"...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, September 30, 2013

The Campden Wonder

17th century Market Hall, Chipping Campden. Via Wikipedia.

The market-town of Chipping Campden, nestled near the Cotswold Hills, was the quintessential quaint little English village. It was a quiet, out-of-the-way place, largely overlooked by the outside world. It would be completely anonymous, if not for the fact that in the 17th century, it was the site of one of the most baffling episodes in criminal history, popularly known as “The Campden Wonder.”

The story opens on August 16th, 1660. On that day, an elderly steward named William Harrison set out to collect rent money owed to his employer, Juliana Hicks, Vicountess Campden. Harrison headed towards Charingworth, a village about two miles away. It was expected that he would not be gone for long, so when by the end of the day, Harrison had yet to return, his wife became alarmed and sent his servant, John Perry, out to search for him.

By the following morning, both men were still absent, so Harrison’s son Edward ventured out to see what was amiss. Along the road to Charingworth he met Perry, who told him of his failure to find any trace of William. When they made inquiries in the neighboring village of Ebrington, they were told that Harrison had been there the evening before, calling on a man named Edward Plaisterer, after which he set out on the road to Campden.

That was the last anyone had seen of William Harrison. However, an ominous clue regarding his disappearance soon emerged. On a lonely road between Ebrington and Campden, Harrison’s hat and collar-band were found, torn and blood-stained. The immediate assumption was that the old man was waylaid, robbed, and murdered. A search was made throughout the countryside for his body, but no further trace of him was discovered.

Everyone’s prime suspect in Harrison’s presumed murder was John Perry. The place where Harrison’s belongings were found was just where the servant would have met Harrison on his return from Ebington. Perry would have known his master was carrying a large sum of money from his rent-collecting. And why did Perry stay out all night, rather than returning to Campden when his search for Harrison proved futile?

Perry was quickly arrested and brought before a justice of the peace for questioning. The story he gave was this: On the night of Harrison’s disappearance, he walked towards Charingworth. Along the way, he met an acquaintance named William Reed. As Perry was nervous about walking alone on this dark road at night, he returned with Reed to Campden. He started out again, in the company of someone named Pearce, but after going only a short distance, went back to his village. He took shelter in Lady Campden’s hen-roost until about midnight, when the moon rose. The moonlight gave him the nerve to resume his search. However, a fog developed that caused him to lose his way. He spent the rest of the night under a bridge. At dawn, he went to Charingworth, where he made a number of inquiries about his master, with little success. On his return home, he met Edward Harrison.

Although Reed, Pearce, and Plaisterer were able to confirm at least their parts of Perry’s story, the authorities were not at all convinced of the suspect’s innocence, and he remained in custody. After about a week, Perry asked to see the justice. He had, he claimed, something to say to him that he would not disclose to anyone else.

As it turned out, Perry wished to confess to William Harrison’s murder. And he named his mother, Joan Perry, and his brother Richard as instigators of the evil deed. According to his account, Joan and Richard were constantly nagging him to join them in robbing his master when Harrison returned from a round of rent-collecting. Finally, he agreed. On the fatal day when Harrison set out for Charingworth, John tipped off Richard about the errand. That evening, when his mistress ordered him to look for Harrison, the brothers Perry set out together. When they spotted Harrison walking through a field, John told Richard that “if he followed him he might have his money.” The squeamish John then went off to “walk a turn in the fields.” When he returned, he saw Harrison lying on the ground, with Joan and Richard standing over him. He heard William moan, “Ah, rogues! Will you kill me!” John begged his relatives to spare the old man’s life. Richard responded with a contemptuous, “Peace, peace, you are a fool.” He then strangled Harrison to death.

Richard took Harrison’s bag of money from the corpse. The Perrys then carried the body over to a nearby cesspool. John again timorously left the scene. He said he assumed his mother and brother dumped the body in the cesspool, but he could not say for sure what they did with Harrison’s remains. He then went back to town, where he met Pearce and walked with him towards Charingworth. John then returned to the hen-roost, where he cut Harrison’s hat and collar with a knife and threw them into the road. Perry added that his brother had also been responsible for a burglary of Harrison’s house which had occurred the previous year.

After this bombshell, another rigorous search was made for Harrison’s body—a search that included the cesspool in question—but this, like the earlier hunt, was completely unsuccessful.

A strange incident from a few weeks before Harrison’s disappearance was now recalled. One evening, John Perry was heard to cry out in the garden of Hicks’ estate. When some people came running to find the cause of this disturbance, they found Perry standing with a sheep-pick in his hand. He claimed that two men in white had attacked him with swords. When asked about the incident, Perry now said that he had invented the story, to make people think thieves were in the area. He hoped these fictional criminals would get the blame for the earlier burglary of Harrison’s house, as well as his intended upcoming robbery. John claimed he had mutilated Harrison's hat and collar for the same reason.

When Joan and Richard Perry were taken into custody, they vehemently denied their guilt and denounced John for implicating them in murder and burglary. However, he stuck to his damning story with equal vigor. At the next assizes, the trio was put on trial. In the courtroom, however, John Perry gave everyone a further surprise. Like his mother and brother, he pled “not guilty,” claiming that when he made his confession, he was “then mad, and knew not what he said.”

Unfortunately, no records of the trial survive, so we are ignorant of what, if any, evidence other than John’s now-disowned confession was brought against the defendants. All we know is that the Perrys were found guilty and hanged. As Joan was believed to be a witch who had used her black arts to prevent John and Richard from confessing, she was executed first. The hope was that after she was dead, her sons would be “free” to admit their guilt. A contemporary account relates that while Richard stood on the scaffold, he “professed, as he had done all along, that he was wholly innocent of the fact for which he was then to die; and that he knew nothing of Mr. Harrison’s death, nor what was become of him; and did with great earnestness beg and beseech his brother (for the satisfaction of the whole world and his own conscience) to declare what he knew concerning him.” When it was John’s turn to die, he merely said “with a dogged and surly carriage” that he “knew nothing of his master’s death, nor what was become of him, but they might hereafter possibly hear.”

Everyone most certainly did hear what became of the steward, albeit a little late to be of any use to the Perrys. Two years after his murder, William Harrison returned to Campden, alive and well. The story he gave to account for his disappearance is, amazingly, the most utterly unbelievable part of this already utterly unbelievable story. In brief, Harrison stated that while returning from his rent-collecting expedition, two men on horseback attacked him with swords and kidnapped him. They brought him to the port city of Deal, where they put him on a ship, which sailed off in a direction unknown to Harrison. During their voyage, the ship encountered three Turkish vessels. He was among the men captured by these ships, and Harrison was eventually sold as a slave to a physician in Smyrna. After about a year, his master died, leaving Harrison to shift for himself. He made his way to a nearby port, where he used a silver bowl from his ex-master’s house to buy passage on a ship bound for Portugal. After they arrived in Lisbon, he encountered a fellow Englishman. This man took pity on Harrison’s plight, gave him money, and arranged his passage on a ship heading for England.

That, as far as we know, is the end of the tale of the Campden Wonder, leaving generations of historians to scratch their heads and struggle to understand just what in hell happened. Harrison’s story is, to say the least, unlikely, but we have absolutely no idea why he vanished, or where he was for two years. And why did John Perry condemn to death not only himself, but his mother and brother, for a murder that oh-so-obviously never took place?

Despite close to four centuries of trying, no one has come up with satisfactory answers to these questions. All that can be said is that it’s virtually certain no one ever will.


  1. Interesting story! Could be made into a novel.

    1. It has been dramatized a number of times over the centuries, but I have no idea what their "solutions" to the mystery might have been.

  2. It's a good story, certainly, but I'm a bit confused about Robert and Richard, who seem both to be the same brother of John.

    1. Sorry! There was just the one brother, Richard. God knows what sort of brain blip accounted for "Robert." Thanks for pointing that out; I should probably appoint you as my copy-editor.

  3. As an occasional author of detective stories, let me try my hand.

    William Harrison, flush with money from the rent collection, elderly and sick and tired of his humdrum life, has a brainwave. He decides to decamp with the rent money and disappear, faking his own death. Two years later, the money having run out and life on the Great Outside not measuring up to fantasy, he returns. In order to cover his own tracks he invents the abduction story, using as inspiration the sword attach story of his servant a few days earlier.

    John Perry, in the meantime, is a man whose mental faculties are not of the highest. He has, especially, difficulty in separating fact from imagination, and readily convinces himself of the truth of things that he has only imagined (the sword attack, for example). Under imprisonment, he eventually constructs a fantasy tale of what happened to his employer, and convinces himself of its veracity.

    The authorities are looking for a scapegoat in the meantime; a working class person, eminently disposable, is at hand, and the whole affair can be disposed of. Why should they look further?


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