Into Thin Air: the Shepton Mallet Mystery

by frankbeswick

When even those close to someone think that the Devil has come to claim him, we can infer that he has not been very popular.

The Shepton Mallet mystery is England's oldest disappearance, and one that has never been satisfactorily explained, or even explained at all. How a large man in his sixties who cannot move on his own can disappear from his own doorstep a few yards from a group of people, none of whom saw anything, is impossible to explain. But when no body has ever been found the difficulties of explaining the disappearance are overwhelming. So what did happen to Owen Parfitt?

Picture above courtesy of carladesign

Owen Parfitt

The year was 1763 [or 1768 according to some sources], and most people in the quiet Somerset town of Shepton Mallet had not a very high opinion of the aged resident who sat for hours at the door of his cottage and gossiped to all who would pass by and listen about his exploits, or misdeeds would be the better description. The locals were not sure whether all the tales that Owen Parfitt told were true, but if even a fraction of them were, then he had lived a rather bad life, and so when he disappeared, there were those who thought that the Devil had come along to take Owen body and soul into Hell. 

Owen was a resident of the Somerset town, in South West England,  once apprenticed to a tailor, he disliked the quiet life of  stitching and cutting, and he yearned for adventure and more money than could be gained by honest toil.So one day the young Owen simply did not arrive for work, and later there came a message that he had enlisted with the king's forces. He is not known in Royal Naval records, so a privateer seems to have been his chosen path, and for years he simply disappeared from the town's consciousness. Privateers were pirates licensed to rob only the sovereign's enemies. However, in the 1770s he returned, obviously a sick man, crippled by serious arthritis, announcing that he wanted to live out his life in the town and restart his work as a tailor.

Owen's elder sister,  known as Old Susannah, must have been a dutiful sister, as she gave a home to the decrepit old man and tended him,even though she was herself twenty years older than Owen, which places her in her eighties. She and a local woman,  Susannah Snook,used to to help the old man to bed at nights and get him up in the mornings. 

Owen used to sit at his door in summer, talking to passers by who bothered to listen, and his tales were choice! He had been a pirate, a smuggler and dabbled in black magic in America, Africa, India and the Caribbean, and had enjoyed the attentions of many women, though he had never married.  Many people thought that he might be spinning the tales, but he had the physique for a pirate and if only part of his repertoire of tales were true, then his life had not been lived well.

Then one day in June 1763 he had been left at his door, propped up on his great coat, some say wrapped in it, when the women who cared for him went off on their chores. At bed time when Susannah Snook came to help Old Susannah put Owen to bed he had gone. The puzzle is that he was barely able to walk and had no means of transport, had made no noise to speak of and the witnesses, a group of farm workers getting some hayricks ready against a coming storm, had seen and heard nothing. Despite searches Owen was never found and no satisfactory account of his disappearance has ever been given.

Suggestions about what happened

Some theories can be discounted, as I think that we can safely  say that the Devil does not snatch people away, at least I hope not.Similarly, the view that Old Susannah had murdered her troublesome  younger brother flies in the face of the fact that there were no signs of trouble and that she in her eighties was almost certainly incapable of murder or of dragging away the body of  large man.Could she have had an accomplice? Possibly,but the nearby farm workers saw nothing, or at least said that they had not seen anything. Murdering Owen was out of character for one who cared for him so well.But no witnesses saw any scuffle or heard sounds of argument, one minute he was there and the other without any noise he was gone.If Susannah had murdered Owen she would have needed an accomplice, and no accomplice was seen at the scene, no one could be identified as being a suspect, no one  was seen dragging a body or running away.  

The house where Owen dwelt  was not in the town, but outside it, down a country lane, so there were only farm labourers to witness the events, whereas if it were in town there could have been plenty of witnesses.

What was England like then? The country was beset by smuggling gangs, and Owen claimed to have been involved with them. Could he have been speedily abducted by one such gang? Some people thought that the men from Bristol, which was not far from Shepton Mallet, had taken him. He had owed money to some Bristol bad guys some years earlier, but it had all been paid and the issue  resolved. Yet smuggling gangs roamed free across Southern England, quite audaciously bringing in contraband goods and having gun fights with the revenue men sent to catch them. Could  gang of pirates or smugglers have taken Owen,possibly because they thought that he knew about the location of hidden treasure. He had certainly been somewhat talkative about his exploits and may have exaggerated his knowledge of concealed pirate gold.  One possibility is that there were people in South West Britain who were skilled in quick abductions, a skill that they had honed in snatching black people in Africa to be taken as slaves. Could one or two of these characters have been hired to snatch Owen? They arrive in a farm cart,quickly gag and snatch the hapless victim and ride quietly off without even seeming to stop.

It is also worthy of note that there were many people in Britain willing to co-operate with the smuggling gangs,  so could the farm workers have been in on the plot? I would not be surprised, and if their employer was in on the crime the workers might have  feared for their jobs if they spoke out.   

Later Years

In 1813 Henry Strode, a local man who was redeveloping a property once connected with Owen's cousin Dorothy, with whom the young Owen had had a scandalous relationship,found a body hastily stuffed into a cavity in a wall. The excitement rose that Owen's body had been found when it was reported that it was the body of a man crippled by arthritis, but it turned out on medical  examination to have been a young female. The disposal method suggests murder. Had Owen been involved with the murder of a local girl years before, and had her family finally learned who had done it. The peasant society of the time would have kept quiet  about such revenge killings, for informing the authorities was seen as  a terrible and treacherous betrayal? Who knows. Maybe Owen's past had caught up with him.

In 1814 a lawyer, William Maskell, interviewed as many remaining witnesses as possible, and found that the stories that they told involved much contradictory evidence. The time that had elapsed was about fifty years, so memories had gone dim by then, but the contradictory evidence suggests a cover up in which maybe local people were involved. It may be that Owen's wicked past had finally caught up with him and that someone took revenge for  a misdeed many years earlier.   

Despite much redevelopment of the area where the disappearance happened in the 1930s, no further evidence has been discovered, and the trail is now completely cold.

Updated: 07/20/2016, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 07/23/2016

That's a pretty accurate observation, to my mind.

jptanabe on 07/23/2016

Fascinating mystery! I guess the clearest part is that the man met his death, probably not by his own choice. It certainly seems likely that some of the local people were involved, or at least aware of something and chose not to tell.

frankbeswick on 07/22/2016

Tornadoes are known in South West Britain,but there is no mention of one that day. Disposal of the body at sea is a good theory, as the sea is not far away from where the disappearance happened. but there are three methods of disposing of a body without trace that are available in agricultural communities, but I don't think that Wizzley's owners would want me to show people how to dispose of murdered bodies on their pages. There are also caves in the region where a body could have been dumped.

blackspanielgallery on 07/21/2016

Interesting tale. Perhaps he was taken out to sea and disposed of elsewhere. If his tales were close enough to being true he might have been wanted by those others who were double crossed. Yet another possibility comes to mind. In North America we have storms called tornadoes, and the are capable of pulling people, cows, and even vehicles up into the cloud and depositing them miles away, often in damaged condition. They are not known so much in Europe, but the cloud forms around an uprising, low pressure, with strong winds. They are like large vacuum cleaners. Or, I did notice the farmers were preparing for a storm, and they might well have taken shelter during the storm. If he was taken by people the wind could have drowned out any noise, and the rain shielded view. Nature or men, the storm may be the clue.

frankbeswick on 07/21/2016

Owen was building up a bad reputation, so there could be a number of reasons why some people wanted to kill him.

Veronica on 07/21/2016

They were simple and superstitious folk. If he sat at the gate talking Chinese and doing magic tricks it would be natural for them to think he was doing black magic and witchcraft. Witchcraft trials were within living memory for some in England around this time. The last one was in 1712.

frankbeswick on 07/21/2016

We may find a link between the girl's skeleton and Parfitt's sudden disappearance to sail the world as a privateer. As the remains were found in a house belonging to his cousin, with whom he had a relationship, it is not unreasonable to suggest that Parfitt was behind her death or involved with it somehow, and so decided to run. Who knows? He returns years later, thinking himself safe, but could an accomplice have unburdened his own conscience before he died and named Parfitt? Then the vengeful family of the dead girl would have sought Parfitt out. None will ever know.

candy47 on 07/21/2016

If he did fall victim to the local villagers getting revenge, then I suppose in a way, he did get snatched by the devil. Intriguing story.

frankbeswick on 07/21/2016

To the end of her days Old Susannah believed that the Devil had come to claim the body and soul of her younger brother. I don't suppose that it was a nice thought for the kindly old lady to have on her mind.

frankbeswick on 07/20/2016

You have hit on the right solution, I believe.

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