Day 867: The Case Of The Missing (Let’s Assume Dead) Person

originally published May 16, 2014

During the aftermath of the English Civil War, while a spanking-new parliamentary monarchy was struggling to gain its balance and move forward, a number of questions popped up like bulbous weeds all over the field of law and order. Land claims, the reach of justice, the decision of whether or not to punish the folks who had chopped off the head of King Charles I a few years back… these were just a few of the issues that were plaguing the machinery of justice. No wonder the judges started wearing powdered wigs – with the system in this much disarray, you might as well look a little goofy and have some fun at work.

Nestled within the salad of regicide and war-crimes was the pesky little crouton of murder. The precedents for the legalities of that most heinous crime had yet to be plunked down in cement. When the bizarre case later dubbed the Campden Wonder landed in the court system, the wonky sequence of events that would follow would alter how murder trials were handled for centuries.

Also, I’m thinking The Crouton of Murder would be a riveting piece of detective fiction. I’m not claiming dibs on this one – I release it unto the world. I just want to read it.

It was August 16, 1660. 70-year-old William Harrison left his sprawling estate in Chipping Campden for a two-mile walk to collect some rent money in Charingworth. It was what he’d always done; rents were collected by hand, and even in his advanced years, William didn’t mind the walk. To be clear, there is some debate about whether he was actually 70 years old – searching historical records for a name as generic as ‘William Harrison’ makes it hard to get accurate results. Anyway, it’s not important – he was an older guy walking two miles with a good chunk of change in his purse.

When William didn’t come home on time, his wife sent out John Perry, William’s man-servant, to find him. When Perry didn’t come home, William’s wife got a little freaked out. Because horror movies hadn’t been invented yet to warn people about leaving a safe home one at a time, she sent her son out next. Edward Harrison was determined to find out what had happened to his dad.

Along the road, Edward ran into John Perry, who claimed he’d had no luck finding William. The two teamed up and headed over to Ebrington, where a handful of William’s tenants confirmed that yes, William had been there to pick up the rent payment. After that, the trail ran cold. It was time to pack it in and see if William had shown up back home.

While the two of them were out sleuthing, someone came across William’s hat and shirt on the road between Chipping Campden and Ebrington. The hat had been slashed by a knife or sword, and the shirt was splattered in blood. A subsequent search turned up no body, just a big ol’ gaping mystery. As folks began to investigate – there was no Scotland Yard to swoop in and deconstruct this case, so these were probably amateur Columbos at work – the one quirk in the works turned out to be John Perry, the manservant. He didn’t do well under questioning.

Perry claimed he was innocent, and that Joan, his mother, and Richard, his brother, committed the murder. How they got this information out of John Perry we’ll never know – he might have been tortured, tricked, tickled, or maybe he just gave it up. John also added that Joan and Richard had pilfered 140 pounds from the Harrison household the previous year, and that John himself had fibbed about getting robbed a few weeks earlier because he was planning to rob the Harrisons. This was a truly twisted case. Also, a rather sub-par man-servant.

Joan and Richard vehemently denied any involvement in Harrison’s murder, mostly because – SPOILER! – they didn’t do it. Why John was ratting them out, tossing his family’s future into the crap-pile I have no idea. But he was their kin; surely if they were guilty, he must have been in on the scheme too, right? The court felt it was likely, and in early 1661 John Perry was entering a plea of ‘not guilty’ alongside his mother and brother, neither of whom were likely very fond of the guy at that point.

John Perry tried to recant his previous testimony. It was temporary insanity, he claimed. The jury wasn’t convinced and all three were sentenced to hang for the murder. Joan was strung up first because the jury was also convinced she was a witch – another little snippet of raging bullshit that John had tucked into his bogus story while he was being questioned. After Joan was gone, John and Richard were executed next.

It was a dark day in Gloucestershire. Mrs. Harrison had lost her husband and much of her staff, and Edward had lost his dad. But at least justice had been done. The killers had been booted off the mortal plane and would answer for their crimes in the fiery recesses of hell.

Then William Harrison came wandering home about a year later, in 1662.

William claims he’d been abducted by savage pirates while on his walk, taken by force from the comfortable confines of the Ebrington-Charingworth road, crammed onto a Turkish ship and sold into slavery near Smyrna in Turkey. He toiled away for about twenty months when his master died. William then slipped into the night and stowed away aboard a Portuguese ship bound for Lisbon. He was relieved to be back home.

If his story sounds like a heap of cow-splatter that’s because it probably is. Chipping Campden is about as inland as you can get, sandwiched between two halves of England from the nearest pirate ship. But I suppose it’s possible that some pirates strayed that far away from shore, only to steal a 70-year-old man’s gold (or however old he really was) and the old man himself. Because there’s a lot of money to be made on the geriatric slave market.

Whatever the truth may be, three members of the Perry family were strung up and executed for a crime that nobody actually committed. This is why the notion of “no body, no murder conviction” became a standard thing throughout much of the 18th and 19th centuries, and even well into the 20th. We don’t insist upon a corpse anymore, mostly because forensic science has come so far and we can now prove a murder without it. The Campden Wonder was a landmark case though, a great example of one of modern law’s earlier plateaus of evolution.

In the end, those poor feuding souls – that family that had been shattered like an unwanted souvenir Burger King tumbler glass – perished for a shadow of a crime. The truth? There wasn’t so much as a crumb… as a crouton… of murder.

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