Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Return of William Harrison (Part II)

I return to the Perry-Harrison case. In this posting, I touch upon one of my favourite topics, diabolic transportation (aerial transvection, rather than, say, the London underground), get a rare sighting of a 17th century woman demonologist, and, in general, illustrate the way in which witchcraft could be drawn on to supply paranormal explanations of anything not readily explicable. Demonology often seems to be an anticipation of both the detective novel (the explanation you are left with, however unusual, must be true) and forensic science (in searching the body for the crucial evidence about the crime). I can’t hold back from offering my deductions on the ‘Campden wonder’.

Overbury’s pamphlet about Harrison’s disappearance mentions that Perry’s mother was executed first, in the chance that her sons, freed from her charm by her death, might at last confess. This is where I began my last posting. The disappointment of those hopes was assuaged locally by a compensatory, substitute myth: “There was a report, that Joan Perry had bewitched a woman, that lay bed-ridden several years, who upon her executn. got up and recovered her former state of health’ (note by John Adams in Bodley ms Gough Glouc 32 (18), transcribed by Mr Peter Clifford).

The other stray reference to witchcraft in Overbury’s pamphlet occurs late on, and is dismissive (or deliberately obfuscatory): “That he was spirited (as some are said to have been) is no ways probable, in respect he was an old and infirm Man, and taken from the most inland Part of the Nation.” Overbury here seems to mix up abduction by Barbary slavers (a real hazard on the south coast, especially in the west country), and being spirited away by demonic action.

The second pamphlet on the case, also in 1662, had no hesitation about playing up on the witchcraft. This is the anonymous author’s account of Harrison’s disappearance. Notice the quasi-oral style: this is bottom of the market authorship, willing to spin any kind of sensational story (so long as it can be moralized):

“At the time of their Execution they would not confess what they had done with Master Harrison; but said that he was not dead, but ere seven years were half over they should see Master Harrison again. Now attend to this following Discourse, and you shall hear in what a condition Master Harrison was left in. This Widow Perry by her wicked Conjuration had power on Master Harrison, for no sooner had they knocked him down, and taken what he had from him, but they threw him into a pit; He had not lain long but he began to come to himself, and he apprehended where he was, but before he was come to himself fully, he was in a moment conveyed to the Sea side, and from thence in a very short time he was conveyed to a rock standing in the Sea on the coast of Turky, where he remained the space of four days bare headed, his hat being left near Cambden, where they first had knocked him down.

After his four days abode there, there came by a Turkish ship which took him in, and brought him to Turky, and there sold him. His Master that bought him was by profession a Chyrurgeon, who asked his new bought Servant what he could do, he answered his Master that then was, that he had skill in Gardening and could distil Hearbs, in which employment he was entertained in; and he so well behaved himself that he gained a great deal of love from his Master during his life.

He had not lived there above two years or thereabouts, but it pleased God his Master dyed, who out of the respect he did bear to Master Harrison, his Servant, he gave him a peice of plate, and bade him make use thereof for his Transportation into his own Country, which he did.”

I like the authenticating detail of him arriving on the rock off the Turkish coastline without his hat: a sorry plight! In granting Widow Perry the power to transport people abroad, this pamphlet follows the lead of such stories as that of the involuntary flight of Richard Burt, or the pedlar mentioned in News from Scotland, who found himself transported to a wine cellar in Bordeaux. Though this narrative does do away with the (frankly) fictitious assailants Harrison wrote of, it does have the gaping hole of Widow Perry not using this early modern EasyJet to escape her own unhappy fate.

The same publisher, Charles Tyus, also put out a ballad about the Harrison-Perry story: the author may be the same as the pamphlet, or whoever it was certainly had it to hand in composing, for it versifies (to put it kindly) the pamphlet. It is in the very best of bad styles:

One night they met him comming into Town,
And in a barbarous manner knockt him down,
Then taking all his money quite away,
His body out of sight they did convey …

Is there a dialect pronunciation of ‘gallows’ that helps this rhyme?

… If God had let her work her utmost spight,
No doubt she would have kild the man outright,
But he is saved and she for all her malice,
Was very justly hang'd upon the Gallows.

The Overbury pamphlet got into the hands of Antony à Wood, the antiquary, who annotated his copy with the following fascinating extra material:

“Richard & Joan Perry were after execution taken downe & buried under the gallowes :- Three dayes after a gentlewoman pretending to understand witches hired a man to dig up the grave that shee might search Joans body - shee being on horseback, drew up to the grave which was opened, but the horse, starting at the sight of the body in grave, ran away under the gallowes & her head hitting against Johns feet struck her off from the horse into the grave -

After Harrisons returne John was taken downe & buried - And Harrisons wife soon after (being a snotty covetuous presbyterian) hung herself in her owne house – why, the reader is to judge.”

A gentlewoman, with some pretensions to understanding witchcraft, pays to have the body exhumed, perhaps (as Mr Clifford surmises) to discover the supernumerary witch’s teat. Her fastidious distance from the grisly scene (watching on horseback as the dirty work is done) was then changed by the accident into horrific proximity. The male elite pamphleteer distances his discussion from witchcraft, but a gentlewoman was keen to apply an early 17th century test. Her tumble probably confirmed her suspicions of the devil’s work.

And, again, that suggestion that the story has an answer: Harrisons’ wife committed suicide after his return. There’s another version of this in John Adam’s note in the Gough collection: “after her dth. there was found a letter in her scrutore which she had recd. from her husband, dated before the execution of Joan & her two sons”.

Harrison’s wife knew he was alive – and it is impossible to believe that any such letter came back from TurkeyHarrison must have written to reassure his wife that he was alive from wherever his son had persuaded him to go to ground. She did not intervene in the executions. Wood implies that either she or her family had profited financially: Edward had the job, the rents Harrison had collected on the evening before his disappearance (£23: a poor take, it had been expected that a larger sum would have been gathered, but the plot was sprung at the wrong moment – if it was a Harrison plot). The Harrison’s had struck back at the Perry family for the initial robbery: I surmise that they knew that they could not prove that the Perry’s had taken the £140, but believed it to be true. On that confused August night, when the Perry’s tried another robbery, Edward Harrison realized he could take the money himself and incriminate the Perry’s, if he persuaded his father to disappear.

In the end, Harrisons’ wife could live with the knowledge of what had been done, but not with the sharper surmises of what had gone on after her husband so miraculously returned: not with knowing that others knew.

My image is taken from the ballad: typical generic wood blocks, but the hanging has a suitably stark crudity. In the prior post, Chipping Campden from Google earth, showing the site of Chipping Campden house, destroyed in the Civil War: it was thought Harrison's murderers might have disposed of the body in the ruins.


Sceopellen said...

Fascinating topic, although I know little about this area - I will certainly look into it further. I presume such cases (i.e. disappearance seen as murder) was not unheard of?

Just in case you hadn't noticed, you were mentioned on the last Early Modern Carnavalesque:


Chiara said...

Thank you for commenting! My next task is certainly catching up on the pile of reading I have yet to do!

Are there any other cases you know of that also have a disappearance seen as murder element to them? It would be curious to compare any other examples with this mystery to see how much reality is contained in this type of account.

DrRoy said...

This case, as the pamphleteers say, was seen as remarkable. The nearest I can come up with is George Lillo's play, 'Fatal Curiosity' (1736, I think probably based on some kind of broadsheet ballad source, I do not recall if there was a real case underlying it). Here the son returns home after long travels, unrecognised, with lots of money. His impoverished parents murder the wealthy traveller; his 'fatal curiosity' was in delaying his announcement of who he really is overnight. (He wanted the joyful surprise to be bigger, you see.)
There is a big returned-traveller genre of ballads and plays. If you went to sea, you might be away years, and be assumed dead, so you might return to find many changes. These are usually marital stories: 'A cure for a cuckold' is one such play.