The Curious Case of the Campden Wonder

Double Nooses in Gallows in a Courtyard - path includedOn the 16th of August, 1660, an approximately 70 year old William Harrison walked toward the village of Charingworth, about two miles from Chipping Campden, with the intention of collecting rent for his employer, the Lady Viscountess Campden. When he failed to return home, Harrison’s wife sent out their servant, John Perry, to find him, but neither man returned that evening.

Becoming more alarmed, Harrison’s son, Edward, went looking for his father and Perry the next morning, and finally found John Perry on the road to Charingworth, but the latter explained that he had not found the elder Harrison. The two then set out to Ebrington where they found tenants Harrison was to have visited and learned that Harrison had, in fact, made contact with them, but no sign of him was otherwise found. That is, until William Harrison’s blood-stained collar, hat and comb were found along the road.

Seemingly at least partially owing to John Perry inexplicably not returning the night he went out searching for Harrison, suspicion soon fell on him and rumors started that he had murdered his master.

When first interrogated, Perry explained the reason he had not returned that night was because he got lost.  You see, when first ordered to go out into the night to search for Harrison, Perry claimed he was too scared to do it owing to it being completely dark. Thus, after a brief walk about, he instead went and hid in his master’s hen house.  Around midnight, however, the moon came out providing enough light to search by. But in the process of searching, a mist descended causing him to get lost.  He then went to sleep under a bush for the night and resumed his search the next day, at which point Edward Harrison found him. He otherwise claimed he had no knowledge of what had happened to the elder Harrison.

The magistrate being unsatisfied with this story, Perry was detained while further investigation could take place.

Approximately a week later, with little progress in the case, Perry was subjected to additional interrogation. Initially, he stuck to his story, but later changed his tune.

It’s important to note here that it may be that subsequent interrogations were of the strong-armed variety (as was very common at the time), or he might have simply been scared he’d be tried for murder so wanted to shift the blame to anyone else. Whatever the case, during the subsequent interrogation, Perry supposedly intimated that a Tinker had killed Harrison and later that he knew a servant of an unnamed Gentleman had robbed and murdered Harrison.

In yet another interrogation after this, Perry finally cracked, claiming that his mother, Joan, and brother, Richard, had waited until Harrison had finished collecting rents and then robbed and killed him, dumping his body in a pond. He even gave a detailed account of the event, including his own involvement in it, telling his brother when to expect Harrison and where. He also stated after Harrison had been attacked, he encountered his mother, brother, and the unconscious Harrison. To quote the confession as recounted by magistrate Sir Thomas Overbury in his 1676 account of the event,

At which he told his Brother, he hoped he would not kill his Master; who replied, Peasce, Peace, you’re a Fool, and so strangled him; which having done, he took a Bag of Money out of his Pocket, and threw it into his Mother’s Lap, and then he and his Brother carried his Master’s dead Body into the Garden, adjoining to the Conygree, where they consulted what to do with it; and, at length, agreed to throw it into the great Sink, by Wallington’s Mill…

He then stated his mother told him to return to his master’s house to see if anyone had grown suspicious of Harrison’s absence. He later claimed to have taken the bloodied hat, collar, and comb, slashed them with a knife and then placed them along the road so it would be assumed Harrison had been robbed and murdered there.

When brought in for questioning, Joan and Richard Perry denied the entire story, and although the pond was dredged, no body was found.

As Joan and Richard did not have an alibi during the night in question and John Perry seemingly would have no reason to implicate himself in murdering a man, all three Perry’s were arrested for the murder of William Harrison. However, owing to the lack of a body or clear evidence that a murder had taken place at all, the presiding judge in the case, Sir Christopher Turner, ultimately refused to prosecute the three for murder.

That said, about a year previous, the Harrison household had been robbed of £140. Given John Perry’s assertion that his family had been continually pressuring him to rob the Harrisons and that they themselves supposedly had intent to do so, John Perry was questioned about the former robbery. He then affirmed that his brother had committed the robbery and, while John himself wasn’t directly involved in the act, he had told his brother where the money was kept.  After stealing the money, it was supposedly buried in Perry’s garden with the intent of digging it up during the next Feast of Archangels, long after most would have forgotten about the robbery.

The timing of this meant that the money should still have been buried in the garden when John Perry was confessing this, but when the garden was searched, no money was found.

Interestingly, despite no evidence whatsoever that the Perrys had robbed the Harrisons the year previous other than John Perry’s assertion, and despite that Perry’s mother and brother denied that they had done this, all three pled guilty on the robbery charge.

Why?

Well, as for John, he’d already implicated himself as an accomplice, so it was natural enough that he would then plead guilty. His mother and brother were a different matter.  They initially pled not guilty, but within minutes of this changed their plea to guilty.

It appears they were advised to do this and to ask for a pardon under the Indemnity and Oblivion Act of 1660 as a time saving measure for the court. In a nutshell, this Act was a general pardon for anyone who had committed a crime during the Civil War and Interregnum so long as said crime wasn’t unlicensed murder, rape, piracy, witchcraft, sodomy, or bestiality.

Thanks to this, if the three pled guilty and asked for a pardon, they would not receive any punishment whatsoever and the court wouldn’t have to waste time in attempting to prosecute the case. Thus, they pled guilty and were immediately let go.

This act likely cost the three their lives.

You see, when Harrison still hadn’t turned up by the spring of 1661, it was decided that he must have been murdered.  Because the three had pled guilty to robbing Harrison previously; Harrison had been known to have been carrying significant rent money on the night in question; at least John Perry had known this fact and the route Harrison would be taking; and Harrison’s bloodied items had been found, it was decided there was sufficient evidence to try the three for Harrison’s murder.

Despite proclaiming their innocence, the judge, Sir Robert Hyde, and jury didn’t buy it. The three were convicted of murder and hanged together in Gloucestershire on Broadway Hill.

Since Joan had also been suspected of being a witch, she was, naturally, hanged first in the hopes that any spell on her sons would be lifted by her death, allowing them to confess to the murder. But in all three cases, the trio, including John, professed their innocence right up to their short drop and sudden stop. John even recanted his former story, saying he made it up and actually knew nothing of what happened to Harrison.

And, it turns out, they were telling the truth. Approximately one year after they were hanged, William Harrison returned to Chipping Campden alive and well.

So where had he been all that time? He claimed that he had been robbed and kidnapped by two men on horseback. During the ensuing melee, the elderly man also claims to have been stabbed in the thigh and side.

After this, he states he was sold for seven pounds to a group who dealt in human trafficking. He was then placed aboard a ship to presumably be sold into slavery. It was while aboard the ship for an inexplicably long six weeks that he was nursed back to health. However, in route to whatever destination, the slave ship was attacked around North Africa by Turkish pirates, who then took Harrison and the rest aboard and sold them into slavery.  As for Harrison, he claims to have been sold to an elderly doctor in Smyrna (modern day Izmir, Turkey).

His time as an assistant to the doctor was cut short, however, after only about a year when his new master died. After this, he claimed that he used a silver bowl his master had given him to gain passage on a Portuguese ship returning home. In Portugal, he encountered a fellow Englishman who took pity on him, providing him money for food and passage back to England.

As you might expect, while this sort of kidnapping wasn’t totally unheard of, the idea of someone choosing to kidnap a man about 70 years old at the time of his abduction (so little value on the slave market, even if not near death from being stabbed) is generally considered a bit suspect. Certainly the rent money he was carrying would have been worth the robbery part, but the trouble and additional risk in transporting and selling him to the slaver group wouldn’t have been worth the seven pounds they supposedly got for him.

Because of this, it’s speculated that perhaps he simply skipped town with the money he’d been collecting for his master and left his bloodied items behind to make people think he’d been killed. However, the aforementioned Sir Thomas Overbury notes that this seems unlikely given the elderly Harrison was reasonably well off in his current profession already. He also hadn’t taken any of the considerable sum of money he’d himself accumulated over his lifetime. On top of this, he was well respected and had a good reputation around town, including having always seemed happy with his station, even up to his disappearance.

Sir Thomas does speculate that perhaps someone hired the supposed kidnappers to attack Harrison and get him out of the way, explaining why such might bother to kidnap such an elderly individual in the first place. Sir Thomas thought the prime suspect in that scenario would perhaps be Harrison’s son, hoping to get Harrison’s job, though even this is a bit of a stretch given the known facts of the case.

Curiously, a couple weeks before Harrison’s disappearance, there is record of John Perry reporting being attacked along the road by two men wielding swords, though he ultimately managed to escape. During his later interrogation for murder, however, he changed his story and said he’d made the whole thing up with a mind to use the story to remove suspicion from himself and his family when they later would rob and murder Harrison.

Whatever really happened, despite magistrate Sir Thomas Overbury noting that at least some at the time thought Harrison’s story farfetched, there doesn’t seem to be any record of anyone interrogating him further about it and he was also given his old job back and resumed his duties.

As you might imagine, the fact that the justice system had executed a trio of people for the murder of William Harrison when he hadn’t been murdered resulted in a bit of a public outcry. It’s often stated that, as a result of this injustice, the English courts instituted a new criminal rule “No body, no murder”- a law that supposedly stayed in place for some three centuries after, being rescinded during the 20th century.

However, we could find no such record of any such specific “no body, no murder” law being instituted and there are certainly plenty of cases of people being convicted of murder in England in the interim when no body was found. Any such law would also have created a huge loophole to relatively easily get away with murder- you’d just needed to be really good at hiding the remains, which wouldn’t have been difficult. For example, for a time things like medical schools and the like would not only pay you for said body with no questions asked, but generally keep quiet about everything and dispose of the body themselves in a way that the remains wouldn’t be identifiable. (This is actually the impetus for the infamous Burke and Hare murders that occurred in Scotland during the 19th century.)

That said, corpus deliciti did exist which is a similar concept to this “no body, no murder” idea, but in this case a physical body is not actually required.  You just need sufficient evidence that a murder occurred, which may include an actual body, but could also simply be testimonial evidence. Essentially, you just needed a body of evidence to show a murder had taken place, rather than an actual physical body being required, which is perhaps where the aforementioned apparent “no body, no murder” misconception comes from.

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6 comments

  • In the 8th paragraph, I think you meant Perry finally cracked. Harrison was the victim.

  • Charles Blakeney

    Couldn’t find a picture with nooses?

  • Charles Blakeney

    Three nooses!

  • Let me suggest my own solution: Harrison has grown sick of his humdrum life. Perhaps he’s found some woman who claims she loves him; he wants to run away with her. But he feels a serve of duty to his wife and son, whom he does not wish to leave destitute. So, faking his own death, he leaves the town and possibly the country, taking with him only the tent money, which may have considerably exceeded the 23 pounds he claimed, and which in any case would go a long way over 450 years ago.

    A year later, the dream has faded. Probably, the woman turns out to have been interested only in his money, which she assumed would have included most of his old savings; at the very least, his advanced age holds no further interest for her. Destitute, disillusioned, and with no way of providing for himself, he returns home with a fanciful story*, which is believed because it’s convenient to believe.

    (*One extremely fanciful aspect of the story the author of this article didn’t mention: Harrison claimed his kidnappers had stuffed his pocket with money. Why on earth would they do that?)

    How’s this for a solution?

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