The Mystery of The Campden Wonder

Mar 21, 2022 0 comments

The year was 1660. In south west England’s Gloucestershire sat a small town called Chipping Campden—a single street rotting under soot and layers of history. The town was not one to make the front page news, but in that year, a tragic mystery unfolded in one of its ruinous houses that changed everything from the perspectives of its neighbours to the law of its land.

Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire. Photo: Colin Park/Wikimedia

‘The Campden Mystery’ or ‘The Campden Wonder’ revolves around the death, and subsequent return, of William Harrison that occurred in this very town. William was the steward to a homeowner named Viscountess Campden. During the years of the Civil War, her house had burnt down almost fully; The Viscountess did not live here anymore, but William occupied the last remaining part of it. At seventy years of age he was a married man, with a son named Edward. In retrospect, his disappearance has been considered to be a culmination of unusual events that transpired among the residents of the house. Threads still hang loose in the illogical story, all tying back on one end to the actions and behaviours of men that occurred in real time.

The Preceding Mishaps

A little earlier in 1659 a robbery at Harrison’s quarters was reported while his family was attending church one morning. According to reports, a ladder was placed against the wall of the house and the iron-clad window on the second storey was wrenched open. A total of £140 of Lady Campden’s money was stolen that day. As small as the town was, the robbers were never seen or found then or subsequently ever after.

The second event occurred in the garden of the house, where the servant, John Perry, was found shrieking in a state of agitation. He reported being attacked by two men dressed in white carrying bare swords. Strangely, John was able to defend himself against the lethal weapons with a sheep-pick he had on him. As expected, the two deviants were never discovered either.

Could this all have been a ruse to precede the main show? Maybe the inventions and imaginations were meant to set stage for what went down on that fateful autumn evening in 1660, but who’s to say.

On that day, William Harrison set out on foot to the neighbouring village of Charrington, where he was to collect rent from tenants of the Viscountess. Night was setting in, and around 8 o’ clock Mrs Harrison sent John Perry to meet his master somewhere halfway on the way back. But to her dismay, neither servant nor his master made it back home. The night passed in quiet anticipation, and only the next morning did her son Edward run out to meet John Perry, who was alone. The duo continued their search for the missing William Harrison.

It was revealed that Harisson had disappeared right after visiting a man in Ebrington—a town between Campden and Charrington. A hat, a band and a comb, all belonging to him, had been discovered by a woman not half a mile from his own house. The band had remnants of blood. Sir Thomas Overburry, the Gloucestershire magistrate who produced ‘A true and perfect account of the Examination, Confession, Trial, Condemnation, and Execution of Joan Perry, and her two sons, John and Richard Perry, for the supposed Murder of William Harrison, Gent. being one of the most remarkable Occurrences which hath happened in the Memory of Man, sent in a Letter (by Sir T. O. of Burton, in the County of Gloucester, Knight, and one of his Majesty's Justices of the Peace) to T. S. Doctor of Physick in London. Likewise Mr. Harrison's own Account, how he was conveyed into Turkey, and there made a slave for above two Years; and then, his Master, which bought him there, dying, how he made his Escape, and what Hardship he endured; who, at last, through the Providence of God, returned to England, while he was supposed to be murdered; of which John Perry his manservant was accused, who falsly impeached his own Mother and Brother as guilty of the Murder of his Master; they were all Three arraigned, convicted, and executed on Broadway-hills in Gloucestershire’ reported “The Hat and Comb being hacked and cut, and the Band bloody, but nothing more could there be found.” This meant that the paraphernalia was not on Harisson when it was tormented. It is believed that Sir Overburry was in charge of the investigation of the case at the time.

Naturally, the first person to be questioned was John Perry. In his account of the happenings, John was scared of the dark. At around 8.45pm he began for Charrington, but decided to back-track. The plan was to retrieve Harrison’s horse and set out on the trail once again. However time went by as fast as the wind, and John ended up procrastinating in the hen house and in the fields within Harrison’s house gates until midnight. That was when the moon decided to have mercy, and under its incandescence the servant set out to search for his master. The way was shrouded in dense mist, and he found it wiser to sleep it off by the pavement midway. He resumed the search at dawn, and soon met with Edward at Charrington with little developments to share. His tale was corroborated by two other men.

What Exactly Happened?

Detained during the investigation, Perry finally broke and promised to reveal the entire truth to Sir Overbury and no other man. But his accusations were as such: he, his brother and mother, Richard and Joan Perry, had murdered Harrison! He revealed that the both of them had often asked John to reveal when his master went out to collect rents. It was Richard who had robbed Harisson’s house while the family was at church, and the two men in white who had attacked Perry were a figment of imagination.

On that night of 16 August 1660, Harrison had in fact come back home from Charrington. But according to John Perry, the three of them had caught up with him on the grounds within the gates, strangled him and robbed him of his day’s collections. His body was dumped in a waste pool. Upon searching, no body was found there or in any other pool of the village. The mother and brother too denied the hysteric claims.

The incriminating evidence was a ball of inkle tape. After being questioned based on John’s account, Richard and his brother were being escorted back when Richard dropped the lacey ball on the way. John, in his honesty (or delusional falsehood?) confessed that it was the piece of linen his brother had strangled Harisson with. The three of them were thus indicted for robbery and murder. They pleaded guilty to the former charge, probably to avail the Act of Pardon and Oblivion which had been passed by Charles II. But that made them look even more guilty in the case of murder.

The trial for the second charge was not conducted immediately, as Harisson’s body had still not turned up. However, history suggests that by spring of 1661, a trial did occur, conducted by one Sir Robert Hyde, though the records of the same remained undisclosed. The trio was found guilty and sentenced to hang.

Sir Robert Hyde, who finally tried and hung the Perrys for murder

But the Plot Twists, Two Years Later

Many would have thought the case ended with the hangings. But two years later, everyone was proven wrong. In the village of Campden, as if out of thin air, reappeared William Harisson, hale and hearty. What had happened?

According to Harisson’s account, he had remained in Charrington till the fall of dusk on that fateful August day two years ago. This was because during the day, most tenants had been out harvesting. On his way back, he was called out by a horseman on the road, but wary of being hit by his horse, Harrison retaliated by hitting the animal. He was struck back by the rider with a sword. Two other horsemen joined him, and the three of them then abducted the gent by cuffing his hands and throwing him in the back of the carriage. Later that night, the kidnappers took the collected money from him and threw him in a stone pit, only to pull him back out a few hours later. At that moment, a large sum of money was stuffed into Harisson’s pockets, and the group rode till they arrived at Deal in Kent. Was the money to be smuggled upon his person? The clarity on that subject remained unclear.

The account, which seems shadier than that of John’s, gets only interesting. Harrison revealed that he was then boarded on a ship to be sold as a slave, and sailed for six weeks. He was finally sold to a Turkish doctor, while the fate of others like him remained elusive. The fact that a 70-year-old gent was considered a suitable candidate for slavery under an 86-year-old doctor seems implausible to say the least. But Harisson purportedly served him until his death. Upon his demise the slave made his way to the nearest port and traded his double-gilt silverware for a passage to Lisbon. From there, an Englishman was kind enough to take him to Dover.

‘The Campden Wonder’ remains a mystery for the numerous questions and loopholes in each of the accounts presented. While John’s account seems like that out of a lunatic’s head, Harrison’s account has been considered childish. No names of the skippers that transported him or the people that abducted him are presented. Some suggest that it was his son who had crafted the disappearance and framed John in order to take over the position of steward. But could he have relied on John confessing against his own kin? Others have wondered if the happenings were an extreme case of ambulatory somnambulism or split personality disorder. However, such an instance would hardly have gone unnoticed by crowds around the victim. The earliest account of the story occured in a pamphlet by Charles Tyus at the Three Bibles on London Bridge, which assumed the Perrys to be guilty. According to it, Harrison had disappeared because Joan Perry had transported him to Turkey through witchcraft.

The murder may have been imaginary, but the town was real, as were its people. The case also ended up influencing the law of the time, which was amended to ensure that no cases of murder were tried until the body of the victim was presented. It is now stated in the Principles of Criminal Law that “It is a rule of lone standing that upon merely circumstantial evidence a person is not to be convicted of murder or manslaughter, unless the body of the alleged victim has been found.”

# The Campden Wonder
# The Campden (rectius CAMPDEN) Wonder Notes & Queries
# Historical Mysteries by Andrew Lang
# True and Perfect Account by Sir Thomas Overbury


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