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Wednesday, March 02, 2011

THE CAMDEN WONDER


I might have voted with the other members of the jury in the Perry trial, even though one of the defendants had been charged with being a witch, and I don't believe in witches. The evidence was so convincing. The accused witch was Joan Perry. She and her sons, John and Richard, were all hanged, but she was hanged first.  The authorities were hoping the older boy, Richard, if freed from his mother's witchcraft, would confess. But he did not. Which leaves me to wonder if being a witch was just an "eggcorn" for that other crime women are often accused of, the one that rhymes with witch. And then, to everyone's dismay, after Richard had strangled to death, the youngest boy, John, whose confession had just led to the execution of his family, recanted his confession. Still, rules are rules, and the jury had spoken, and so John was duly hanged as well. I like to think that if I had been on that jury, I would have had second  thoughts. Of course by that time it was a little too late.
(http://www.usingenglish.com/glossary/eggcorn.html)The story behind the trial takes place in Chipping Camden, the Cotswold, England. "Chipping" is an old Welsh word for market, and “wold” is Welsh for an upland meadow, so this was a market town amidst the rolling limestone hills and open fields which were once the property of the Saxon King, Harold. Under the Normans it became sheep country.In 1340, in Chipping Camden, the wool merchants were already so wealthy they built a hall on the High Street, using the honey-colored “Cotswold stone” as facing. Chipping Camden looks untouched since antiquity. In fact, this western corner of England was a violent incubator for the industrial revolution.It is human nature that wealth surrounded by poverty requires a human justification. It was no accident then that the Nuevo-rich Calvinist wool merchants in the Cotswold created a belief in predestination – the certainty that you are wealthy and successful because God has predestined you to be wealthy and successful before you had even been born. Thus the will of the successful was God’s will. Of this the Calvinists were certain. And they were certain that opposing them was to oppose God’s will.Thus, after seven years of civil war, these dead-certain Calvinists were comfortable in beheading their intransigent King, and suspected Catholic, Charles I, in 1649.The Calvinist experiment in government came to an end on January 1st, 1660 when soldiers under Colonel George Monck crossed the River Tweed at the village of Coldstream, thus earning his regiment the future title “The Coldstream Guards”. A month later they were in London, and in late April Charles Stuart, son of the last King of England, was crowned Charles II, the next King of England. But if anybody thought the restoration of the monarchy was going to return a certain stability to Britain, they were about to suffer a very rude awakening.Three months later, on Thursday, August 16th of that year, the estate manager for a wealthy Calvinist merchant left his home in Chipping Camden, intending to walk the two miles to the village of Charingworth. His name was William Harrison and he must have been an amazing fellow, as he was already 70 years old, and facing an eight mile hike to collect rents for his merchant master and return home by dark. He had made the trek many times before, except that this time, he did not return.At about 9 p.m. his servant, John Perry, was sent out to look for the old man in the villages of Charingworth and Paxford. The next morning Harrison’s son went out to search for them both. The son found John Perry, who explained he had been looking Mr. Harrison all night. Together they continued the search, and in the morning, on the road, found William Harrison’s hat, slashed by a knife, and his shirt, caked in blood.I don't know why suspicion settled on John Perry. But over several days of constant questioning, John told several stories. But he finally admitted he suspected his own mother and brother of murdering the old man and robbing him. And even though Joan and Richard both insisted on their innocence, the investigators felt certain that John had not lied, as he had implicated himself by admitting he had suggested the crime. Wells, ponds and streams were searched for poor Mr. Wilson’s body, or the rents he had collected. No trace of the old man or the money was found. The Perry family was held over the winter for trial.On Sunday, January 6th, 1661, fifty lunatics (most of them ex-soldiers from Oliver Cromwell’s army), calling themselves Fifth Monarchists, stormed into St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and started roughing people up. They shot one poor fellow who talked back to them. They were preparing the way, they said, for the return of Jesus Christ, whom they intended to crown the next King of England. It took an armed band of militia to chase the loonies out of the church.Three days later they stormed a prison and tried to free the prisoners. None of the criminals was insane enough to follow the fanatics. They stayed in their cells. This time it took the Coldstream guards to trap the loonies in a couple of taverns and through musket fire and the bayonet (above), finish them off. The leaders were captured, tried for treason, hanged, drawn and quartered. It seemed there was an air of uncertancy hanging over England, inspiring the citizens to begin to demand certainty.In April of 1661 the Perry family were brought to trial, convicted by a jury of their peers and duly hanged. And if there were second thoughts after John's gallows conversion to innocence, they were put aside. For even if Joan and Richard Perry had not killed poor Mr. Harrison, then John Perry, the self confessed murderer, certainly had. And it was certainly important that justice was seen to be done. Without the certain avenging hand of justice there would be no respect for the law, and English society would return to the rule of the beast, the rule of eat or be eaten. And then in 1662, wonder of wonders, the victim, William Harrison, walked back into to the village of Chipping Camden, certainly alive and allegedly well.When questioned the old man (he was now seventy-two) told a murkey tale of being set upon, stabbed, kidnapped, hustled aboard a ship, and sold in a Turkish slave market. He escaped, he said, when his master died. He then caught a ship back to England. As others have noted, “The story told by Harrison is conspicuously and childishly false.” And as a Mr. Paget noted, “much profit was not likely to arise from the sale of the old man as a slave…especially as the old man was delivered in a wounded and imperfect condition.”So where did Harrison disappear to in the summer of 1660? Given that transportation in that age was mostly limited to “shanks mare”, William Harrison could not have walked more than a few miles. He must have been close enough to Chipping Camden to have heard, in the eight months between his disappearance and the trial of his accused murderers. He must have heard of their impending deaths and of their executions.Still, the old man did not return for two years.  But why did he not return sooner? Why return at all? And why did John Perry tell such wild tales? Why did he send his own mother and brother to the gallows? Why did he not recant until the last moments of his life?It remains a mystery. It remains a wonder. It is the Camden Wonder. And all we know for certain is that John Perry, Richard Perry and Joan Perry slowly strangled at the end of a rope, as punishment for a crime they did not commit. Every thing else about this case is a mystery and a wonder. It is the Camden Wonder. It is a wonder that juries remain so certain they continue to take the lives of those accused, when they have no earthly reason to be so certain, and certainly no heavenly justification either.
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