Dreads and Drolls, by Arthur Machen

The Campden Wonder

Mr. William Harrison was steward to the Viscountess Campden, of Campden, in Gloucestershire. One afternoon — to be precise, on the 16th of August, 1660 — he walked out from Campden to Charringworth, a place about two miles off, to receive some rent due to the Viscountess. He was late getting back, and between eight and nine in the evening his wife, feeling a little uneasy, sent the man, John Perry, to meet his master and bring him home. That night neither master nor man returned. Early the next morning Mr. Harrison’s son, Edward, went towards Charringworth to enquire after his father. He met Perry coming from Charringworth, and was told by him that his father was not there. Then Edward Harrison and Perry went together to a village called Ebrington, between Charringworth and Campden, and at Ebrington a man named Daniel told them that Mr. Harrison had called on him on his way home from Charringworth the night before, but had not stayed. On this, the younger Harrison and the man turned back home, and on their way heard something of a hat, a band, and a comb found on the road between Ebrington and Campden by a poor woman, who was harvesting. They sought out the woman, they identified the hat, comb, and band as being the property of Mr. William Harrison. The hat and comb were hacked and cut, and the band — the broad round collar, ancestor of the legal bands of today, for which the bandbox was designed — bloody. Crowds came to look for the body of Mr. Harrison — his properties were found by a great brake of gorse — but no body was found. Mrs. Harrison was grievously alarmed. It struck her as highly suspicious that Perry, the manservant, had stayed out the whole night, instead of coming back, with news or without news. So Perry was haled before a justice of the peace, and told a very odd story. He said he set out for Charringworth, but soon met one William Reed, of Campden. It was getting dark, and Perry told Reed that he was afraid to go to Charringworth afoot, and so he would turn back and get his young master’s horse, and ride to Charringworth. So Perry turned back, Reed being in his company, and came to the gate of the Harrison demesne. Reed went on his way, Perry stayed still by the gate. Then one Pierce came by, and Perry went with Pierce “a bow’s shot into the fields,” and again returned, Pierce being of his company; and so Pierce went on his way. And then Perry went and lay about an hour in the henroost, but could not sleep. Then the clock struck twelve and for the third time Perry sallied forth on his errand. But a great mist arose, and he lost his way, and lay the rest of the night under a hedge. At daybreak the next morning he at last ended his journey and came to Charringworth. Here he heard from William Plaisterer that Mr. Harrison had called the afternoon before and had received three-and-twenty pounds. And William Curtis had heard that Mr. Harrison had called at his house; but he was out and did not see him. And so Perry turned back and met young Edward Harrison, as we have heard already. Reed, Pierce, Plaisterer and Curtis were called and confirmed Perry’s story so far as it concerned them.

The justice asked the man why he was afraid to go to Charringworth at nine, and not afraid at twelve. The answer was that it was dark at nine, but moonlight at twelve. Then he was asked why he did not inquire whether his master had come back after his first return and his second return. He said he saw light in his master’s bedroom window, “which never used to be there so late when he was at home.” It was considered wise to keep Perry in custody, and so he was held at Campden, sometimes in the prison, sometimes in an inn — a genial age — and there he told all sorts of stories. He told some people that Mr. Harrison had been murdered by a tinker, others that he had been robbed and murdered by a gentleman’s servant, others that he had been killed and his body hidden in a bean-rick. The bean-rick was searched and nothing found. Finally, Perry confessed that William Harrison had been murdered by his mother and his brother. He declared that the two had “lain at him”— note the nearness of the seventeenth century idiom to our “had been at him”— ever since he entered the service of Mr. Harrison. They had pointed out how poor they were, and how simple it would be for John to tell them when Mr. Harrison was going to receive rents, so that they could waylay and rob him. These pleadings won at last upon John Perry’s filial and fraternal heart, as he said, and on the Thursday morning — the day of Mr. Harrison’s disappearance — he met his brother in the street of Campden and told him where his master was going in the afternoon, amiably remarking to brother Richard that if he cared to waylay Mr. Harrison he might have his money. That evening, Mrs. Harrison sent John Perry to meet his master, as we have heard, the time being about half-past eight. He met his brother Richard close at hand, and the two prowled about in the dusk of the evening till they came to some private grounds of Lady Campden’s, called the Conygree. Certain persons were allowed to have a key which gave them passage through these grounds. Mr. Harrison, the agent, was, naturally, one of these persons, and he was accustomed to use the Conygree as a short cut to his house. Good son and brother John Perry saw a figure going into the Conygree, and told Richard Perry that this figure was probably his master, and that he could have his money. For his part, John observed, he would take a short walk in the fields. So John communes with nature, and then strolls into the Conygree. He finds his master on the ground, brother Richard upon him, and his mother standing by. William Harrison then cried out, “Ah, rogues, will you kill me?” John Perry, shocked, observed to Richard that he hoped he would not kill his master. Whereupon Richard, exclaiming briefly, “Peace, peace, you are a fool,” strangled old Mr. Harrison — the agent was a man of seventy. The prudent Richard then took a bag of money out of Mr. Harrison’s pocket and threw it into his mother’s lap. The two Perrys carried the dead body into the garden adjoining the Conygree, and consulted what they should do with it. It was finally determined that it should be thrown into “the great sink by Wallington’s mill, behind the garden.” At this point John left the little family party, taking with him his master’s hat, band, and comb, which he laid for the moment in the henroost. He then mooned about, in the manner described by him at his first examination, meeting Reed and Pierce. Finally, he took the hat, band, and comb, and after slashing them a little, laid them on the high-road, where the harvesting woman found them. And as to his master’s body, said John, if it were not in the great sink, he did not know where it was.

The great sink was searched, the fishponds of Campden were searched, the ruins of Campden House, burnt in the Great Rebellion, were searched, but the body of William Harrison was not found. Nevertheless, Joan and Richard Perry, the mother and brother of John, were arrested; and the whole three charged with the murder of Mr. Harrison. Joan and Richard denied the fact with imprecations on themselves if they had any share in the deed alleged against them: John persisted in his accusations and declared he would maintain them to his death. All three prisoners were committed. On their way to prison, Richard, at the end of the procession, “pulling a clout out of his pocket, dropped a ball of inkle, which one of his guard taking up, he desired him to restore, saying it was only his wife’s hair lace.” But the guard showed it to John, who said sorrowfully that he knew it very well; his brother had strangled his master with it. Next day, being Sunday, the prisoners were taken to church. On their way, they passed Richard’s house, and two of his children ran out to meet him. He took the smaller child on his arm, and led the other by the hand; whereupon both the children’s noses began to bleed. This was thought to look badly for Richard.

There was another point. The year before Mr. Harrison’s house had been broken into while he was at “lecture”— the Puritans were still in power in 1659 — and £140 had been taken. The justice of the peace, finding John in a confessing mood, asked him whether he knew about the robbery. Certainly, John knew. Richard had taken the money and hidden it in his garden. The garden was searched; nothing was found.

At the September assizes, the three were indicted for robbery and for robbery and murder. The Judge, Sir Christopher Turner, refused to try the latter charge, for the very good reason that no body had been found. On the charge of robbery — the robbery of 1659 —— they at first pleaded Not Guilty, but on advice altered the plea to Guilty, and enjoyed the benefit of the King’s pardon and Act of Oblivion. Later, they denied any part in the robbery.

At the spring assizes of 1661, the three were tried again for murder, Sir Robert Hyde being the Judge. John’s confession was put in evidence. Whereupon John said that he was mad when he uttered it, and knew not what he said. All three were found guilty of murdering William Harrison, condemned, and executed on Broadway Hill, in sight of Campden. Joan Perry, the mother, was hanged first. It was thought that she was a witch, and had cast a spell upon her sons, so that they could not confess while she lived. Richard then took his turn on the ladder, and died, protesting his innocence, and imploring his brother to tell all he knew about Mr. Harrison. John, the last to climb, wore “a dogged and surly carriage,” and told the people he was not bound to confess to them. But at the last he said he knew nothing about his master’s death; but, he added, they might, possibly, hear hereafter.

They did. In a little under two years Mr. Harrison came back to Campden.

He told the story of his adventures, in a letter addressed to Sir Thomas Overbury, Knight, of Bourton (near Campden), in Gloucestershire. He begins from the beginning.

“One Thursday in the afternoon, in the time of harvest, I went to Charringworth to demand rents, due to my lady Campden; at which time the tenants were bus in the fields, and late ere they came home, which occasioned my stay there till the close of the evening. I expected a considerable sum, but received only three-and-twenty pounds and no more. In my return home (in the narrow passage, amongst Ebrington Furzes), there met me one horseman, and said, ‘Art thou there?’ And I, fearing that he would have rid over me, struck his horse over the nose, whereupon he struck at me with his sword, several blows, and run it into my side; while I (with my little cane) made my defence as well as I could; at last another came behind me, run me into the thigh, laid hold on the collar of my doublet, and drew me to a hedge near to the place. Then came in another; they did not take my money, but mounted me behind one of them, drew my arms about his middle, and fastened my wrists together with something that had a spring lock to it as I conceived, by hearing it give a snap as they put it on; then they threw a great cloak over me, and carried me away. In the night they alighted at a hayrick which stood near unto a stone pit by a wall-side, where they took away my money, about two hours before day (as I heard one of them tell the other he thought it to be then). They tumbled me into the stone pit, they staid (as I thought) about an hour at the hayrick. When they took horse again, one of them bade me come out of the pit; I answered they had my money already, and asked what they would do with me; whereupon he struck me again, drew me out and put a great quantity of money to my pockets, and mounted me again after the same manner. And on the Friday night, about sun-setting, they brought me to a house . . . where they took me down almost dead, being sorely bruised with the carriage of the money. When the woman of the house saw I could neither stand nor speak, she asked them whether or no they had brought a dead man? They answered no, but a friend that was hurt, and they carrying him to a chirurgeon. She answered that if they did not make haste their friend would be dead before they could bring him to one. There they laid me on cushions, and suffered none to come into the room, but a little girl; there we stayed all night, they giving me some broth and strong waters. In the morning, very early, they mounted me as before, and on Saturday night they brought me to a place where were two or three houses, in one of which I lay all night on cushions, by their bedside. On Sunday morning they carried me from thence, and about three or four o’clock they brought me to a place by the seaside, called Deal, where they laid me down on the ground; and one of them staying by me, the other two walked a little off, to meet a man, with whom they talked; and in their discourse I heard them mention seven pounds, after which they went away together, and about half an hour after returned.

“The man (whose name, as I after heard, was Wrenshaw) said he feared I would die before he could get me on board; then presently they put me into a boat, and carried me on shipboard, where my wounds were dressed. I remained in the ship (as near as I could reckon) about six weeks, in which time I was indifferently recovered of my wounds and weakness. Then the master of the ship came and told me (and the rest who were in the same condition) that he discovered three Turkish ships; we all offered to fight in the defence of the ship and ourselves, but he commanded us to keep close, and said he could deal with them well enough. A little while after he called us up, and when we came on the deck we saw two Turkish ships close by us. Into one of them we were put, and placed in a dark hole, where how long we continued before we were landed, I know not. When we were landed they led us two days’ journey, and put us into a great house or prison, where we remained four days and a half. And then came to us eight men to view us, who seemed to be officers; they called us and examined us of our trades and callings, which everyone answered; one said he was a chirurgeon, another that he was a broadcloth weaver, and I (after two or three demands) said I had some skill in physic. We three were set by and I was chosen by a grave physician of 87 years of age, who lived near to Smyrna, who had formerly been in England and knew Crowland, in Lincolnshire, which he preferred before all other places in England. He employed me to keep his still house, and gave me a silver bowl, double gilt, to drink in; my business was most in that place; but once he set me to gather cotton wool, which I not doing to his mind, he struck me down to the ground, and after drew his stiletto to stab me; but I, holding up my hands to him, he gave a stamp, and turned from me. . . . I was there about a year and three-quarters, and then my master fell sick on a Thursday, and sent for me, and calling me as he used by the name of Boll told me he should die, and bade me shift for myself. He died on Saturday following, and I presently hastened with my bowl to a port about a day’s journey distant. . . . When I came thither, I addressed myself to two men who came out of a ship of Hamborough, which (as they said) was bound for Portugal within three or four days. I enquired of them for an English ship, they answered there was none. I entreated them to take me into their ship; they answered they durst not for fear of being discovered by the searchers.”

To abbreviate Mr. Harrison a little: he at length prevailed on another man of the same ship to take him on board; the effective argument being a sight of the gilt bowl. He was placed below in the vessel “in a very uneasy place,” and so well hidden that he escaped the Turkish searchers and was finally landed at Lisbon, free but moneyless. Here he fortunately fell in with an Englishman, a native of Wisbech, who paid for his passage to Dover, and so, with some pious and becoming expression of gratitude, Mr. William Harrison ends the story of his adventures, perils and deliverances.

Now, it may or may not have been noted, that I have told the whole story without comment or expression of opinion of any kind. And I have not commented, because I have no notion whether there is a single word of truth in the story. My authority is the State Trials, and one might think, on the face of it, that no more solid foundation of fact could be desired. But this is not so. The account in the State Trials is merely a reprint of a pamphlet issued in London in the year 1676:

“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. London, printed for Rowland Reynolds, next Arundel Gate, over against St. Clement’s Church in the Strand, 1676.”

The pamphlet gives as its authority a letter sent by Sir T. O. (Thomas Overbury) to T. S. (T. Shirley), a London physician; but as both these gentlemen are far beyond all cross-examination, nothing is established thereby. Of course, the story reeks with improbabilities. At first sight, the most improbable circumstance of all is the conduct of John Perry in swearing away, not only the life of his mother and his brother, but his own life as well. But his conduct is not without precedent. To this day, people give themselves up for murders which they have not committed, and in John Perry’s day women confessed freely to having shared in the monstrous horrors of the Witches’ Sabbath. If the story be true, John Perry was a hysterical madman. And there is another point: the condemnation and execution of these people for murder, there being no corpus delicti— otherwise the body of the dead man or some identifiable part of it — producible; was such a thing possible? Unfortunately, it was. It was against all legal principle. The Civil Law forbade it. Lord Hale said: “I would never convict any person of murder or manslaughter unless the fact were proved to be done, or at least the body found dead.” But, apparently, this was a matter left to the taste and fancy of the judge, for Lord Hale supports his principle by citing two cases in which men were hanged for the murder of persons who proved afterwards to be alive. So there is no improbability in this part of the story. As we have seen, the judge at the first assize, Sir Christopher Turner, held with Lord Hale and refused to try the Perrys, “because the body was not found.” At the next assizes, the judge, Sir Robert Hyde, made no difficulties on the ground of the lacking body.

The big difficulty lies in Mr. Harrison’s story. Why was he abducted, and who were his abductors? He speaks of other people on the ship as being in the same condition as himself. Was there a Little Syndicate which operated in old gentlemen, selling them to master mariners at seven pounds apiece? This seems unlikely. And could you transport this sort of goods from Campden, Gloucestershire, to Deal, Kent, without fear of interruption? I do not know; the tale must remain the Campden Wonder, so far as I am concerned.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58