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  • Wendy Percival

The Murder Stone

By an exciting coincidence, during my trip to The Gower in Wales last week, I came across a murder stone. It was in the churchyard adjoining the holiday cottage where we were staying on the Penrhys (Penrice) Castle Estate.


Before I tell you about the stone, I should point out, that although I’ve visited The Gower before, I’ve never been to Penrhys and was unaware of the existence of the murder stone, which is mentioned on a plaque telling the history of the 12th century church beside the entrance gate to the churchyard.


St Andrew's church, Penrhys

The reason I refer to it as a coincidence is because, having always been fascinated by the concept of murder stones, I wrote one into the plot of The Fear of Ravens. In the story, Esme stumbles upon a murder stone beside an old mill while doing some research into the mill’s history.


Something had been carved into the stone. She wriggled to one side to allow the sunlight to penetrate the vegetation, catching her breath as the light fell on the inscription, enabling her to read it. In bold capital letters was the word: MURDER.

In The Fear of Ravens, clues on the stone help Esme solve the mystery linked to the history of witchcraft.


Brutal murder


There’s a well-documented murder stone on the South Downs concerning a brutal murder which took place in 1782. The battered body of James Stares was discovered on the downs one August morning of that year. His throat had been cut and there were other lacerations on his face and head. Blacksmith John Taylor, who’d been seen in the company of Stares the previous evening, was accused of the killing, found guilty by evidence of a bloodied smock said to belong to him, and was hanged shortly after.


You can read a full account on the South Downs’ website, in an article entitled, The Murder Stone.


Often murder stones are placed on the site of the crime, as was in the South Downs case above. James Stares himself was buried in the local churchyard, but the heartbroken family also paid for a second stone to be erected at the spot where his body had been found. The inscription has been lost over time, but the first few words are still visible. It was these words (shown in bold below) which I “borrowed” to use on the stone in The Fear of Ravens


Esme stared at the rock. Whose murder? When? Who had put this here? As she studied further, she saw that there was more lettering, smaller this time. She could make out the first few words before they faded into nothing. Let future generations know...

The Penrhys victim


Mary Kavanagh's gravestone

As for the poor murdered victim commemorated in the churchyard in Penrhys, her demise was almost as gruesome as that of the unfortunate James Stares. She was 75-year-old Mary Kavanagh and her badly beaten body was found in her own home in October 1829 in the village of Penmean, a short distance from Penrhys.


The story goes that Mary was last seen alive on the evening of Saturday 3rd October. The following day her curtains were drawn and were still that way on Monday. On Tuesday when neighbours investigated, they found Mary’s battered body in her garden. Inside her cottage, two watches which had once hung from her mantelpiece were missing but the £120 of her life savings (some £14,000 in today’s money) which had been locked away in an oak chest, was still there.

The inscription on Mary’s headstone reads as follows:

In the memory of
Mary
Wife of James Kavanagh of
Penmaen who was Murdered by

3rd October 1829
Aged 75

Prepare for death make no delay
She in a moment was ? ?

(Any suggestions for deciphering the last line are most welcome – something that rhymes with “delay”, I’m guessing…)

You’ll notice the gap after the words, “murdered by”…. The theory is that it was deliberately left blank to prick the conscience of the perpetrator in the hope he would confess his sins. It seems it failed, as there is no evidence that anyone was ever brought to book.


Some say a name was etched into the space and was subsequently scratched out. If that’s true, who added the name? Someone making mischief? Or someone who knew the identity of the guilty party? And who scratched it out? The individual accused or someone else who believed the person named to be innocent?


It’s at this the point in this story that there’s a further uncanny coincidence. The description of the murder stone in my book echoes what allegedly happened to Mary Kavanagh’s stone, as Esme discovers…

…there appeared to have been a deliberate attempt to scratch it out. Marks had been gouged out across the inscription. Someone had done their very best to deface what had been written here.

Spooky, eh?


 

If you're interested to read more about the story with a murder stone in it,

click on the image below!