The Campden Wonder
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The Campden Wonder is the name given to events surrounding the return of a man thought murdered from the town of Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, in the 17th century. A servant, his mother and brother were hanged for killing their master. But following the man's return, it became clear that no murder ever took place despite testimony attesting to the crime by the accused. The story attracted popular attention in England in the years 1660–1662.
On August 16, 1660, 70-year-old William Harrison left his home in Campden intending to walk two miles to the village of Charingworth. But when he did not return at the expected time, his wife sent his manservant John Perry to look for him. Neither Harrison nor Perry had returned by the next morning.
Edward Harrison, William Harrison's son, was then sent out to look for the pair. While on his way to Charingworth, Edward met John Perry. The servant revealed that he had not been able to find his master. The pair then continued their journey to Ebrington where they questioned one of the tenants whom Harrison had been going to see. The tenant revealed that Harrison had been there the previous night. With this information, Edward Harrison and John Perry continued their journey to the local village of Paxford. However, their search proved fruitless.
Edward and John then headed back to Chipping Campden. During the journey, they heard that some items belonging to William Harrison had been discovered on the main road between Chipping Campden and Ebrington. These included a hat, shirt and collar. Although the hat had been slashed by a sharp implement and the shirt and collar were covered in blood, there was no sign of the body of William Harrison.
Under questioning, John Perry confessed that he knew Harrison was murdered although he claimed to be innocent of the crime. Perry then claimed his mother, Joan, and his brother, Richard, killed Harrison for his money and hid the body. Joan and Richard strenuously denied that they had had anything to do with their master's disappearance. But John kept up his assertion that they were guilty.
The first court hearings dealt with charges linked to a plot to steal money from William Harrison. Despite his mother and brother pleading "not guilty", John Perry's testimony convinced the jury based on the following:
- John seemed to have no apparent reason to be lying about the matter.
- John claimed he was the one who suggested the robbery to Richard, thereby incriminating himself in a crime by telling the truth.
- John told the court that Joan and Richard had already stolen 140 pounds from William Harrison's house the previous year.
- John had lied about being attacked by robbers a few weeks before Harrison's disappearance because he himself had been planning to rob Harrison's house instead.
In order to speed the trial along, the presiding judge decided to grant pardons to all three defendants for the money allegedly stolen in 1659.
In Spring 1661, the court reconvened to hear the charges of murder. This time John Perry joined his mother and brother in pleading "not guilty" to killing William Harrison. The servant claimed his original testimony had all been false by reason of insanity. Nevertheless the jury found all three of the Perry family guilty of murdering William Harrison and they were sentenced to death.
The family were hanged together in Gloucestershire. On the scaffold, Richard and John reiterated they were entirely innocent of killing William Harrison. As the mother was also suspected of being a witch, she was executed first.
Return of William Harrison
In 1662, Harrison returned to England aboard a ship from Lisbon bearing a remarkable story. He claimed to have been abducted from England by pirates and taken abroad. He was transferred to a Turkish ship and sold into slavery near Smyrna in Anatolia (Turkey). Harrison said that after about a year and three quarters his master died. He then went to a port and stowed away on a Portuguese ship, finally returning to Dover by way of Lisbon.
Whether Harrison's tale was true is not known. However, it proved the Perry family innocent of his murder.
John Masefield wrote two plays on the subject: The Campden Wonder and Mrs Harrison. The latter dealt with the popular myth that Harrison's wife committed suicide on learning that her husband was alive. The case, along with the Sandyford murder case, were mentioned in E.C. Bentley's 1920 detective story Trent's Last Case, and provided some of the inspiration for the novel's plot.