s ‘rule’ in his stead, and show him oppressing and persecuting the people of England to the extent that Robin Hood has to step in. Such is the case in Disney’s Robin Hood, in which he is portrayed as wicked, cowardly and jealous of his brother, and is mocked by the people as the ‘Phony King of England’.

The Disney version of Prince John, Arthur's suspected killer

The Disney version of Prince John, Arthur’s suspected killer

It’s unsurprising, then, that the blame for whatever happened to 16-year-old Arthur of Brittany tends to get laid at the feet of John. When Richard died in 1199, the throne of England had two possible heirs: John and Arthur. Arthur was named heir by Richard in 1190, but Richard changed his mind on his deathbed – believing Arthur to be too young – and made John his heir instead (having forgiven him for his rebellion during the Crusades).

The problem was, support for the two heirs was divided. The bulk of the English and Norman nobility supported John’s claim, while the French nobility and the French king supported Arthur’s. War broke out between John and Arthur, and in August 1202, John took Arthur by surprise, capturing him and imprisoning him in the Chateau de Falaise in Normandy. The following year, Arthur was transferred to Rouen Castle – and subsequently vanished in April 1203.

Rouen Castle - where Prince Arthur was last seen

Rouen Castle – where Prince Arthur was last seen

Did John kill Arthur?

John certainly had a motive. Arthur was his rival for the throne, and removing him would undermine the French movement that was supporting him. Modern historians generally believe he was murdered by John.

Contemporaneous chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall stated that John ordered two of his servants to blind and castrate Arthur while he was under the guard of Hubert de Burgh at the Chateau de Falaise – but Hubert de Burgh refused to let it happen. This is our first piece of evidence that John was trying to harm Arthur.

Evidence that he actually murdered him comes from the annals of Margam Abbey. These say that John – while drunk and possessed by the Devil – slew Arthur with his own hand while he was imprisoned in Rouen Castle, and dumped his body in the River Seine. However, the origin of this story is unclear – it might just have been anti-John propaganda.

An 18th century depiction of Arthur's murder by John

An 18th century depiction of Arthur’s murder by John

William Shakespeare has John ordering Hubert de Burgh to kill Arthur in his play, The Life and Death of King John. De Burgh can’t bring himself to do it, and Arthur ends up killing himself by jumping from the castle walls in an escape attempt. But the chronicles Shakespeare used as his sources were written hundreds of years after Arthur’s disappearance.

Another account has courtier William de Broase’s wife, Maud de Braose, personally and directly accusing King John of murdering Arthur, several years after his disappearance. Apparently John reacted to this by imprisoning Maud and her eldest son in Corfe Castle, Dorset, and starving them to death.

Her husband, William de Broase, meanwhile escaped to France. He allegedly published a statement on what really happened to Arthur – but no copy has been found.

I suspect that Arthur was killed by the ruthless John. Still, this missing statement by William de Broase raises questions. Perhaps Arthur escaped and went into hiding. Perhaps John exiled him to some isolated place in secret. Unless the statement surfaces, or other historical evidence is found, Arthur’s disappearance will officially remain one of England’s big medieval mysteries…

Next week: Are snuff films real?

Serbians, corrupt footballers or the BBC – who killed Jill Dando?

Jill Dando - 1961-1999

Jill Dando – 1961-1999

It was a sad and shocking day on 26th April 1999 when Jill Dando, newsreader and presenter of BBC TV series Crimewatch and Holiday, was shot dead outside her home. After Barry George was convicted of her murder, we all thought the case was solved. Then he was acquitted on appeal. So the question is, who killed Jill Dando?

At the time of her death, 37-year-old Jill Dando was a very high-profile BBC personality. That all changed at 11.32am on 26th April 1999, when she returned to the house she owned in Fulham. Just as she reached the front door, a single bullet was fired into her left temple. Her body was discovered 14 minutes later.

The murder weapon was said to be a 9mm automatic pistol, and forensic testing said that it was pressed against her head at the moment the trigger was pulled. Her next door neighbour, Richard Hughes, said he heard her utter a surprised cry which – interestingly – was “like someone greeting a friend”. He heard no gunshot.

Hughes also made the only eyewitness sighting of the killer. A 6-foot-tall white man, approximately 40 years old.

Barry George, a man with a history of stalking women, sex offences and anti-social behaviour, eventually became the focus of the murder investigation. The evidence against him hinged on his previous history, the fact that he was in the vicinity four and a half hours before the murder, and the tiny particle of firearm discharge residue that was found on his coat.

After being convicted of murder and serving just over 7 years in prison, George was found not guilty at a retrial. This was after the firearm residue evidence was ruled to be inadmissible because of possible cross-contamination, effectively whittling the prosecution case down to nothing.

But if it wasn’t him, who was it?

Assassinated by the Serbians?

Due to the way she was shot, the police have now decided that Jill Dando was executed by a professional assassin. This has helped fuel a number of conspiracy theories, the first being that she was assassinated by the Serbians.

At Barry George’s first trial, his defence barrister, Michael Mansfield QC, posited this theory based on Dando’s coverage of the Kosovo War. Britain was on the side of the Kosovo Albanian rebel group, who were fighting the Serbian government and dictator Slobodan Milošević.

Mansfield suggested that the Serbians may have targeted her for two reasons:

  1. She had recently presented a TV appeal for aid for Kosovan-Albanian refugees in the Kosovo War, which may have attracted adverse attention from Slobodan Milošević’s supporters.
  2. Her death was Serbian retaliation for Britain and America’s highly controversial bombing of the Radio Television of Serbia’s headquarters on 23rd April 1999.

Initially the police rejected the Serbian link because the bombing was only 3 days before her death and they wouldn’t have had enough time to plan it. But journalist Bob Woffinden argues that powers in Serbia had been planning it for a lot longer. He cited the murder of newspaper editor Slavko Curuvija – shot dead outside his Belgrade home on April 11th – as evidence that Milošević was hitting back at his perceived enemies in the media.

The damaged headquarters of Radio Television of Serbia - was Jill Dando killed in retaliation?

The damaged headquarters of Radio Television of Serbia – was Jill Dando killed in retaliation?

What’s more is that the day after Dando’s murder, a man with a mid-European accent called the BBC TV Centre to admit to Dando’s death and threaten to kill Tony Hall. Hall was the chief executive for BBC News, thus ultimately responsible for coverage of the Kosovo War. To this day, nobody knows if the call was a hoax or not. The mysterious caller said this:

“Yesterday I call you to tell you to add a few numbers to your list. Because your government, and in particular your Prime Minister Blair, murdered, butchered 17 innocent young people. He butchered, we butcher back. The first one you had yesterday, the next one will be Tony Hall.”

Assassinated by corrupt powers in football?

The Serbian assassination theory is the one that has gained the most traction, but a former BBC colleague of Jill Dando believes it is a red herring. Wishing to remain anonymous, she told the Daily Star in March 2014 that Dando’s death was to do with her investigation of the death of her friend Matthew Harding.

Three years before Dando’s death, Matthew Harding – deputy chairman of Chelsea football club – expressed concerns about corruption in football and, according to this unnamed source, repeated those concerns to Dando. Just months later, Harding was killed in a mysterious helicopter crash along with four others. Did somebody silence him? Dando was apparently looking into his death – and received two warnings to back off. She didn’t.

Matthew Harding

Matthew Harding

All sounds very colourful and scandalous, but could also be a string of coincidences – and Harding’s death was ruled an accident by an inquest jury. That’s not to say it’s impossible that there’s a huge cover-up going on, but beyond these allegations made by an unidentified source to the Daily Star, the evidence for a cover-up is thin.

Assassinated by the BBC?

Another anonymous source, also claiming to be a former colleague of Jill Dando, told the Daily Star in July 2014 that Dando was murdered in order to keep a lid on a paedophile ring within the BBC. Apparently Dando had information about ‘big-name’ celebrities and high-up BBC staff who were part of this ring and was in the process of investigating it when she was killed. Not surprisingly, the BBC said it hadn’t seen anything to substantiate the claims.

Another cover-up? Or perhaps the Daily Star spun this story themselves to capitalise on the extremely high profile of the Jimmy Saville abuse scandal and Operation Yewtree? Were they just running out of stories in mid-2014, and so decided to invent some conspiracy theories?

David Icke would argue – no. Despite not citing any evidence, he argues that Dando did know of a paedophile ring within the BBC, and that the State killed her to keep her quiet.

But then, David Icke also believes the government is under the control of lizards in human camouflage.

Will we ever know the truth?

Evidence for all these theories is pretty much non-existence. Even the coincidences they derive from are thin and barely hang together. Truth is, I haven’t got the faintest idea who killed Jill Dando. None of us do.

But what intrigues me the most – after all this talk of Serbian hitmen and huge conspiracies to cover up football corruption and paedophile rings – is the evidence of her neighbour Richard Hughes.

The sound she made, right before she was fatally shot, was “like someone greeting a friend”…

Next week: My fifth and final article looking at the world’s biggest conspiracy theory – the Roswell UFO Incident. In the meantime, catch up with Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4

Mystery solved? Jack the Ripper and the blood-stained shawl

The identity of notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper has long been one of Britain’s biggest unsolved mysteries. Not anymore. According to Russell Edwards, Jack’s name is Aaron Kosminski.

Between 31st August and 9th November 1888, Jack the Ripper brutally murdered five prostitutes – Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly. Their murders sparked one of the UK’s biggest manhunts, but ‘Jack’ was never found or identified.

Naming-Jack-the-Ripper

Until now. Or at least that’s what Russell Edwards – amateur detective and author of Naming Jack the Ripper – started claiming at the beginning of last month. His claims appeared in multiple newspapers, and in his own detailed article for the Daily Mail.

The shawl that started it all

Basically, Edwards got his hands on a shawl believed to have been taken from the body of Catherine Eddowes after her murder. He enlisted the help of scientist Jari Louhelainen, who found DNA linking the shawl to both Eddowes and Aaron Kosminski. Kosminski was a Polish immigrant and Jack the Ripper suspect, who was locked up in an insane asylum in 1891 due to a masturbation addiction.

Edwards says his work proves that Kosminski is “definitely, categorically and absolutely” the Ripper, and that “only non-believers that want to perpetuate the myth will doubt”.

Well, he sounds pretty sure of himself. But what’s the proof this shawl has anything to do with Eddowes’ murder?

According to Edwards’ Daily Mail article, David Melville-Hayes owned the shawl before he passed it to Scotland Yard’s Crime Museum in 1991. His ancestor, Sergeant Amos Simpson, had asked his superiors if he could take it home from the murder scene and give to his a wife, a dressmaker. His superiors said yes.

What?! That sounds fairly ludicrous for starters. Sergeant Simpson sounds like one seriously disturbed fellow – hardly police officer material – if blood-stained shawls from murder victims are the sorts of gifts he gets for his wife. And the police just let him take this potentially vital piece of evidence? I nearly spat out my tea when I read this.

Edwards also recognises that the shawl was far too expensive to have been owned by poor Ms Eddowes. He theorises that the Ripper brought it with him when he did the deed and left it at the crime scene as a clue.

All sounding rather daft so far.

The proof is in the DNA

Ah, but there’s proof. Jari Louhelainen apparently found evidence of blood ‘spatter’ consistent with slashing, plus what he “believed” to be a kidney cell. And Eddowes was found to be missing a kidney – one of Jack’s ‘trophies’. Louhelainen found a perfect DNA match when testing the blood against that of one of Eddowes’ descendants, ‘proving’ the shawl’s authenticity.

As to Jack himself, there were traces of semen on the shawl. Louhelainen tested this against a living relative of Kosminski’s and Bob’s your uncle. Another perfect match. Kosminski is Jack. Case closed. Goodnight.

But hang on a second…

I’m sorry, but no. That’s the attitude of Hull historian and Ripper expert Mike Covell, who rubbished Edwards’ conclusions a few days later. He said that Amos Simpson, who claimed to have taken the shawl, was never even at the murder scene. He added that no mention of the shawl was made in any of the official reports.

But what about the DNA? Covell argues that any DNA found on the shawl could have easily been contaminated. Lots of people have handled it since David Melville-Hayes gave it to Scotland Yard’s Crime Museum, including several of Catherine Eddowes’ descendents. He also pointed out that while blood and semen were indeed found on the shawl, mitochondrial DNA – which is what Louhelainen based his findings on – is less accurate. It can’t be used to identify individuals, only groups who might share an ancestor or two.

Most importantly of all, other scientists have not yet verified or lent credence to any of these findings.

From the sounds of it, they’re not going to.

Next week: Are there time travellers among us?