"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, February 24, 2014

Owen Parfitt, Puzzlingly Peripatetic Paralytic

Shepton Mallet Marketplace and Market Cross, via Wikipedia

Many people have disappeared under mysterious or unusual circumstances. Only a select few have disappeared under seemingly impossible ones. An otherwise thoroughly unremarkable man named Owen Parfitt was one of these notables.

Parfitt lived in the English village of Shepton Mallet, in the county of Somerset. In 1763 or 1768 (accounts vary on the year,) he was close to seventy years old.  Some years before, a severe illness—possibly a series of strokes—had gradually left him disabled to the point where he was virtually paralyzed. He lived in a cottage with his older sister, whose first name is not recorded. She took care of him, although she was nearly as feeble as her brother. One pleasant June evening, she and another woman, Susannah Snook, carried Parfitt from his bed to a chair just outside the front door to get some air. All he was wearing was his nightshirt and a coat.  Snook then returned to her own cottage, which was only about one hundred yards away, while Miss Parfitt went upstairs to tidy the invalid’s room. About fifteen minutes later, the sister came back down to discover that her brother had vanished. All that remained was his chair and the coat he had been wearing.

A search party was hastily organized, but no sign of him was found anywhere in the vicinity. It was impossible that he could have traveled any distance on his own, and there were no reports of any strangers in the area who might have, for whatever bizarre reason, kidnapped the old man. Owen Parfitt was just…gone. And no trace of him was ever seen again.

So, what happened to Parfitt? In other circumstances, it could be theorized that perhaps his sister, weary of what must have been the enormous work of caring for him, suddenly snapped and killed him, burying the body in some obscure location. However, Miss Parfitt was some fifteen years older than Owen, and, as I said, in poor health herself. It seems impossible that she could have killed and hidden him completely in such a short period of time. And what would be her motive? The siblings lived happily enough together, and her only source of income was the small amount she received by the local parish for her brother’s upkeep.

Did Parfitt have an enemy? He was probably not a very lovable man—his fellow villagers described him as a “wild boy” in his youth who remained “sometimes…violent.” Could someone with a long-held grudge get his revenge when Parfitt was alone and helpless?

Aside from the melodramatic unlikelihood of such a scenario, Parfitt’s cottage stood on a turnpike road, surrounded by other homes, and near the center of town. At the time he vanished, farmers very near by were doing their threshing, and the area was generally bustling with activity.  Who could have carried him away in such a short period of time, and without anyone noticing?

There is one curious postscript to this maddeningly inconclusive story: In 1813, a man who lived about 150 yards from Parfitt’s cottage was digging in his garden. Two feet down, he found a skeleton lying face downwards. He testified that “It seemed as if the person had been thrown in hastily, after death; for the skeleton lay all in a heap.”

The discovery caused a great deal of excitement. Had Owen Parfitt finally been found? Alas, doctors determined that the skeleton was of a young woman. This second mystery remained as impenetrable as the first.

Some fifty years after Parfitt's abrupt exit from the scene, investigators into the mystery found that most of his neighbors believed the crippled tailor had vanished through supernatural means.  The area in and around Shepton Mallet was rumored to be a hotbed of witchcraft activity. One villager claimed Parfitt boasted of having “associated with necromancers and magicians.” Common opinion had it that the Devil swooped in and spirited off his elderly disciple.

To date, no one has come up with a better explanation for Parfitt's disappearance.


  1. How strange! Did anyone find out who the young woman was?

    1. No, she was never positively identified.

  2. It seems unlikely that Parfitt's sister killed him, as all she needed to do was smother him in his bed, or poison his dinner; I doubt that anyone would have thought he'd died through violence. Causing a mystery would have been pointless. As in many of these cases, all I can do is suggest what didn't happen!


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