Last month, while on holiday in Cornwall, I got to do jury service. But it was a case with a difference. It was for a real murder that took place over 160 years ago on Bodmin Moor. Here’s the blurb from the visitor booklet, The Courtroom Experience:
“In 1844 on the windswept slopes of Bodmin Moor, the body of a local girl, Charlotte Dymond was found. Matthew Weeks, her boyfriend was arrested and charged with her murder. But was he guilty? Who do you think was the guilty party?
Come and act as a member of the jury in a re-enactment of Matthew’s trial in the very building in which the trial took place. Guilty or not guilty, you must decide!”
Well this sounded too intriguing to miss. So we, along with ten other visitors, became the jury for an hour while the evidence was given via moving wax figures (spooky in itself) and recorded summaries of evidence given at the time. During the trial, I found myself getting more and more angry for poor Matthew Weeks. If ever a boy was set up, it was this poor lad. Even on Charlotte’s death certificate the coroner had recorded that she was murdered…by Matthew Weeks! Can you imagine that happening today? The only real evidence was that Matthew was seen chatting to Charlotte on the morning of her murder. The rest was pure speculation. (Apologies for the poor quality of the photo of the death certificate.)
Both Matthew and Charlotte worked as farm servants at Penhale Farm on the north west of the moor, and Charlotte was said to be very attractive and flirted with quite a number of would-be suitors. In fact, I had very strong suspicions that one of these suitors was the actual murderer, as all avenues of investigation seemed to lead back to him. But the verdict passed in 1844 was that Matthew was guilty and he was subsequently hanged for murder.
At the end of the trial, we were asked to press a button to indicate whether we thought Matthew was guilty or not guilty. Moments later, we were told that we’d passed a unanimous verdict of not guilty and much debate followed from that. Part of me hoped poor Matthew somehow knew that all these years later people were passionately defending him, and showing their fury at such blatant use of a young boy as scapegoat.
After the trial, we were taken down to the holding cells. It was here Matthew would have been held awaiting trial. In the photo you can see the individual cells along the sides where people were held for hours, sometimes days, at a time (the space at the top was the lavatory). We were invited to experience the incredibly cramped space, where with arms held at our sides we couldn’t move, and it was virtually impossible to turn around. As you can imagine, we couldn’t wait to get out of there. It was very sobering, especially when we heard tales of women being held there for days awaiting trial for having stolen a piece of cheese to feed their children.
There might be a lot wrong with our world today, but I’d like to think that most people get a fair trial. This was certainly not Matthew’s experience. I was compelled to find Matthew’s grave and put some flowers there, but apparently the spot where public hangings took place has long been developed. All I can hope is that he rests in peace. Which, if rumours are to be believed, is not the case for Charlotte. Her unhappy ghost is said to haunt the moor, and many people tell of strange and disturbing encounters with her near the place she was murdered. Hmm. Interesting.
“What secret is troubling Charlotte’s ghost? Was an innocent man hanged? Did the murdered escape detection? Only Charlotte knows the answers to these questions and she took them with her to her restless grave.” (from The Charlotte Dymond Murder Trial)