William Harrison and the Strange Case of the Campden Murder

On the evening of August 16th, 1660, William Harrison, a seventy-year-old man from the town of Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire, set out for a walk from his residence in Campden to the nearby town of Charringworth. His purpose being to collect the rents for his wife, Lady Campden — informing her before he left to expect his return by early evening.

By eight-o’clock that evening, however, Harrison had not yet returned. Lady Campden, experiencing a strange feeling that something was not right, dispatched a servant by the name of John Perry to search for William. By three o’clock that morning there was still no sign of William Harrison, nor, now, no sign of John Perry. Quite hysterical with fear and worry, Lady Campden then dispatched Edward Campden, her son, to search for the two missing men.

After some search, Edward was able to locate John Perry. Perry explained to Edward that he had searched everywhere but could find no trace of Harrison. The two, together, began another search of the area, but, again, the search turned up nothing. No trace of William Harrison was discovered. They decided to return home. However, whilst making their way back, they encountered a man on the road. They informed the man that Mr. Harrison was missing and asked if he happened to have seen him. The man responded that he had not seen Harrison that evening, but did inform the pair that a hat and collar — of a style that William Harrison was known to wear — had been discovered earlier along the road. The articles of clothing, the man explained, appeared to have been slashed with a blade and were soaked with blood.

News of the missing William Harrison, and the find of clothes, quickly spread throughout the area. A massive search party was swiftly organized and carried out, and the many participants searched the entire area thoroughly. However, no trace of William Harrison was discovered, nor any evidence at all which might suggest the location of any possible murder.

Lady Campden’s suspicions quickly turned to John Perry — the servant she had first sent out to search for William Harrison. She believed that Perry had indeed found Harrison while on his search for him, had murdered him, and had hidden the body. Perry, on Lady Campden’s accusations, was brought before the magistrate and made to account for his actions on the night of the disappearance. Perry informed the magistrate that he did not, in fact, search for William Harrison, as he was afraid of entering the countryside while alone on such a dark night. He explained that he had then felt too embarrassed to return to Lady Campden and explain the reason for his failure to search. Instead, he hid in a chicken-coop until around midnight of that evening, at which time the heavy clouds which had been in the sky cleared away, revealing a full moon. The light of the full moon illuminated the countryside sufficiently enough to ease Perry’s fear, and he then began a search. After a very short while, Perry explained, a thick mist rolled in and he became lost. With no way to find his bearings in such a mist, he ended up falling asleep under a hedge.

The magistrate didn’t believe Perry’s story, and was angered that the man would attempt to deceive the court with such a ridiculous tale. Perry was ordered to be put into custody, where he stayed for a week. More exhaustive searches were carried out during this time, but, again, each one turned up no trace of William Harrison whatsoever.

After Perry’s week spent in the local jail, he suddenly announced that he possessed information about the case that he had not yet divulged. However, he stated that he would not reveal this information except to the magistrate directly. The magistrate agreed to hear John Perry’s information and brought him once again before the court. Perry told the magistrate that he in fact knew for certain that Harrison had indeed been killed. And, Perry claimed to know the identities of the murderers. When asked to reveal the identities, however, Perry refused. He claimed that, for personal reasons, he could not reveal the names of the murderers to the court. The magistrate became irate and grilled Perry incessantly for hours on end. Until, finally, Perry came clean. He informed the magistrate that it had been his own mother, and his own brother, that had killed William Harrison.

The magistrate, again, did not believe Perry’s story. He had known Perry’s family for years and knew them to be decent folk He refused to believe that Perry’s mother, Joan, or his brother, Richard, could have had any part in the deed. But, Perry was insistent. He explained to the magistrate that ever since he had taken the job of servant to the Campden household, his family had been urging him to steal from it. He further explained that his family members had pressed him for information regarding exactly when and how William Harrison went about collecting the rents. Their wish, it seemed, was to learn of Harrison’s movements while he was making his rounds, and rob him for the rents he had collected. Perry claimed that he told his mother that he would have no part in such a crime. But, both his mother and brother pestered and pressured him. When he could take no more, he gave in and revealed to them information regarding what routes Harrison took, and at what times, and the amount of money he would be carrying. Perry told the magistrate that his mother and brother planned to knock Harrison unconscious and steal the money, but that, while carrying out the deed, something had gone wrong. A blow to Harrison’s head had failed to render him unconscious and Harrison began to cry out for help. Panicking, and in fear they would be caught, Perry’s brother then strangled Harrison and the two of them dumped his body in a nearby field. In order to throw-off anyone who might come searching for Harrison, Perry explained, the two had then deliberately discarded Harrison’s hat and collar along the roadside, before making off with the money.

This time, the magistrate believed John Perry and ordered the arrest of Joan and Richard. And, although a search of the area in which John Perry claimed the body had been discarded turned up no such body, Joan and Richard were both without alibis for the night of the murder. The two were swiftly arrested, and Joan, Richard and John were all brought before the court at Gloucester Assizes. The Judge, Sir Christopher Turner, ruled that since no body had been found, no charges of murder could be laid against the three.

The ruling must have come as a great relief to the Perrys, but it would not last long. Approximately one year earlier, the Campden’s house had been broken into. The burglars, who had never been caught nor identified, managed to make off with £140 — quite a significant sum in 1659! Of course, due to the allegations of murder, the Perrys now seemed to be possible suspects for the robbery. The Judge ruled that the Perrys would stand trial for the burglary.

Due to an act of law brought in by King Charles II, known as the “Act of Free and General Pardon, Indemnity, and Oblivion“, the Perrys were persuaded to each plead guilty to the crime — being assured that, due to this act, they would face no punishment. The act was introduced with the intention of forgiving the horrible crimes carried out during the earlier civil wars. It granted immunity from punishment for any crimes committed before May of 1660. With this in mind, and on the advice of counsel, they each entered a plea of guilty — confident that they would receive an immediate pardon. Which, they did.

However, with a confession of guilt to the act of murder from each of the Perrys, the Judge was able to place the charge of murder before the court of Sir Robert Hyde. And, in March of 1661, Hyde found the Perrys guilty or murder and sentenced all three of them to hang for their crimes. During the trial, however, John Perry had recanted the earlier story he had told to the magistrate. He now claimed to have been in a state of insanity when he gave his original testimony. John Perry now swore that he had simply made-up the story, entirely out of thin air, of his mother and brother killing William Harrison. Of course, the court believed that John Perry was now lying, in an attempt to talk his way out of a death sentence, and that his earlier testimony was true.

The Perrys, each of them, were hanged — one after the other — each one proclaiming their innocence right up until the very moment of death. Their pleadings fell on deaf ears, however. Nobody believed they were innocent. The murder of William Harrison, as far as anyone was concerned, had been solved, and the perpetrators had been executed. Justice was served. And that was pretty much the end of it. Until, of course, William Harrison was seen to walk into town, in reasonably good spirits and fine health, one year after the hanging!

William Harrison Campden Murder
If you like this weird but true story, you can read more about the Campden murder, and other strange accounts like it, in “Historical Mysteries” by Andrew Lang. Click the image above.

A full two years after he had supposedly been murdered, and a year after his supposed murderers were executed for the crime, William Harrison returned to Chipping Campden. Upon his return, he informed his wife, Lady Campden, that he had spent the previous two years in Turkey, working as a slave. He explained that on the night of his disappearance, while making the rounds in collecting the rents, he had been attacked by three mysterious men. They subdued and restrained him and had taken him, on horseback, across England to Kent. Once in Kent, the men placed Harrison on a ship which then set sail. The purpose of the voyage, and the intentions of the three men remain unknown. But, a short while into the voyage, the ship was attacked by Turkish pirates. The pirates raided the ship and rounded up each of the passengers. Harrison, along with the others, were the taken by the pirates to a Turkish slave market where he was sold to an elderly and wealthy Turkish Doctor. Harrison served as a slave at the old Doctor’s house. Just a year later, however, the old Turkish Doctor suddenly dropped dead. Upon discovering the old man’s death, Harrison hurriedly collected valuables from the Doctor’s house and quickly sold them off — earning himself enough money to purchase passage on a voyage back home.

Nobody in the town, it seems, really believed William Harrison’s tale — suspecting instead that he had likely attempted to run off with the rents himself, possibly with a mistress — but, in failing to start a new life, returning to his wife and her wealth. William Harrison, however, insisted that the events surrounding his dissemblance had transpired just as he had recounted them, right up until the very last of his days.

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