Chipping Campden is a quaint little town comprised of rustic, flaxen structures built of stone from the Cotswald Hills. Its most storied property is Campden House, a big country manor complete with proper English gardens. This estate, impressive as it was, did not survive the English Civil War intact. In 1645, the manor was occupied and fortified by Cavaliers, or royalist troops, for five months, and when they left their makeshift garrison, they set it on fire to prevent Roundheads, their Parliamentarian foes, from occupying it themselves. At this time, and afterward, the manor belonged to Lady Juliana Noel, Viscountess Campden. While she mostly resided in another family estate in Rutland, some of the outbuildings that still stood after the fire—stables and banquet halls—she had converted into residences, not only for herself but for the steward of her estate in Chipping Campden, one William Harrison, who still had to remain there after the fire in order to make his rounds and collect rents for the Viscountess. It is with this man that our story begins, in the year of 1660, after the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II, when William Harrison still remained living with his wife in their home among the burned-out ruins of the Manor of Campden. A man of seventy years old, he nevertheless still made his rounds on foot to collect his lady’s rents, and one day, he did not return. His vanishing began one of the most intriguing historical mysteries in English history, remembered even today as an unparalleled wonder.
On Thursday the 16th of August, William Harrison walked the two miles to nearby Charringworth to begin his collections. His wife expected him home before dark, so when the sun fell low, she started to worry that he had not yet returned. And she had good reason to worry, it seems. As idyllic a place as Chipping Campden may have been, there does appear to have been some crime in the village recently, and much of it centered on her home amidst the razed remains of Campden House. First, a year earlier, after attending a Puritan lecture at the church, she and her husband returned home to the ruinous estate to find a ladder leaning against their banquet hall residence, next to a second-story window, the bars of which had been wrenched away from the wall. Inside, they had found the blade of a plough, which they reasoned must have been used to pry the bars off. £140 had been stolen from the house, and they never had caught the burglars. And then, only a matter of weeks earlier, their servant, a simple boy in his twenties named John Perry who had served them for much of his life, had been attacked in their own garden by two ruffians dressed all in white. These assailants had brandished swords, and poor young Perry had been forced to parry their blades with the only weapon at hand, a pitchfork which afterward showed definite proof of having been hacked and cut. Fearing now that her husband might have been waylaid by the very same highwaymen, she called on John Perry and instructed him to go out and search for his employer. And so she waited, as the light of the sun faded from the sky entirely, and she put a light in the window, that her husband might find his way home, but neither William Harrison nor the servant boy John Perry returned that day.
The next day, William Harrison’s son set out to search for them, and on the road to Charringworth, he encountered John Perry alone. His father was not at Charringworth, Perry told him, so off they went to look for Harrison at Ebrington and then Paxford, questioning everyone they encountered. In this way, they heard that a woman, on her way to work in a field that morning, had found a comb, a collar, and a hat on the road between Ebrington and Chipping Campden. When Perry and his master’s son found the woman and asked to see what she’d found, they recognized that, indeed, they were William Harrison’s items, and were troubled to see that they appeared to be cut in some places and the collar bore a distinct spot of blood. The woman took them to where she had found the articles, but a search of the roadside shrubbery yielded no sign of the vanished steward of Campden House, and the two men returned crestfallen.
It took no time at all—perhaps only the length of their return journey, if Harrison’s son did not already suspect him—for blame to be laid on young John Perry’s shoulders, for had he not been out all night with nothing to show for his search? Surely Perry had found his master alone on the road outside of Ebrington and, finding the seventy-year-old vulnerable there in the dark, his purse full of the rents he had collected, the servant seized this opportunity to rob his master and blame it on highwaymen. After all, he came from a poor family; his mother Joan had been widowed for years and never remarried, and what was worse were the rumors that she may have been a witch. When his master’s residence had been burgled the year before, some of course had whispered that John Perry likely knew where the money was kept in the house and when his master would be away, and his family certainly would benefit from such a windfall, but nothing had come of those rumors. And his recent claims to have been assaulted in the garden had likewise been met with skepticism, seeing as how, despite all the cuts on his pitchfork, John Perry himself had not received a single nick. In short, he seemed the likeliest of suspects, especially given the fact that Mrs. Harrison, so worried for her husband’s welfare on the road alone at night with all that money, had essentially pointed out the opportunity to their servant boy and sent him on his way to take it.
Within a day, John Perry stood examination before a Justice of the Peace. By his account, which he seemed to piece together in direct response to specific challenges to his story, he claimed to have walked some way toward Charringworth before turning back because of the growing darkness. He testified to having encountered one William Reed, who walked with him back to Campden House before taking his leave. It is not clear then why Perry did not announce his return to Mrs. Harrison nor try to get his master’s horse and go out searching again, as had been his stated intention. Thereafter, he saw a man named John Pearce, and walked with him in a field, although why he did so is also unclear, since it certainly had not been to search for his master. After Pearce left him at the Campden House gate, again, he did not return to his mistress or fetch the horse from the stable but rather lay in the hen-house for an hour. Afterward, when he heard church bell strike midnight, he rose and went out onto the road again to resume his search. When challenged about his behavior, he explained that while it had been dark previously, after his rest in the hen-roost, a bright moon had risen, giving him the courage to continue his endeavor. This was not long to last, however, for he soon became lost in a dense mist and chose to sleep the night under a roadside hedge. At first light, he rose and continued on to Charringworth, where he discovered that his master had collected only £23 from one tenant before setting out for home. It was after this, John Perry testified, that he himself had set out for home and thereafter encountered his master’s son on the path, whence they continued their search.
As much as the Justice may have wanted to disbelieve John Perry, everyone who thereafter gave evidence—William Reed, John Pearce, the tenants he visited in the morning—all corroborated his version of events. Still, it was the gaps that troubled one. What had Perry been doing when he tarried back at the Campden House gates and during that time when he claimed to have lain in the henhouse? And upon resuming his search, had he really, a native of the area, lost his way in a mist and slept beneath a bush? With these remaining doubts in mind, the Justice ordered Perry to be kept prisoner and further questioned, and for a week, young John Perry was interrogated under such circumstances as we cannot know. Was he treated kindly or brutalized? Were his statements taken in good faith, or did his captors torture him until they received an account that accorded well with their own suppositions? Whatever the nature of his week-long incarceration, we do know that John Perry changed his story, and more than once. He suggested, variously, that the servant of some other gentleman had robbed and killed William Harrison, or that some itinerant repairman had perhaps done him in. Then he told his captors that they’d find the old man’s body in a certain bean pile, but no sign of his remains were uncovered there when authorities dug around in it. Finally, Perry said he would confess to the Justice of the Peace, and brought again before him, the servant boy said that he did indeed have knowledge of his master’s murder, and that it was his brother, Richard, and their mother, Joan, who had done the deed.
The picture John Perry now painted was one of a desperate and poverty-stricken family. His brother had been the head of the family since their father had died, and had children of his own as well to provide for. According to John, Richard and his mother troubled him greatly to help them rob William Harrison. A year earlier, while John had been at church with his master, Richard had burgled the Harrisons and afterward buried the money. Unfortunately, he could not thereafter find where he had buried it, and so the family continued to harass poor John, demanding that he tell them when his master went out to make his collections. Young John refused, but eventually, he gave in. Thinking ahead, he built a narrative complete with two bogus suspects by staging the assault by white-clad swordsmen in the garden. Then, on the morning of the 16th of August, he told his family that his master would be leaving to collect rents that day. Then, by sheer coincidence it would seem, Mr. Harrison was late in returning and Mrs. Harrison sent John Perry to look for him. Thereupon, John met with his brother Richard, and the two of them went out searching for his master with ill intent. Having seen someone enter a plot of land called the Conygree owned by Lady Campden by a gate to which his master had a key, and knowing this to be a shortcut back to the Harrison residence, John Perry pointed his brother after the figure but stayed behind himself, not wanting to be seen by his master. After walking in the fields for a time, he eventually went himself into the Conygree and found his brother and his mother standing over the prostrate form of his master, who cowered in fear for his life. By John Perry’s telling, his brother Richard called the old steward a fool and strangled him to death. Then he took the man’s purse and tossed it onto his mother’s lap. Wondering what to do with the body, John Perry suggested they drag it off to a pit that lay near a mill back of the garden, while he himself went to the gate to act the lookout. It was then he would encounter John Pearce, he said, and afterward, having taken his master’s hat, comb, and collar band, he cut them and planted them out on the highway to create a false trail.
Now besides the first problem, being the oddness that Perry and his brother waited until after Harrison was already apparently missing to go out looking to rob him, there were some other issues with his testimony. The first is that the corroborative testimony of William Reed seems to contradict Perry’s confession. While the story accords well with John Pearce’s testimony that he ran into John Perry at the gate and they walked into the fields for a time, and even gives a sufficient explanation for this excursion, since it would seem now that Perry, as a lookout, was just trying lead Pearce away from the scene of the crime, Reed’s testimony confirmed that Perry had met him a furlong away from Campden House on the highway to Charringworth. According to both of them, before Perry’s subsequent confession, they had walked back together, and John’s brother Richard Perry does not appear to have been in their company. Certainly when Richard and their mother Joan were thereafter arrested, they denied John’s claims as outright villainous lies, and when authorities dragged the pit behind the garden and searched the rest of the grounds thereabout, they found no body. So it would seem there was no concrete evidence whatsoever to prove John Perry’s new version of events. Nevertheless, as John Perry insisted that it was the truth, all three of them were kept in custody, and while being marched from the examination by the Justice back to their places of confinement, a balled up wad of what’s called inkle fell from Richard’s pocket. Inkle is a narrow woven band, like colored linen tape, and Richard claimed it was just a bit of lace that his wife used in her hair. His brother and accuser, however, begged to differ, for John Perry said he recognized it and the slipknot on one end of it: it was the very garrote Richard had used to strangle William Harrison. And the next day, as the prisoners were again led from their cells to attend a church service, they happened to pass by Richard’s house, where his children ran out to him as he passed. It is said that upon entering his embrace, both of his children suffered sudden nosebleeds. This was a certain sign, the townsfolk asserted, that Mother Joan Perry had bewitched her whole family into doing her evil bidding.
Importantly, before their case came to trial, Parliament passed “An Act of Free and General Pardon, Indemnity, and Oblivion,” which issued a general pardon for any crime committed during the Civil War and the subsequent Interregnum prior to the Glorious Restoration, barring such crimes as buggery, rape, murder, piracy, and witchcraft. When it came time in September to face their charges, their judge refused to hear the charge of murder while still there remained no corpse and therefore no corpus delicti, but they still faced the charge of burglary. However, as the crime had occurred the previous year, it fell under the pardon of the Act of Oblivion, so the Perrys were urged to spare themselves and the court the time and expense of trying them since if they would just plead guilty, they could be pardoned. This they did, but remained incarcerated, during which time John Perry not only continued to insist on his family’s guilt but also to accuse his mother and brother of trying to murder him by poison while he was in custody! The following spring, a new judge decided that they could be tried for William Harrison’s murder, since presumably if Harrison were indeed alive, he would have returned by then, but being now charged in the murder himself, as a clear accomplice to the crime, John Perry suddenly recanted his confession, saying he had been suffering a bout of madness when he had accused his brother and mother. This judge, however, viewed the Perrys as manifest criminals who had already confessed to burglarizing the supposed murder victim. It didn’t matter to him that they had only pleaded guilty to that crime on the court’s advice and had always maintained their innocence in the matter. And after all, how could any plea of innocence or any recantation be believed when it was popularly held that their witch mother was controlling them like puppets? He found the three of them guilty, and within days, the Perrys were marched up a hill outside Chipping Campden to a hastily erected gibbet. Joan Perry climbed the ladder first, for many believed that as soon as she was executed, her enchantment of her sons would cease and they would confess all. With their mother dangling, though, they only reasserted their innocence. Next they hanged Richard, who went to the noose pleading for his brother to make some confession that might exonerate him. John told the crowd angrily that he held no obligation to offer them any satisfaction, and he watched his brother hang. As he climbed the gibbet himself, he provoked the bloodthirsty, screaming crowd, shouting that, although he knew nothing about his master’s fate, they might in the future discover something about it. John Perry’s body remained there, hanging in chains from the gibbet on the hill until it had putrefied and decayed entirely.
Two years later, and John Perry’s final words rang true, for at the old age of seventy-two, William Harrison returned to Campden with an astounding, if not entirely incredible, story to explain his absence. As three people had been publicly executed for his murder, it is no surprise that some official account was demanded of him, and thus we have the particulars of his adventure put down in a letter for all posterity. William Harrison claimed to have been walking late on the highway near Ebrington after his trip to Charringworth collecting for his Lady Campden, when a horseman rode near and accosted him so closely that he felt obliged to punch the horse in its nose! The rider then struck him with a sword—the implication being that this was when his hat and collar had been cut off him—and though he tried to defend himself with his cane, the scoundrel stabbed him in the side. Then another man appeared behind him, stabbed him in the thigh, and dragged him into the bushes. In all, there were three men whom he expected to simply rob him of the meager £23 he carried, but instead they put a cloak on him, sat him on a horse behind one of the riders, manacled his hands around the man’s waist, and rode away with him. They stopped at a haystack, finally taking his money off of him and tossing him into a nearby stone pit. An hour later, they called him out, stuffed his pockets full of an even greater quantity of money than they had taken from him, and handcuffed him on the horse as before. After a long ride, the old man was nearly dead, he says, from having to carry all their money, although one would think the sword wounds in his side and thigh would be bothering him far more than some bruising from heavy coinage. They stopped at a lonely house, where a woman commented that he was at death’s door, but after one night on cushions, with the application of some hot broth, he apparently proved healthy enough to resume their journey. So his story went. His abductors spirited him from one vaguely described house to another until they reached Deal, on the Kentish coast, some 160 miles or 260 kilometers from Chipping Campden. There, Harrison claims to have heard them talk to a man named Wrenshaw about a matter of seven pounds, and he heard Wrenshaw express anxiety that Harrison would die before he could manage to get him on board a boat, which presently they set about accomplishing. Harrison remained aboard this ship for six weeks among others “who were in the same condition,” meaning, we must assume, others who had been abducted and sold into shipboard labor, it would seem. One wonders if all these were also grievously wounded seventy-year-old men, and if so, how poorly crewed this vessel must have been.
When two Turkish ships approached their boat, Harrison and the other captives, oddly enough, were eager to fight for their captors, but in the end were simply given to them. In the dark hold of a Turkish ship, they endured an interminable voyage, and after disembarking, were led on a two-day journey to a prison in which they passed four days before some prospective buyers came to scrutinize them. He and the other prisoners told of their skills, and based on some knowledge Harrison professed to have, a physician some 17 years his senior took him to his home near Smirna to tend his distillery. The old doctor had apparently lived in England for a time, and notwithstanding some infrequent abuse, he took a shine to old Harrison, gifting him a gilded silver bowl to drink from. Upon his master’s death, Harrison appears to have been set free, though when he went to seek passage aboard a ship, all seemed fearful of the “searchers” who might find this old slave aboard their vessel and for this reason take not only their goods but their lives as well. Nevertheless, when they caught sight of his gilded silver bowl, the sailors of one ship agreed to hide him, and so he found his way to Spain, whereupon he encountered some kind countrymen who generously brought him back to the shores of Dover and merry old England. From thence, homeward William Harrison made his way.
Or so his story goes…. But can it be credited? Why, upon finding that the seventy-year-old codger they had just waylaid only had £23 on him, would these highwaymen then think they could get any money for him as a slave? Were highwaymen in rural England even in the business of enslaving their victims? If so, surely they’d seek out the young and able-bodied to fetch a higher price. And certainly they’d not keep running him through with their swords if they intended to sell him as slave labor! And even if these rogues were daft enough to think this a sound money-making scheme, why on earth would the buyer in Deal think the dying old man was worth anything? Likewise the Turkish pirates who took him thereafter, and the even older doctor after that. Why was this 70-year-old Englishman in such high demand? If one begins to doubt his tale, there’s not much to go on in trying to disprove it. His description of every stop on his journey is sorely lacking in detail. He mentions one name, a Wrenshaw in Deal who seems to be involved in the slave labor market, but nothing beyond that, not even a name for the old physician in Smirna with whom he lived nearly two years. His account, plainly speaking, is far more ridiculous than any lie told by John Perry in his absence. In this way, many have pondered the details of what has come to be known, since it was first set down more than a decade later in a pamphlet written by the Justice of the Peace who had first examined John Perry, as the Campden Wonder. Was there truth to any of the allegations against the Perrys? If they hadn’t murdered Harrison, had they burgled him? If he had been lying, why had he falsely accused his own family? Was he coerced or did he suffer from a mental illness that caused him to crave the attention a confession would bring him? And what of the white-clad men who accosted him in the garden? If it had been a lie that he had lied about them, then were they real? Could they have been the highwaymen who abducted William Harrison? Or, if you cannot believe Harrison’s wild story, perhaps every person involved was lying. If so, what was Harrison really doing in those two years? Had he merely abandoned his family and then returned with a ridiculous cover story? Or had he been away on some clandestine business for Lady Campden? Unlikely, as those would seem to be the kinds of adventures a young man would seek, not a septuagenarian. Had his wife known of his doings? Some locals claimed that after her death, they found a letter in her possession that had been sent to her by her missing husband before the Perrys’ hanging. This would certainly tend to discredit Harrison’s tale of abduction and enslavement and may have even hinted at his true activities, which must have been sensitive indeed for Mrs. Harrison to let three innocents go to the gallows in order to keep them secret, but the letter has never been produced.
An explanation appealing to me is that perhaps the Perrys or the mystery men in the garden had killed the old man out on the highway at night, and the man who returned two years later was not William Harrison at all, but rather an impostor taking advantage of the situation. People, after all, tend to forget a face after years of its absence, especially in a time before photographs, and any change in his appearance could easily have been dismissed as being due to the extreme circumstances he had endured. One could argue that his family would certainly know Harrison, but it has been suggested that his son may have conspired to do away with the old man in order to take the stewardship of Lady Campden’s lands for himself. Perhaps he and this returned Harrison had an arrangement. But what about his wife, you might protest. Well, there have been other examples in history of widows accepting impostors as their returned husbands for the simple reason that women relied on their husbands to provide for them. Going along with the idea that your husband had returned was a simple escape from widowhood. Some historians point to signatures left by Harrison both before and after his return as proof that it was the same man. I’m no handwriting expert, and I do see the distinct similarities, of course, but to me, there does appear to be a marked difference in the “s” after his return, which before his disappearance was looped into the subsequent “O” but afterward appears to have been formed with two strokes and not looped into the next letter at all. What is further troubling and intriguing are the reports that after William Harrison returned, Mrs. Harrison hanged herself. Could this be an indication that her husband was an impostor who kept her silent by threatening her, such that her only escape was death? Or perhaps that she felt such guilt for her complicity in the fraud of her husband’s survival that she could no longer take it? Like most analysis of the case of the Campden Wonder, this is pure conjecture. Maybe her guilt was over the demise of the Perrys. Maybe she suffered from some illness and sought relief from pain in death. Or maybe she endured some pronounced melancholy with no discernible cause. Perhaps she did not commit suicide at all, and this was just a vile rumor. We simply don’t know. Like many blind spots in history, trying to make coherent sense of this story is like attempting to assemble a single puzzle using a pile of pieces from two different puzzles. Some parts may fit together nicely and encourage you to keep sifting through and searching, but you will never piece together a clear picture.