Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Return of William Harrison (Part I)

“Some few Days after, being brought to the Place of their Execution, which was on Broadway-Hill, within Sight of Campden, the Mother (being reputed a Witch, and to have so bewitched her Sons, they could confess nothing while she lived) was first executed: After which, Richard [Perry] being upon the Ladder, professed, as he had done all along, That he was wholly innocent of the Fact for which he was then to die; and that he knew nothing of Mr. Harrison's Death, nor what was become of him; and did, with great Earnestness, beg and beseech his Brother [John Perry] (for the Satisfaction of the whole World, and his own Conscience) to declare what he knew concerning him; but he, with a dogged and surly Carriage, told the People, he was not obliged to confess to them; yet, immediately before his Death, said, He knew nothing of his Master's Death, nor what was become of him, but they might hereafter (possibly) hear.”

~ This is 1660: and still it can be credited that a witch might prevent her sons disclosing their knowledge of the crimes she has shared with them. So she was hanged first, in the belief that the power of her spell will dissipate with her death. It doesn’t work, of course.

The last, enigmatic words of John Perry signaled the exit from the world of a disturbing and enigmatic man. In this, the first of two linked postings, I will look at the primary pamphlet source about this mysterious happening, which was assembled by Sir Thomas Overbury (nephew to the more famous knight of the same name). In my next post, I will go on to discuss the secondary materials from the period, which are already web-posted at a site about’ the Campden wonder’, collected, transcribed and introduced at http://www.campdenwonder.plus.com/index.htm by a Mr. Peter Clifford, local historian (and currently writing a book about this case).

To retell the story from my own reading, on the 16th of August 1660, John Perry’s master, William Harrison, steward to Lady Campden, a man reputedly aged about 70, set off to collect rents in Charringworth, two miles away. Between 8 and 9 in the evening, his wife sent John Perry to find out what had become of him. Perry was witnessed at various points of an erratic quest for his master, but, the next day, after Harrison’s hat, band and comb were found on the highway, hacked and bloody, and Harrison’s son Edward had met Perry coming back from Charringworth, the latter was imprisoned on suspicion of having murdered his master for the rent money he had collected. It emerged that Perry had in fact twice diverted back to his master’s house, without going inside, resting once for an hour in a chicken roost till (he said) the moon had come up enough to light his journey.

As his imprisonment continued, Perry asserted that his master had been murdered: first, he said, by a tinker, then it was by the servant of a local gentleman, then, finally, and sensationally, he accused his own brother and mother of having carried out the killing.

This they vehemently denied, but Perry stuck to his story. Ever since he had got his job with the steward, they had (he alleged) nagged him to save them from poverty by letting them know when his master was in possession of rents, or was out collecting them, so that Harrison could be robbed. The story he finally told was not one that was at all calculated to save his own skin: he had informed them, and had been present when his brother Richard did the murder. He was at least accomplice to the scheme, as he described it. When he left them, they were going to throw the body in a mill pond; he had himself left the hat, band and comb beside the highway to distract any investigation.

The Perry family were probably capable of the robbery. Harrison’s house had been robbed before: while the household were at a religious meeting, a ladder was put to an upstairs window, an iron ploughshare used to lever apart the bars on the window, and £140 stolen: a substantial sum. John Perry said his brother had carried out that earlier robbery, while he had himself pretended to have been attacked locally by two unknown men in white. This invention of rogues in the vicinity he had publicized to distract investigation.

However, Harrison’s body was not found in any of the places Perry said it was to have been hidden. The stolen £140 was not buried in the garden where Perry said it was stowed for later sharing. His mother and brother continued to deny everything.

With no body found, the Perry family were not hanged for the murder, but were, after various legal twists and turns, sentenced to death for the two robberies. At one point John tried to withdraw his confession, saying that he was mad when he said what he did. The three died together on Broadway Hill, with Edward Harrison standing at the foot of the ladder. He caused John Perry’s body to be hanged in chains; Harrison then took over in his father’s job as Lady Campden’s steward.

About two years later, William Harrison reappeared in Campden.

All we know about Harrison’s misadventures comes from a letter, apparently written by him, published in the source pamphlet for this 17th century mystery: 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 Will. Harrison, Gent Being one of the most remarkable occurrences which hath happened in the memory of man (1676).

Harrison produced a brief, near paradigmatic captivity narrative: one that raises many questions. He was returning late from Charringworth, when he was assailed by two men, unknown to him (and not the Perry brothers). They wounded him twice, mounted him pillion on a horse, fastening his arms round the rider, and covering him with a cloak. With various stops en route, by Sunday afternoon they were at Deal. Here, Harrison heard a fee of £7 being negotiated with a man called Wrenshaw, who was doubtful that the battered and elderly Harrison would survive the journey ahead of him. But he took Harrison to sea: about six weeks later, Wrenshaw announced that Turkish vessels had been sighted. Instead of a fight, Harrison and two other captives were transferred into one of the Turkish ships.

Harrison was finally sold to a physician of Smyrna, an elderly man of 87. He worked mainly in the man’s still (processing herbs for medicines?), but also picked cotton, and was even involved in taking that cotton to the port, a day’s journey away. His master allocated a silver-gilt drinking bowl to Harrison, and when the old merchant was sick and dying, he allowed him to keep it, and told him to shift for himself. Harrison got to the port, and bought a passage secreted on a boat bound for Lisbon. Left destitute there, he heard English spoken, and told his story to an English gentleman who funded his final journey home.

“MANY question the Truth of this Account Mr. Harrison gives of himself, and his Transportation, believing he was never out of England: But there is no Question of Perry’s telling a formal false Story to hang himself, his Mother, and his Brother” (says the 17th century editor).

Two elaborate stories, both told by men with (it seems) nothing to gain in telling them. One of them proved (posthumously) false: the other was doubted, but apparently remained untested.

Harrison’s story has its scarcely credible aspects: those who assailed him, got an elderly, wounded man from Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire to Deal (Kent) in less than three complete days. That’s 186 miles, with two of the men on one horse. I could have believed Bristol – but Deal - far enough away to deter investigation, I surmise. They then quickly found and negotiated with a man who seems to have trade in selling abductees to the Turks. (Was it really the case that if you were reluctant to commit murder in the 17th century, you could find middlemen who would arrange for your victim to be carried off into slavery?) Over in Turkey, Harrison reports himself employed in what seem to be positions of something like trust, as if his experience of employment made him reproduce something which resembles his role as steward (is the silver-gilt cup an imagined equivalent to a steward’s chain?). His merchant, he says, had been in England at Crowland in Lincolnshire: but this doesn’t really cover the absence of language difficulties in his account. He just falls into place in Turkey as though it were all familiar.

Perry and the Perry family were perhaps guilty of the first robbery at Harrison’s house. Perry confessed to having told his brother where the money would be, where the ladder was kept, etc. If he didn’t know where the stolen money was stowed, then maybe he was convinced that his brother had carried out the second robbery (and murder), and was determined that Richard would not get away with it this second time, but would die with him. Perry’s wanderings about on the night of the abduction were those of a man who knew something was going on, and didn’t actually want to witness in fact what he later alleged he had witnessed.

The question of who benefited did strike the 17th century inquirers: “Some therefore have had hard Thoughts of his [Harrison’s] eldest Son, not knowing whom else to suspect; and believe the Hopes of the Stewardship, which he afterwards (by the Lord Campden’s Favour) enjoyed, might induce him to contrive his Father’s Removal; and this they are the more confirmed in from his Misbehaviour in it: But, on the other Side, 'tis hard to think the Son should be knowing of his Father’s Transportation; and, consequently, of these unhappy Persons’ Innocency, as to the Murder of him, and yet prosecute them to Death, as he did.”

Nobody sought to corroborate any part of Harrison’s story. Who was going to travel to Deal to inquire about a Wrenshaw and his activities, or find out if a Turk had ever been known in Crowland, Lincolnshire? There was no-one to do it, unless Lord Campden had ordered a clever servant to travel across the country and investigate.

I deduce that the Harrison’s, father and son, were acting together. The earlier robbery was being paid back on the Perry family, whose bungled conspiracies played into Edward Harrison’s hands. Edward also bullied his father into (in effect) handing over the job: it was difficult to refuse the reversion to the son of the man presumed murdered. Harrison senior was removed from the scene, in a semi-voluntary way. I still cannot quite account for the items of Harrison’s clothing, unless Perry planted them (he was back at the house and might have got in to pick them up) in his first panicky conviction that his brother had attacked his master.

It isn’t ‘The Return of Martin Guerre’. But it was written up 14 years after Harrison’s return, as “One of the most remarkable Occurrences which hath happened in the Memory of Man”. Everyone told their remarkable stories, and everyone kept their silence. For the rest, who heard, and surmised, they were helpless. No-one seems to have sought any corroborating evidence for Harrison’s story (not even looking for scars from the attack on his body). Evidence is accidental, rather than systematically gathered: Richard Perry drops an ‘inkle’ of linen tape: “One remarkable Circumstance happened in these Prisoners Return from the Justice of the Peace's House to Campden, viz. Richard Perry (following a good Distance behind his Brother John) pulling a Clout out of his Pocket, dropped a Ball of Inkle, which one of his Guard taking up, he desired him to restore it, saying it was only his Wife’s Hair-lace; but the Party opening of it, and finding a Slip-knot at the End, went and shewed it unto John, who was then a good Distance before, and so knew nothing of the dropping and taking up of this Inkle; but being shewed it, and asked whether he knew it, shook his Head and said, Yea, to his Sorrow; for that was the String his Brother strangled his Master with.” Didn’t it occur to him to dispose of a line-tape noose, just in case it was exploited as suspicious?

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