The Campden Wonder

The story of what is called the “Campden Wonder” is wholly inexplicable. Though it can hardly be classed exactly as a motiveless “murder,” the story from beginning to end is motiveless and it must for ever remain one of the most extraordinary in the annals of crime.

Chipping Campden, a quiet little market town, lies at the foot of the Cotswold Hills. When the drama now about to be unfolded was enacted, it consisted simply of a straggling street of low gabled houses, with an ancient market house in the centre.

The chief mansion in the locality is Campden House. At the breaking-out of the Revolution of 1641 it was a stately pile, but its owner in those days, Baptist, Lord Noel, belonged to the party of the Cavaliers, and he burnt the mansion to prevent it falling into the hands of the Roundheads. A portion was rebuilt when tranquillity was restored, and Lady Campden took up her residence there.

The steward of Campden House was a staid elderly man of grave demeanour and regular habits, by name William Harrison. No one less erratic or further removed from sentiment and romance could be imagined. He was happily married, and had one son, a youth about nineteen.

One afternoon he took his hat and stick and set out to collect certain rents for her ladyship. His destination, so he told his wife, was Charingworth, and he expected to be back about five o’clock. Mrs. Harrison was to wait tea for him.

Five​—​six​—​seven came, and his wife sat watching the clock with increasing uneasiness. Her husband, the most punctual of men, had not returned.

At last she could control her anxiety no longer, and to ease her mind went in search of a man-servant, John Perry. She found Perry in the stables and asked if he knew of anything that might detain his master.

“That I don’t, mistress,” said Perry, “but if so be as you like, I’ll go to Charingworth and see what’s become of him.”

Mrs. Harrison was doubtful. Her husband’s absence was exceedingly strange, but there might be a reasonable explanation, and if she made a fuss unnecessarily he might not like it.

“I’ll wait another hour, John,” said she.

The hour passed slowly, and Mr. Harrison not returning, she despatched Perry to Charingworth. This step, instead of easing her doubts, only increased her alarm, for midnight came and then the small hours, and nothing was seen of Perry.

She could bear the suspense no longer. It was clear to her agitated mind that some catastrophe had happened at Charingworth. She now sent her son, Edward.

When the lad reached Charingworth it was five o’clock in the morning, and here he met Perry, who said he had been enquiring in all directions for news of the missing man, but all he had discovered was that Mr. Harrison had mentioned to the people of a farmhouse, where he had called, that he was coming home by way of Ebrington, a village lying between Charingworth and Campden.

Edward Harrison was rather a sharp lad, and he asked Perry if he knew the hour at which his father had called at this farmhouse.

“About seven o’clock, I were told.”

“That’s strange,” replied the youth, “seeing he said he was coming home at five. Father isn’t one to put himself out for anybody.”

Perry could suggest no explanation, and he and young Harrison set out for Ebrington.

Here they came upon a little more information. Harrison had certainly been at Ebrington, for he had called at the house of a man named Daniel, and then started to return to Campden.

Here all trace of the missing man ceased, and wearied and sick at heart, Edward Harrison returned to his anxious mother.

Days of distress followed. Search parties were organised, and their efforts resulted in a discovery which seemed to point to only one conclusion​—​foul play. In a furze bush near a wood lying between Ebrington and Campden was found a hat cut and battered, and a neckband stained with blood. They were identified as having been worn by William Harrison on the night of his disappearance.

But if he had been robbed and murdered, what had become of his body? The most rigorous examination of every possible place of concealment failed to reveal anything. Thickets were probed, the tall bracken was trodden down, ponds were dragged, but with no result.

In the meantime gossip and conjectures were active, and the question began to be asked, Why had Perry remained absent for something like seven or eight hours? When he failed to get information at Charingworth, why didn’t he return at once and report his non-success to his mistress?

Popular opinion became so excited that the authorities had no alternative but to arrest John Perry and take him before a magistrate.

Up to this time Perry had been reticent, but feeling himself in an awkward position, he gave an account of his proceedings.

His story was that on his way to Charingworth he met a man of the name of Reed, and feeling afraid to go on in the dark he returned to Campden. After a little while he made another start for Charingworth in company with another man, but after going a little way again returned.

Then he went into a hen roost, where he remained till twelve o’clock, when, the moon having risen, he took courage and again set out; but a mist rising, he lost his way and lay under a hedge till morning, when he went on to Charingworth and enquired for his master of one Edward Plaister, who told him he had paid Mr. Harrison £23 the night previous. He made further enquiries without success, and on his return home, about five o’clock in the morning, met his master’s son.

This account, somewhat rambling to say the least, was confirmed by the two men Perry mentioned, but the story was not considered satisfactory and he was detained in custody.

A week went over and then came a startling announcement. Perry asked to be taken before the magistrate, to whom he would disclose what he would tell to no one else.

“What have you got to say?” asked the magistrate.

“I’ve got to say this, that my master was murdered​—​but not by me,” answered the man, slowly.

“By whom, then? If you know, you are bound to tell.”

“My master was murdered by my brother and my mother!” said he, without showing the least emotion.

He went on to say that, ever since he had been in Mr. Harrison’s service, his mother and brother had been urging him to join them in robbing his master. At last he consented, and the scheme was to waylay Harrison on his return from receiving the rents.

When the steward started for Charingworth Perry sent word to his brother, and they met that evening soon after he had been sent by Mrs. Harrison to search for her husband.

They shadowed the old man continually until he was on his way home, when they saw him go into a field called the Conygree, through which a private path, which he was in the habit of using, led to his house.

Then John Perry’s heart failed him.

“Dick,” said he to his brother, “if you like to finish the job by yourself, you can have all the old chap’s money. While you do it I’ll take a walk in the fields.”

He was away some minutes, and when he returned he found his master on the ground in the middle of the field, his brother upon him and his mother standing by.

His master was not then dead and he moaned out:

“Would you kill me?”

John Perry begged his brother not to murder the old man, but Richard replied harshly, “Shut up, you’re a fool!” and thereupon strangled him.

After this Richard took a bag of money out of his master’s pocket and threw it in his mother’s lap, and they then carried the body into the garden, intending to throw it into a large hole. While they were in the garden he left them to watch and listen, and he believed his mother and brother put the body into a hole, but whether they did so he could not say.

He then returned to the hen roost, and taking his master’s hat and neckband cut them with his knife and threw them in the road where they were found.

Of course, after this no one could doubt what had happened, and everybody was ready to say, “I told you so.” It only remained now to find the body to clear up everything. But in the most aggravating way Harrison’s body persisted in remaining invisible. Every place mentioned by Perry was searched thoroughly, the spot where the murdered man was supposed to be buried was dug up, and still nothing was discovered.

But no one questioned the murder, and on the strength of John Perry’s confession, his mother and brother were arrested. They loudly swore they were innocent, John as loudly protested they were guilty. Public excitement rose to fever heat.

Amid all the puzzle only one thing could be said with positive certainty, and that was John Perry’s fixed determination to make the guilt of his mother and brother as black as possible. While the three were being taken from the magistrate’s to the gaol he had an opportunity of strengthening his accusation.

John was walking on in front between two constables, and Richard was some twenty paces behind. Pulling his handkerchief from his pocket Richard dropped a roll of black tape.

“What’s this?” asked the constable who was walking with them.

“It’s nothing,” replied Richard, “only a tape my wife does her hair with.”

The constable took the black tape and asked John if he knew anything about it.

Now John, walking in front of his brother, had not seen the tape fall and did not know where it came from; and directly he saw it he said:

“Yes, to my sorrow. That’s what my brother strangled my master with.”

Of course, this increased the belief in the guilt of the Perrys. There seemed to be no limit to John Perry’s confessions. Some time before the disappearance of Mr. Harrison his house was broken into and £140 stolen. Perry then declared that on the occasion of the burglary he was attacked by the fellows, who threatened to kill him. He now declared that the attack upon him was a fiction. The real robber was his brother, and he had invented the story to make Harrison think the burglars were strangers.

Although the body of the missing man was not found, and although there was not a particle of evidence beyond the confession of John Perry, the three prisoners were tried, found guilty and sentenced to be hanged.

The scene on the scaffold was a terribly painful one. The mother, Joan Perry, was executed first, because it was believed she had influenced her sons. When it came to Richard’s turn he bitterly reproached his brother, and begged him to tell the truth, for he (Richard) was perfectly innocent.

The only reply of John Perry was a brutal grunt, and his face became more sullen than ever. With dogged courage the alleged murderer went to his doom.

Now came the most extraordinary part of the story. Some few years afterwards, who should appear on the scene but William Harrison himself!

He had not been murdered, and he knew nothing of the unaccountable confession of John Perry. His story was that, after collecting the rents from the various tenants, he was set upon by three men and knocked senseless. When he came to himself he found that he was bound with a rope and was in a cart in a part of the country which was quite strange to him.

He was taken, he believed, to Deal, and there put on shipboard. In the Mediterranean the ship was boarded by a crew of a Turkish vessel, and he was landed on the Levantine coast, where he was forced into the employ of a Turkish pasha, and only succeeded in making his escape after enduring terrible privations.

Such was William Harrison’s account of his absence. It is almost as incredible as John Perry’s extraordinary accusation. However, whether Harrison spoke the truth or not, unquestionably he was not murdered.

The only reasonable explanation of John Perry’s charging his mother and brother with the murder is that he was under some delusion and that his brain was affected. But whichever way the story is looked at, it must be regarded as most remarkable, and rather belonging to fiction than fact. Yet fact it is.