The Ratcliff Highway murders (sometimes
Ratcliffe Highway murders) were two vicious attacks that resulted
in multiple fatalities, and occurred over twelve days in the year 1811,
in homes half a mile apart near Wapping in London.
The first attack took place on 7 December 1811, at 29
Ratcliffe Highway, in the home behind a linen draper's shop, on the
south side of the street, between Cannon Street Road and Artichoke Hill.
Ratcliffe Highway is the old name for the road now called The Highway,
in the East End of London.
The victims of the first murders were Timothy Marr, a
24-year-old linen draper and hosier, who had served the East India
Company on the Dover Castle from 1808 to 1811, his wife Celia and
their 3-month-old son, Timothy (who had been born on 29 August 1811);
and James Gowan, their shop boy. Margaret Jewell, a servant of the Marrs,
had been sent to purchase oysters, and escaped. This murder caused the
government to offer a reward of 500 guineas for the apprehension of the
Twelve days later, the second incident, on 19
December, was at The Kings Arms in New Gravel Lane (now Garnet
street). The victims of the second murders were John Williamson, a
publican, 56 years old, who had been at the Kings Arms for 15 years,
Elizabeth, his wife, aged 60 and Bridget Anna Harrington in her late
50's, a servant. Williamson's 14-year-old granddaughter, Catherine (Kitty)
Stillwell, slept through the incident and was thus not discovered. John
Turner, a lodger and journeyman, discovered the murders and escaped out
of an upper window, using a knotted sheet to climb down to the street
The victims' bodies were buried in the cemetery of
the local parish church, St George in the East.
Accused and accursed
A principal suspect in the murders, John Williams (also
known as Murphy), was a lodger at the nearby Pear Tree public
house in Old Wapping. He was a 27-year-old Scottish or Irish seaman. He
had nursed a grievance against Marr from when they were shipmates, but
the subsequent murders at the Kings Arms remain unexplained.
Williams was arrested, but committed suicide by
hanging himself, in Coldbath Fields Prison. His corpse was dragged
through the streets, in a cart, that paused by the scene of the murders.
His body was pitched into a hole and was buried, with a stake through
its heart, at the junction of Commercial Road and Cannon Street Road. In
August 1886, the skeleton of John Williams (with a stake driven through
it) was discovered during the excavation of a trench by a gas company.
It was six feet below the surface of the road where Cannon Street and
Cable Street cross at St George in the East. The landlord of the
Crown and Dolphin public house, at the corner of Cannon Street Road,
retained the skull as a souvenir.
Londoners were familiar with violent attacks in the
street at night, and Ratcliffe Highway had a particularly bad reputation
for robbery. Yet, these murders shocked London and much of England,
because they took place inside people's homes.
The saying "An Englishman's home is his castle"
indicates how safe people felt inside their homes, once their door was
locked and the window shuttered. The first murders took place after the
premises had been locked up, according to witnesses interviewed
afterward, so the murderer(s) must have already been hiding inside.
The thriving cheap newspapers spread the news round
the country, as the gruesome details of the violence leaked out over the
days after the two incidents. This became one of the first national
shock stories to circulate in Britain. Speculation on who killed the
innocent families, and why, kept the story alive right through to the
burial of the eventually accused man.
Recent reviews of the evidence suggest he was not the
In 1811, two of the world's first police forces were
in London. One was the City-based Bow Street Runners, whose remit was
confined to the West End. The other was the Marine Police Force, founded
in 1798 to tackle theft and looting from ships anchored in the Pool of
London and the lower reaches of the river. Its base was (and remains) in
Wapping High Street, it is now known as the Marine Support Unit. This
police station is only a few minutes walk from the crime scenes, and a
detective, based there, helped to investigate the events.
Before modern approaches to crime detection had been
developed, finding a culprit to account for a crime depended mostly on
character testimonies. Hence much factual information that could have
excluded several suspects was ignored by the inexperienced decision-makers.
By Katherine Ramsland
The Shadow of Death
On a cold December 7 in 1811, the same year in which
serial killer Anna Zwanziger was beheaded in Germany, most people in
London's East End area around the Ratcliffe Highway near the docks were
about to face an ordeal unlike anything they'd yet known. Thomas de
Quincey, who was in the area at the time, wrote about it in an 1827
essay, calling Ratcliffe Highway a "public thoroughfare in
the most chaotic quarter of eastern, or nautical,
One of the three central roads leaving London, it was
a perilous region, full of seedy businesses, dark alleys, and run-down
tenements, and, according to J. Ewing Ritchie, a place "where vice loses
its charm by appearing in all its grossness." While he recognized its
character-building qualities, he stated that he would not want a son of
his to have been born and raised there. What went on in the inns and
taverns "was sure to shock more senses than one."
The Timothy Marr family at number
29 Ratcliffe Highway (another source says
#11 Ratcliffe Highway)
was in their shop and residence preparing for the next day's business
when an intruder entered their home. It was just before midnight on a
Saturday, the busiest day of the week for area shopkeepers. Marr, 24,
kept a linen draper and hosier's shop, says de Quincey in his "On Murder
considered as one of the Fine Arts," and was a "stout, fresh-coloured
young man of twenty-seven." He had served for several years with the
East India Company on the Dover Castle and now had a young wife, Celia;
a baby son, Timothy (fourteen weeks old)' an apprentice, James Gowan;
and a servant girl, Margaret Jewell. All had been living there since
April of that year.
Marr had asked the Margaret to purchase some oysters,
and she had gone out to do so. As she opened the shop door, de Quincey
writes that she saw the figure of a man framed in the light (although no
other accounts support that, and it could be a dramatic incident
constructed to add flair to his essay). Thinking nothing of it, as
customers were always in and out, and the entire area was usually busy
after hours, she went off on her errand. However, she found
Taylor's oyster shop
closed, so she walked back past the Marr home, where she saw Mr. Marr at
work through the window, and went to the baker to pay a bill. She was
away from the home for about twenty minutes, she later reported, and it
was just enough time to save her from the fate that befell everyone else
When Margaret returned, she found the house dark and
the door locked. That seemed odd to her. She knocked, thinking that they
had forgotten that she was still out, but no one answered. "With the
astonishment," writes de Quincey, "came creeping over her an icy
horror." She heard no movement inside whatsoever. But then, reports
James and Critchley, she heard a noise that sounded like footsteps on
the stairs. That noise reassured her that someone was coming to let her
in. She heard the baby upstairs let out a little cry, and that, too, was
heartening. But no one came to the door.
Then, behind her, she heard footsteps on the pavement.
Frightened now, she rang the doorbell again, harder. Still no one
responded. She slammed the knocker against the wood "with unintermitting
violence," drawing attention from people outside. Among them was George
Olney, the night watchman who called out the time every half hour. He
came to find out who she was. Margaret explained her situation, so he
knocked at the door himself. He'd noticed that the shutters, while in
place, were not latched, so that was a concern. He called out several
times to Timothy Marr, whom he knew very well, but received no response.
All this noise roused John Murray, a pawnbroker and
the next-door neighbor, from his sleep. He came to find out what the
ruckus was about, so Margaret explained that she had been locked out.
Murray grew concerned, so he vaulted over the
eight-foot wall (James and Critchley say it was a small fence) that
divided his yard from the Marrs' and saw a light on and the back door
standing open. He entered and went up the steps, calling softly to the
Marrs that they had neglected to fasten their shutters. He heard nothing.
In fact, the house felt preternaturally quiet. A chill gripped him, but
he was uncertain how much more forceful he should be.
According to de Quincey, returning downstairs and
entering the shop, Murray beheld "the carnage
of the night stretched out on the floor." The "narrow premises" were "so
floated with gore that it was hardly possible to escape the pollution of
blood in picking out a path to the front door." First he saw young James
Gowan, the apprentice. He was lying on the floor a man's height from the
stairs and just inside the shop door. As
Murray approached, he could see that someone
had smashed the bones of the boy's face, pulverizing his brain and
causing it to be cast about around the walls and even across the
counters. Gowan's blood was dripping onto the floor.
Murray turned to go to the front door to let Olney
in, but stumbled across yet another corpse. He saw that Mrs. Marr lay
facedown, her head battered as well, and blood still dribbled from her
wounds. Murray ran to the door,
and with Olney he searched for Timothy. Behind the shop counter, they
found him battered to death. With three people dead inside the residence,
concern turned to the baby. Murray and Olney rushed to the living
quarters in the basement (or upstairs) and found the child. Whoever had
violated the others had finished young Timothy as well. The boy was
still in his bed, clearly wounded from a blow to the head that had cut
open his mouth. One side of his face was crushed and his throat was slit,
with the head nearly severed from the body. The crib itself was covered
with blood from the attack. Those who found him were stunned by these
By this time, more people from the neighborhood had
gathered outside, and some of them entered the home. They held candles
high, looking for a weapon, even as one person ran to the River Thames
Police Office to summon assistance.
The first officer on the scene was Charles Horton. In
1811, Britain had no
formal police force. Criminal investigation methods initially emerged
during the eighteenth century, but it was a crude system of making
arrests. Sir Henry and John Fielding, successive magistrates at the
court at Bow Street, had
replaced the "thief-takers," a primitive breed of bounty hunters, with
the Bow Street Runners in 1749, the first official constables in
London. They publicized
thefts and other crimes to raise public awareness. The six original Bow
Street Runners had been parish constables, and their job was to track
down known criminals and deliver writs of arrest. They were so
successful that the office had been expanded and proposals were made for
routine patrols around the city. Yet it would not be until 1829, almost
two decades after the Ratcliffe Highway
situation, that the Crown would affirm Sir Robert Peel's Metropolitan
Police Bill, which would offer
London an organized, fulltime police force. And
not until the 1840s would there be a separate organization of
detectives. For the time being, in 1811, parish constables, magistrates,
and coroners dealt with local crimes.
Still, despite the fact that the Police Office had
been set up to protect ships and cargoes at anchor, those citizens who
were part of the constabulary did rise to the occasion and attempt an
investigation. The police magistrates assisted them, but none were
trained in investigative procedures. This sort of thing was taking place
in France, with the introduction by
Francois Eugene Vidocq and his Brigade de la Sureté, the first
undercover detective agency, but even that would not be officially
sanctioned by Napoleon for two more years.
So Horton arrived at the scene and went looking for
clues about who had done this brutal deed. At first, he believed that
the weapon used on the unfortunate victims had been a ripping chisel.
One was found in the shop, but upon closer examination, it bore no blood.
In the master bedroom (some say upstairs, some downstairs), leaning
against a chair, he found a long-handled iron mallet covered with blood.
He assumed this was the weapon, probably abandoned there when Margaret
Jewell's knocking had scared the perpetrator away. He carried it into
better light and saw that human hairs were stuck in the drying blood on
the flat, heavy end. But the tapered end, used for driving nails into
wood, was chipped.
There didn't seem to be a motive. Nothing appeared to
have been taken, and money was still left in the till and in several
drawers in the home. Perhaps the thief had been scared off before he'd
finished what he came for. The other possibility was some sort of
revenge, which would indicate that the attacker probably knew Timothy
Marr and had a grudge.
Then two sets of footprints were discovered at the
back of the shop, and because the tracks proved to contain not only
sawdust from work done by a carpenter inside that day but also traces of
blood, they appeared to belong to two killers. As citizens followed the
tracks, they came across a man who claimed that he had heard a number of
people in an unoccupied house next to him. So perhaps there were more
than two involved. It now looked like the work of some nefarious gang.
When Horton brought the bloodstained maul back to the
police office, he found that three men were already in custody. As James
and Critchley indicate, they were sailors who had been seen in the area
that night, which was not unusual. One appeared to have spots of blood
on his clothing. However, they all had convincing alibis, so they were
released. Others were picked up, based on witness reports, and those
cases fell apart as well. A small reward of fifty pounds was offered for
information and, to notify area residents, a handbill was drafted and
stuck on church doors.
A coroner's jury was organized on December 10 with
Coroner John Unwin, in which the principal players retold their stories
from that fateful night. It seemed evident that someone had been
watching the place for the servant girl's departure, as if they knew
that she would be sent out—an odd thing for Marr to do at such an hour.
And their crime had been committed between 11:55, when she left and
12:15, when she returned. Murray did say he had heard bumping noises
around 12:10, so the examiners decided that the killers had still been
in the home when Margaret returned and began to knock and call out. When
they heard her, they had fled through the back door.
One idea was to attempt to trace the origin of the
maul via the chip in its blade. Perhaps someone knew something about
that. Another was to ponder the chisel. While there was no blood on it,
Margaret's story indicated that Marr had been looking for such a chisel
that very evening and had it been in such plain view, he would have
noticed. So perhaps someone brought it in to use as a weapon. In fact,
one of the carpenters who had worked in the shop that day was detained,
but there was no real case against him, so he'd been released (perhaps
too quickly). A previous servant girl who'd been let go was also
questioned, but she seemed to lack motive as well as criminal companions,
and she was too small to have performed such deeds herself.
The next grim task was to bury the dead.
The bodies were laid out on beds in the home and the
public was allowed to go through the house and look at them. The news
had hit all of London, and people came in
droves to gawk at the corpses, whose wounds were not sutured and eyes
were not closed. As James and Critchley say, there were "no restrictions."
They also point out that such a practice was not unusual. No one in
those days thought about preserving a crime scene or respecting the dead.
Crime victims were fair game and the public had a strong appetite for
scandal and gore.
The four victims were given a memorial service, also
attended by many gawkers, along with genuine mourners, and they were
then buried beneath a tall monument in the church of St. George's-in-the-East,
where they had proudly baptized their firstborn three months earlier. A
long poem was carved into the stone, including the lines, as quoted by
James and Critchley:
Life is uncertain in this world.
Oft in a moment we are hurled
To endless bliss or endless pain;
So let not sin within you reign.
Even Marr's brother came under scrutiny as a suspect,
since he was rumored to have had a disagreement with Timothy. He was
interrogated for forty-eight hours, but he, too, was exonerated because
he had a firm alibi.
London was panicked by the idea that a stranger or a
gang could enter homes and leave everyone dead. This was the ultimate
fear—that one's own home was not safe. While the
Ratcliffe Highway area was far from genteel,
the Marrs had been a hardworking family with no apparent ties to
criminal elements. They seemed to be entirely random victims, and their
demise violated a social ideal that people who lived decent lives and
worked hard had nothing to fear.
Then someone took a closer look at the maul and
brought an interesting point to the police's attention. If blood was
wiped away at a certain spot, it appeared that some initials were carved
into the handle, as if with a coppering punch: I.P. (or, according to
some accounts, J.P.). Those who were working on the case realized that
they now had a way to try to trace the owner. This discovery occurred on
Thursday, December 19, an otherwise ordinary day. That is, until that
Death Strikes Twice
In the same part of town just down the road on
81 New Gravel Lane,
Mr. and Mrs. Williamson ran the King's Arms tavern. They had done so for
fifteen years. John Williamson (accounts are not clear on his first name)
was 56, and his wife Elizabeth was four years older. Their fourteen-year-old
granddaughter lived with them, as did servant Bridget Harrington. They
also had a boarder, John Turner, who had been there for approximately
eight months. The Kings Arms was a tall building, looming two stories,
but it was no place for a rowdy party. The Williamsons liked to retire
On this night, Williamson had told one of the parish
constables about a man wearing a brown jacket who seemed to be sneaking
around the place, listening at his door. He asked that the officer keep
an eye out for him and arrest him.
Not long after, that same constable heard the cry, "Murder!"
in the streets. A crowd gathered outside the Kings Arms, and he knew
that something was amiss with his friend. A nearly naked man was
descending from the second floor on some knotted sheets, an odd sight
indeed, and he let go of the sheet that supported him and dropped to the
street, whereupon he was grabbed. From his incoherent crying, the
neighbors gathered that he was the Kings Arms' boarder, John Turner, and
he had just witnessed an awful sight.
The crowd beat at the tavern doors to get inside, and
once they did, they saw the body of Mr. Williamson, lying on its back on
the steps leading into the taproom. "Mr. Williamson," writes de Quincey,
"lay at the foot of the stairs with a violent contusion of the head, his
throat dreadfully cut, and an iron crowbar by his side."
It appeared that he had been beaten with the same
iron bar that lay next to him, but his throat had also been cut with a
sharper implement and his blood ran freely over the steps. One hand
appeared to be nearly hacked off. Then in the parlor, Williamson's wife
and the inn's maid were found laid out with smashed skulls and slit
throats. Bridget's feet were beneath the grate, as if she had been
getting the fire ready to burn in the morning when struck down. As
people drew closer, they saw that the wife's neck had been thoroughly
severed to the bone.
People armed themselves with whatever they could find
and went up the steps in search of possible perpetrators. They came
across Kitty Stillwell, the granddaughter, in her bed, alive and
untouched. Given what had happened to the Marr family twelve days
earlier, it seemed miraculous. She had slept through the entire attack
and had no idea what had just occurred downstairs.
Police officers arrived even as fire bells called out
volunteers. The bodies were collected from their moribund positions and
placed on beds, while the surviving girl was taken to a safer home.
London Bridge was sealed off and several Bow
Street Runners were assigned to hunt down the culprit. Witnesses
insisted that a tall man was loitering outside the tavern that night,
wearing a Flushing coat.
The best witness was John Turner, the lodger who had
scaled down a sheet from the second story. He had seen a tall man, he
said, near Mrs. Williamson's corpse. Yet he himself was a suspect,
possibly caught in the act of fleeing from his own crime. A tavern
window was discovered to be open and proved to have bloodstains on the
sill, indicating the perpetrator's escape route.
A footprint in the mud outside affirmed this, and
according to de Quincey, Turner said that he had shouted for assistance
(other accounts say he remained silent), scaring the killer away before
he could harm anyone else. Nevertheless, the unknown assailant did get
away, apparently by running along a clay-covered slope. The good thing
about that, surmised a police officer, was the fact that he would have
gotten clay all over his clothing, which could make him an easy person
Then someone pointed out that his escape route was
the same one taken by the person who had slaughtered the Marr family.
Yet the motive for these crimes still eluded people. Williamson's watch
was missing and both crimes had been interrupted, so it might still be
simple robbery, but no one could be certain. There were no known
connections between the two families, so speculation in that direction
proved fruitless. Still, they had to catch the perpetrators before
another such act. Those men who held local offices convened and quickly
offered another reward, 100 guineas (10 pounds), for information leading
to the capture of this offender. Within an hour after the discovery of
the crime, the handbills were drafted and posted.
A primitive sort of task force was arranged,
comprised of police officers from various parishes and a posse of Bow
Street Runners. They held a conference and arrested a suspect who lived
in the area who had recently purchased a gallon of brandy, and who also
had recently cleaned trousers to get rid of what a doctor said were
bloodstains. At the time, forensic tests to test this theory did not
exist, but the man was detained anyway. Also, witnesses claimed to have
seen two men running up
Ratcliffe Highway that night, a tall man with
a limp and a shorter man. Yet all of these clues were vague and
difficult to interpret for clear leads.
De Quincey himself supposedly witnessed the public
alarm, although James and Critchley accuse him of having an "opium-stimulated"
perspective on it. Various rewards were offered by three different
parishes for information, including two offers of 50 pounds—the highest
reward ever offered to date in such a circumstance. Now, with two such
cases so close in time and geographical area, it appeared that
London had a mass murderer on their hands who
had repeated his crimes and who might do so again. People were tense
with fear and anticipation, purchasing locks at great expense to keep
intruders out and wondering about their neighbors.
All of the area's newspapers gave these crimes
considerable space for some three weeks. A coroner's inquest was called
in the Black Horse tavern across from the Kings Arms. John Turner was
now in a better state of mind to offer his report, and this time he was
believed. His testimony is recorded in full in The Maul and the Pear
He entered the place around 10:40, he said, and went
to his room on an upper floor. He heard Mrs. Williamson lock the door.
Then he heard the front door bang open "hard," and Bridget shouted, "We
are all murdered!" Mr. Williamson followed this with "I am a dead man."
As he lay in bed listening to this, Turner heard several blows. He also
heard someone walk about with shoes in which he believed there were no
nails (which was significant, because the shoeprint outside was from a
shoe made with nails). After a few minutes, he arose and went to see
what had occurred.
He heard three drawn-out sighs. As he silently crept
down, he saw that a door stood open and a light burned on the other side,
so he peered in and caught a glimpse of a tall man leaning over Mrs.
Williamson. Turner estimated him to be six feet tall and said he was
wearing a Flushing coat. The man appeared to be going through the
victims' pockets. Turner saw only one man before returning up the steps
and contemplating what he should do.
He tied two sheets together in his bedroom and
lowered himself out of the house, lest he too became a victim. He knew
that Williamson's watch was missing, he continued, and he described it.
He also said he had no recollection of an iron bar in the tavern such as
the one that was found being inside the house. The conclusion was that
it must have been brought there by the killer.
After him came those who had seen the corpses. The
surgeon who had examined the bodies also gave his report. That person
gave a full description of the wounds. The jury listened to all of this
and returned a verdict of willful murder by a person or some persons
unknown. No one was surprised. But everyone wanted the perpetrators
caught as soon as possible.
Then, despite having no real police force, the crime
appeared to be solved, although James and Critchley insist that the "culprit"
was more likely an easy scapegoat than the actual perpetrator: "It
became clear that the system of 1811 had done no more than pronounce a
confident, convenient and ghoulish judgment on a corpse, while leaving
the core of the Ratcliffe Highway murders wrapped in a continuing
They use numerous documents from that period to
substantiate this claim, including crime pamphlets (a mainstay in that
society), a history of common law, newspaper accounts from the period,
and Home Office papers, among others. They did not have records of the
depositions (although newspaper accounts were said to be accurate by
those who took the depositions). They consider De Quincey's essay on the
matter over a decade later to be "fanciful," and they theorize that a
mutiny on an East India Company ship, the
Castle, a few months prior
to the murders had some influence on the situation.
Let's look first at who came under scrutiny and then
examine the arguments against his involvement.
It wasn't long before circumstantial evidence pointed
to an Irish sailor, John Williams, whose roommate had noticed that he
had returned after midnight to his room that night at the Pear Tree
tavern on Cinnamon Street off
Williams had been an acquaintance of Timothy Marr's, according to de
Quincey (but no one else), who describes him thus: "a man of middle
stature, slenderly built, rather thin but wiry, tolerably muscular, and
clear of all superfluous flesh. His hair was of the most extraordinary
and vivid color, viz., a bright yellow, something between an orange and
a yellow colour." The Times was more specific: he was five-foot-nine,
slender, had a "pleasing countenance," and did not limp.
The Shadwell Police office examined him, among
several other suspects. He had two pawn tickets on his person for shoes,
some silver, and a pound note. His last voyage had been on the
Castle, an East
India trading ship, where he had nearly gotten into trouble
during a failed mutiny. He was educated and considered honest, always
paying for his rooms, and popular with females. He shared a room with
two other seamen, though he gave the impression that he had once seen
better times. He was subjected to an intense interrogation simply
because he'd been seen frequently at Williamson's tavern.
On the Thursday night when the crime was committed,
he had not shown up in his lodgings until around midnight (Wilson says it was after
midnight). Granted, he was known to party, but given the circumstances,
his behavior was now considered suspicious, especially since he had been
seen near the Williamson home.
Williams admitted that he had indeed been at the
Kings Arms tavern, and had even been there that night—he had never
denied it—but that the family considered him a friend. Mrs. Williamson
had touched his face that very evening in a motherly gesture. What went
against him was that he had told someone who then reported it that he'd
had no money, but after the murders he did have some.
In fact, when he'd left the tavern on Thursday
evening, he said, he had gone to consult a surgeon about an old wound,
as well as a female with some knowledge of medicine. (No one checked.)
The money found on him, he insisted, had come from pawning some of his
clothing. The pawn tickets proved it. (No one checked the dates.)
Despite his insistence on innocence, Williams was
remanded to Coldbath Fields prison, where another suspect was also still
confined. That man remained in prison. Until this crime was solved,
officials were taking no chances and no one was going anywhere. In fact,
under the belief that Williams had not acted alone, they would round up
yet a third suspect as well.
Then, on Christmas Eve, came the first real break in
the case. It was now more than two weeks after the Marr murders and five
days after the Williamsons had been bludgeoned to death. The police
searched the Pear Tree lodging house, perhaps on a tip from the landlord,
and found that a trunk belonging to a sailor out at sea was missing a
maul. That sailor's name was John Peterson—J.P. The landlord recalled
the maul in the toolkit, said he even had used it and had chipped it
himself. That was a significant lead.
In an open forum of witnesses that day, John Turner
was asked if he could identify John William as the man he had seen
standing over the deceased Mrs. Williamson. He said that he could not,
but that he knew the man from prior visits to the tavern. The woman who
washed Williams' clothing was called to see if she had washed any bloody
clothing. She said that about two weeks earlier, she had noticed that
one shirt was torn, and another that had blood on the collar, as if from
bloody fingers. She merely thought Williams had been in a fight, and as
she had not washed for him since before the Williamson murder, she had
nothing to say on that matter.
Williams tried to give an account of his torn and
bloodstained shirt as the result of a scuffle with acquaintances (Colin
Wilson indicates it was a card-game brawl), but the magistrates silenced
him. At the end of the day, he was removed again to the prison. It
seemed that those in charge had already made up their minds on the
matter. The next day was Christmas.
The facts against John Williams were that he'd had
the opportunity to take the maul, he had money after the murder but not
before, he'd returned to his room just after the killer had fled the
second crime scene, and he allegedly had a bloody and torn shirt. The
courts in those days generally relied on logic and eyewitness testimony
over forensic evidence, although they did attempt to identify the maul
and to ascertain whether the shirt in question did indeed have
bloodstains on it.
If a narrative could be devised that fit the facts
and made sense, then more than likely a person could be found guilty.
Investigators did not yet think about or possess ways to process and
match blood evidence, interpret blood-spatter patterns, look for
fingerprints, or make a soil analysis. The best they could do was
surmise what must have happened, given what they knew, and then leave it
for the courts to decide.
However, Williams never got to trial. Three days
after Christmas, on December 28, he used a scarf to hang himself from an
iron bar in his cell at the Coldbath Fields prison. No one discovered
this until just before he was scheduled for a hearing. The officials and
public had gathered to hear more testimony and to ask him more questions,
but a lone police officer announced to the magistrate that the accused
was dead and his body was cold.
It surprised everyone who had spoken to the man, and
several prisoners and a warden said that he had appeared in good spirits
only the day before his suicide, believing that he would soon be
exonerated and released. His death came as a surprise. (Much later,
people would speculate whether he had in fact been murdered to prevent
authorities from casting their gaze elsewhere for the culprit.)
Even as Williams was laid out, the scheduled hearing
went forward, and it seems that, given Williams' inability to defend
himself, people were suddenly much freer with information. How accurate
it was in anyone's guess, especially given the case's notoriety. While
the overall reports were consistent with previous accounts, more details
were added and some are fairly damning.
The Times reported that a secret correspondence was
discovered in the prison between Williams and one of the other suspects,
"which clearly connects them with the shocking transactions." It's not
clear whether this was true.
Another man who shared a room with Williams said that
he had found his own stockings muddied and hidden behind a chest. Upon
confronting Williams, he concluded that Williams had worn his stockings
out that night and had gotten them dirty. Williams then took them into
the yard and washed them.
The landlady affirmed this and added that while the
stockings were quite muddy, she had also seen blood on the top of them.
She said she had not brought this information to the attention of the
magistrates before this day because she feared that Williams would
murder her. A female witness who knew Williams well connected him with a
chisel that proved to have been taken from the same seaman's chest that
had yielded the missing maul.
Finally, the forum declared that Williams was their
man and that he had delivered his own form of justice by taking his life.
That seemed a clear statement of his guilt. In fact, the case against
the other suspects collapsed, and Williams was deemed the sole
perpetrator of both atrocities (although no one had done anything to
connect him with the Marr murders). Preparations were made to bury him,
pay out the rewards, and bring the case to a close.
"On the last day of the fatal year," writes de
Quincey, "the remains of this sanguinary assassin were privately removed
at eleven o'clock at night." Someone made a drawing of the procession
and the body, which can be seen in prints today, showing Williams not as
a slender man, the way accounts later reported, but a stocky laborer. In
his pockets was a piece of metal that he apparently had ripped off a
wall to use to stab himself in the event he was unsuccessful at hanging.
Or so people surmised.
That Williams had killed himself was not sufficient
for those who were still frightened by the crimes. Just to make sure he
could never repeat them, a mob of citizens took the body in a procession
("an immense concourse of persons") up the
Ratcliffe Highway. "When the cart came
opposite the late Mr. Marr's house a halt was made for nearly a quarter
of an hour.
The procession then advanced to
St. George's Turnpike, where the new road [new in
de Quincey's experience in 1827] is intersected by
Cannon Street. Those
who accompanied the procession arrived at a grave already dug six feet
down [one account says four]. The remains of John Williams were tumbled
out of the cart and lowered into this hole, and then someone hammered a
stake through his heart."
In fact, the procession had also stopped for ten
minutes in front of the dark Kings Arms tavern as well. Also, the grave
hole was made too small for the size of the corpse, so that this
murderer would feel uncomfortable even in death. (The coachman had also
whipped him three times across the face, according to James and
Critchley, while the procession was holding vigil before the Kings Arms.)
In other words, Williams was buried at a crossroads
where four roads meet, as a vampire might be, so that he could never
rise up from the grave to attack. At that time, says Lane and Gregg, the
people believed that a stake through the heart would keep the restless
soul of someone who had committed suicide (i.e., damned himself) in his
final resting place. The crossroads was believed to confuse evil ghosts,
in the event that they did break free and rise from the grave, as to
which direction to take. Quicklime was added, the pit was then covered
over, and the "solemn ceremony concluded."
In August 1886, a gas company began to excavate a
trench in the area where Williams had been buried. They accidentally
unearthed his skeleton, and reports claim that the stake was still
visible. "It was six feet below the surface of the road where Cannon and
Cable Streets cross at St. George in the East," states the unknown
author of "Stepney Murders."
Serial Mass Murder
It's unusual for someone who kills in a manner
categorized as mass murder—more than three people in a single location—to
go on to commit that same crime again. We may think of the Manson Family,
who in 1969 killed five people at the Sharon Tate/Roman Polanski
residence, and the next night killed the LaBianca couple, but that was
in response to a vision and not the act of a single perpetrator. However,
there have been a few notable cases.
Russia during the early 1990s, a man
began to slaughter whole families with a shotgun. Called the Terminator,
Anatoly Onoprienko terrorized the
Ukraine, murdering a dozen women
before he turned his rage into a more wholesale slaughter. After taking
what he could from the victims, he usually burned their homes. Sometimes
he scattered photographs of the family, as if the very idea of kinship
enraged him—perhaps because he had been placed in an orphanage after his
In addition, he killed people at random—a police
officer, men sitting in a car, people who merely looked at him as he
fled a crime scene. His threats to a cousin alerted police, who found
possessions from the victims in his girlfriend's home. There was no
doubt he was a serial killer, or that he included groups of people in
his rampage. Onoprienko claimed to have killed more than fifty people
because "voices from above" had ordered him to kill, but no one took
this play for psychosis seriously.
As for the Ratcliffe murders, the motive remained a
mystery and a source of conversation for crime buffs in the decades to
come. Colin Wilson indicated that Williams was syphilitic and harbored a
grudge against humanity. Thus, he was acting out against people in
general and would have continued to do so. The fact that the murders
stopped after his apprehension and death, he added, was an additional
indictment against him. Wilson also adds that Williams had told a
friend who later reported it that after the Marr massacre, he was out of
sorts, indicating, "I am unhappy and cannot remain easy." Apparently
that statement was suspicious.
However, James and Critchley believes that the
proceedings were performed too quickly as a way to close the case and
appease the frightened citizens. An early witness report insisted that
the two men seen on the road that night outside the Kings Arms tavern
had spoken and one had called out what sounded like a name—Mahoney or
Hughey. William's name did not sound like that, but once he was in
custody, that piece of the puzzle was soon forgotten.
These authors do admit that Williams had
misrepresented himself on occasion and was perhaps going by an alias,
but following leads about two men walking up the street together (who
were not proven to have had anything to do with the murders) dismissed
the facts about the open tavern window and the footprint in the mud
outside. They believe that it was possible someone else had perpetrated
the assaults, making Williams merely a tragic and unfortunate pawn.
In January 1812, the magistrates still wanted to
conclusively prove that Williams had done these killings. They wanted to
find the weapon, either a razor or knife, that he had used to cut the
throats of the victims, and they wanted to link it clearly to Williams.
One police officer said that he had found such a knife in the pocket of
Williams' coat, but had not seen it since.
The newspaper accounts following this testimony
shifted from calling the weapon a razor, as per the surgeon's reports,
saying that the wounds had been clearly opened with a sharp knife.
Eventually a knife was indeed found, and was said to have blood on it,
but whether it had actually belonged to Williams or had been planted in
his room to confirm his guilt is still up in the air. James and
Critchley found the entire incident suspicious.
In tracking down more leads, they researched an
incident that had occurred at a shop called the
Roxburgh Castle, which involved Williams and
another man named Williams Ablass, who had also been detained as a
suspect in the murders. They had mutinied unsuccessfully, with Ablass
being placed in confinement and Williams thought merely to have been led
astray by his shipmates.
On shore, Ablass had been Williams' drinking
companion for a time, which had brought him into contact with the Kings
Arms tavern. In confinement before his release, he had been unable to
account for some of his time on the nights of both murders.
In fact, some people took the time in the months
following the Williams burial to inspect the case more closely and
concluded that two, perhaps three, perpetrators must have been involved.
Another man from the ship had returned to his rooms at around the same
time as Williams had. He was detained but later freed.
These suspects, who were allowed to answer for
themselves only vaguely, may have been very good suspects indeed.
However, the investigation was so uncoordinated and so filled with
irrelevant testimony while ignoring productive leads that there was
little chance of achieving real justice.
The authorities had chased down only one lodger at
the Pear Tree, when there were other viable suspects living there as
well. In addition, they were never able to explain why, when Williams
came home to the Pear Tree that night, he drew attention to himself
rather than going right to bed. The person to whom he spoke did not
notice a bloody shirt, but it's a wonder that Williams would have even
put himself in such a position. His actual behavior suggests innocence.
And no one checked the date on his pawn tickets or ran down his alibi
witnesses. Nor were several suspects, including a carpenter working in
the Marr residence the day they were killed, adequately interrogated.
James and Critchley conclude that while the facts
more closely match Ablass, a man with a history of aggression who was
also lame, "it now seems unlikely that we shall ever know the full truth."
Perhaps the violence on Ratcliffe Highway
did begin with the mutiny, or at least with those mutineers, but the log
of that ship was lost. Yet these authors insist, justifiably so, that
Williams was convicted and vilified throughout history on evidence so
paltry it should never even have been considered for trial. They think
it's even plausible that someone else murdered him, and they consider
him the eighth and final victim of the Ratcliffe massacres.
Thames Police: The Ratcliffe
The Ratcliffe Highway Murders
by PC Bob Jeffries
On Saturday 7th December 1811 at around 1130pm, Timothy Marr, who
ran a drapers shop at 29, Ratcliffe Highway, was preparing to close his
business for the night. Inside the premises were four other people apart
from himself: his wife Celia and their three and a half month old baby,
also called Timothy, and two non-family members-their apprentice, James
Gowan and Margaret Jewell, their serving girl. Within the hour, Jewell
alone would remain alive; all of the others would lie brutally and
horribly murdered. They would be the first victims in a series of
murders that would both grip and terrify the entire East End of London.
At about 1150 pm Timothy Marr dispatched Margaret Jewell on a double
errand. She was first to go to a shop and purchase some oysters, a late
night snack for the hard working owner of the drapery store and a treat
for his young wife who was only slowly recovering from the birth of
their only child. She was then to go to a nearby bakery at John Hill and
pay an outstanding bill. Although the hour was late, this would not have
been seen as unusual, businesses tended to remain open late into the
night particularly on a Saturday which would have been the busiest
trading day of the week. Jewell arrived at the oyster shop only to find
it shut for the night. She returned to Marr's store at approximately
midnight and saw her master still working in the lights of the shop. She
then went to the bakery, but again found it closed. Jewell decided to go
to another shop in a final attempt to find some oysters but again, she
found the shop closed and she eventually returned home empty handed
arriving at the store at around twenty minutes past midnight. This time
the building was in darkness and she rang the bell. When Jewell could
not get any response from anyone inside she continued to ring the bell.
As she rang the bell she could hear noises from inside the premises, she
heard footsteps... she heard the baby give a low cry... ...then she
heard nothing more. Once again she tried to attract the attention of
those inside, ringing the bell and kicking the door so vigorously that
she received abuse from a passing drunk. Not wishing to attract any more
unwanted attention she stopped trying to gain access at around half past
midnight and waited outside, doubtless in a state of some confusion.
Some thirty minutes later George Olney, the parish night watchman
was calling the hour at 1am. Jewell explained her problem to him and
Olney must have been suspicious. He had checked the shutters of the shop
an hour earlier and had found them closed but unlocked. He had called to
those inside that the shutters were still insecure and had heard a voice
(which he failed to recognise) telling him that they were aware of that
fact. Olney thought no more about the matter and continued on his round.
Now, he too attempted to rouse those inside. His efforts alerted John
Murray, a pawnbroker who was the Marr's neighbour. Murray had heard some
unusual noises at about midnight through the walls of the terrace where
they lived….but had thought little of it. Now his suspicions were also
aroused and he too decided to lend assistance. Murray went to the rear
of the block in Pennington Street and approached the shop from the back.
He found the back door open and entered the house calling out as he went.
He stood outside the Marr's bedroom door but decided not to enter. He
went downstairs and there found the body of James Gowan, the apprentice.
His skull had been smashed by repeated blows from a heavy object, his
head reduced to a bloody pulp. Murray stood transfixed, completely
petrified by fear. Then, by the dim light of his candle, he saw the body
of Celia Marr. She was lying face down on the floor, blood still coming
from her battered skull. At last Murray was able to open the front door
and raise the alarm. "Murder, murder. Come and see what murder is
here!" By now a small crowd had gathered and as light came into the
shop the body of Timothy Marr was discovered. By now Margaret Jewell was
screaming and everybody present must have been in severe shock at the
sheer horror of the scene... Only then did someone shout "What about
the baby?" They ran downstairs to the living quarters and there
found the child, still in its cradle... ... Its throat had been cut and
its head had almost been severed from its body. Also, the baby's head
had been severely battered on its left side.
As the frightened group struggled to leave this Hellish scene they
found a 'ripping chisel' close to the body of young Cowan. The chisel
did not appear to have been used in the murders.
Panic started to spread and the sound
of shouting and watchmen's rattles brought police officer Charles Horton
of the Thames Police Office at Wapping to the scene. Taking charge of
the scene he commenced a thorough search of the scene. Nothing that he
had previously experienced could possibly have prepared Horton for this
awful chore. Perhaps he took a few moments to take in the scene and
compose himself before beginning his unenviable task. He began his
systematic search on the ground floor using the dim light of his lantern
to assist him. He found some loose change in the till and five pounds in
Marr's pockets. Apart from the bodies and the chisel (Which was clean)
he found nothing else unusual on the ground. Downstairs he must have
examined the blood soaked cradle containing the remains of the baby,
also named Timothy. Horton found no other evidence there. Whatever had
been used to cut the baby's throat had been removed from the scene.
Horton must have been relieved to leave the grisly scene behind him and
commence the rest of the search. As he moved upstairs, he was joined by
Olney. They entered the Marr's bedroom and found the bed undisturbed.
Against a chair they found a heavy shipwright's hammer, known as a 'maul'.
The head of the maul was covered in blood and matted hair. Horton seized
the hammer as evidence and continued his search during which, he
discovered the sum of £152 in a bedroom drawer. If the motives for the
murders were burglary then it would appear that the suspects had fled
the scene empty handed, possibly scared away when Margaret Jewell had
started to ring the doorbell.
Horton took his evidence downstairs
and the gathering crowd would have witnessed him removing it from the
premises. By now some more evidence had been found at the rear of the
premises. Two sets of blood stained footprints let away from the scene
and a possible witness in Pennington Street reported that he had seen a
group of some ten men running away from an empty house in the direction
of New Gravel Lane (now Glamis Road) shortly after the first alarm had
When Horton eventually returned to Wapping Police
Station with his evidence he must have been shocked and totally
exhausted. His good work did not however go unnoticed or unrewarded. The
Home Secretary eventually awarded him the sum of ten pounds from the
reward fund for his diligent efforts.
The murders took place outside of the
geographical jurisdiction of Thames Magistrate, John Harriott. However,
his officer was the first on scene and he had possession of the murder
weapon. He obviously considered these facts quite sufficient to appoint
himself as the investigating officer and he visited the crime scene on
the Sunday morning. By then news of the terrible events of the preceding
night had spread and the pressure was on for early arrests. Bills and
leaflets requesting witnesses and any other person with possible
information regarding the murders to come forward were circulated.
Harriott himself issued such a bill offering a reward for information
leading to an arrest. This was to leave Harriott in decidedly hot water
when Home Office officials decided that he had overstepped his authority
by acting inappropriately and in contravention of their rules regarding
the offering of such rewards. Harriott had to tread cautiously as he had
only recently been accused of impropriety on a separate and unrelated
matter, yet this still did not prevent him from replying in a sarcastic
manner when he wrote to the Home Office explaining his actions...
"I feel vexed with myself that I should suffer my
zeal for discovering the atrocious murderers to run me into an error."
Having explained his actions he ended his letter...
"I will take special care to keep my zeal within proper
For the next fortnight the
investigation continued but little real progress appears to have been
made and perhaps life was beginning to return to normal. Many people had
been arrested and questioned regarding the murders but the case was no
closer to being solved. Then, on December 19th the investigation at last
moved forward. A rather belated examination of the shipwright's hammer
or maul revealed a set of initials (JP) stamped into the metal head.
Harriott lost no time in circulating yet another bill once again
describing the suspected murder implement and the newly discovered
identifying marks. That same evening Wapping was once more thrown into
turmoil when yet another gruesome murder scene came to light. Publican,
John Williamson, his wife, Elizabeth and their barmaid, Bridget
Harrington, were found murdered at the King's Arms tavern, New Gravel
Lane, now called Glamis Road. The murders were discovered when a
patrolling watchman found a man (John Turner, a lodger at the tavern)
scrambling semi naked down knotted sheets from an upper floor and
shouting that murder was being committed within the house. Entry was
gained to the premises by forcing the cellar flap and a rapid search
revealed the body of publican, John Williamson hanging from a ladder in
the cellar and the bodies of his wife Elizabeth and Bridget Harrington
in the kitchen area. All three had been brutally battered and murdered.
It also appeared that their throats had been cut in what appeared to be
almost a carbon copy of the recent atrocities involving the Marr family.
There were further similarities to the Marr murders in the supposed
method of escape, which appeared to be across open land at the rear of
the premises. Only one person (other than Turner) survived the attack,
Kitty Stillwell, the Williamson's fourteen-year-old granddaughter had
slept through the incident and had thus escaped being found by the
Wapping and the surrounding area was
once again thrown into a state of panic and pressure for an early arrest
at last forced the Home Secretary to appoint a Bow Street magistrate, Mr.
Aaron Graham, to the enquiry.
Several more arrests were made in connection with the
murders and on December 21st the arrest of a seaman by the name of John
Williams passed almost unnoticed. He was interviewed by the Shadwell
magistrates after information had been received from an unknown source.
It would appear that he was seen as something of a dissolute character.
Williams had been seen drinking with at least one other at Williamson's
King's Arms tavern shortly before the murders. Williams was a man of
medium height and slight build, his description in no way matched that
given by John Turner who claimed to have seen a large man in a flushing
coat of dark colour going through the property of one of the victims
before he made his escape and raised the alarm. There was never any hard
evidence against Williams, yet, it was decided following his arrest and
interview that he should be remanded in custody to Cold Bath Fields
prison in Clerkenwell until he could be interviewed again on a later
Williams's arrest was most certainly
of interest to two other characters involved in the story, they being
Cornelius Hart and William 'Long Billy' Ablass. Hart was a carpenter who
had worked for the Marr's at their shop prior to their murder. He had
claimed to have lost a chisel at the shop during the course of his work
and had made several enquiries about its whereabouts to Marr. Marr had
searched his shop but could find no trace of the missing chisel. When
Harriott had visited the shop on the morning following the murder, he
found the chisel placed in a prominent position and removed it as
evidence. Hart was interviewed but always denied any particular dealings
with Williams, although other witnesses proved a link between the two
and certainly, following Williams' arrest, Hart was quick to send to the
Pear Tree tavern to enquire as to whether Williams was being kept in
custody. Ablass was a seaman who had sailed with Williams aboard the
Roxburgh Castle. He was drinking in company with Williams at the Kings
Arms on the night in question and he much better fitted the description
given by Turner.
On December 24th the maul was finally
identified as belonging to a seaman named John Peterson. That
information was volunteered by a Mr. Vermiloe, landlord of the Pear Tree
Tavern, Wapping. At that time Vermiloe was incarcerated in Newgate
Prison for debt. He must have welcomed the opportunity to claim the
substantial reward money for information leading to the arrest of the
murderers and thereby clear his debts.
Interviews were carried out at the Shadwell
Magistrates office on Boxing Day and on December 27th John Williams was
due to be produced from Cold Bath Fields prison to answer further
questions. The courtroom was packed as there were strong suspicions that
Williams, who resided at the Pear Tree, was indeed connected to the
murders even though the evidence against him was purely circumstantial.
The magistrates were particularly keen to question Williams about his
torn and bloodied shirt and also about the extra money he had in his
possession after the murder of the Williamsons. However, instead of the
prisoner entering the room it was an officer from the prison who entered
and informed the magistrates that Williams was dead, having apparently
taken his own life by hanging himself in his cell. Following a brief
discussion the magistrates decided to go ahead and hear the evidence of
the other witnesses.
By the end of the day, having heard the rest of the
evidence the magistrates were plainly leaning towards the opinion that
Williams was indeed the murderer and that furthermore, he had acted
alone in committing all seven murders. All of the evidence that pointed
towards others being involved seems to have been pushed conveniently to
one side. That evening the Shadwell magistrates communicated their view
to Mr Ryder, the Home Secretary, that John Williams was indeed the
murderer of the Marrs and the Williamsons and that he had cheated the
hangman by taking his own life in prison rather than face the
consequences of his actions.
The Home Secretary was more than happy to agree with
the opinion of the Shadwell bench and decided that the best way to end
the matter was to parade Williams' body through Wapping and Shadwell so
that the residents could see that the foul murderer Williams was indeed
dead and no longer a menace. Ryder was concerned that such a procession
might provoke a breach of the peace and a degree of public disorder so
he ordered the Thames Police, the Bow Street Mounted Patrol as well as
the local constables and watchmen to oversee the occasion.
So, on New Year's Eve 1811 the grisly
procession wound its way slowly through the streets of Wapping stopping
for ten minutes at a time outside the scene of each of the murders. Some
ten thousand people lined the route but there was none of the feared
disorder. In the event only one person, a Hackney Carriage driver
reached down from his seat and struck the body three times about the
head with his crop. When the cart carrying Williams' body arrived at the
crossroads of Cable Street and Cannon Street, close to Hawksmoor's St
George's Church which, just a couple of weeks previously had seen the
interment of the Marr family, the procession halted at the point where a
grave had already been dug. The corpse was removed from the cart and a
stake driven through its heart. Williams' body was then dumped into its
grave in a kneeling position...... And there it remained for about a
hundred years, until a gang of workmen discovered the body whilst laying
some gas mains. The body was removed for research and investigation
although, it is said that the skull was kept in a nearby public house
for a number of years, until, one day that too disappeared.
Following his death then, the
authorities were only too eager to heap all of the blame on to Williams.
They were delighted to come to the official conclusion that Williams was
not only guilty of all seven murders but also, that he also acted alone.
This was, of course, not only a very convenient assumption for the
authorities, who were keen to draw a line under the events which had
dominated the news during Christmas of 1811. It was also wonderful news
for anyone else who might perhaps have themselves been involved in the
The investigations into the murders did not entirely
end with Williams' ritualistic burial. There were a few loose ends which
needed tying up.In January 1812, a thorough but some might say belated
search was made of the Pear Tree tavern and in the course of the search
further evidence came to light... A pair of blood stained trousers said
to be warn and hidden by Williams were found in the privy. The search
also revealed a blood stained 'French' knife, which may have been used
during the murders as well as a pocket watch, said to have been stolen
from Mr Williamson.
One of the remaining mysteries surrounding the
murders is the lack of obvious motive. There was a substantial amount of
cash left at the scene of the Marr's family murder, although, it may
have been that the untimely arrival of the serving girl, Margaret Jewell,
scared the burglars away before they had a chance to steal anything. It
has also been suggested that there were links and possibly old scores to
settle between Timothy Marr, John Williams and William Ablass. Evidence
emerged that they had all served together as seamen prior to Marr's
going into business on his own.
In their book on the subject, 'The Maul and the Pear
Tree,' P.D. James and T.A. Critchley examine 'The Ratcliffe Highway
Murders' and consider the question of Williams' guilt or otherwise. They
quite rightly state that all of the evidence against Williams was
circumstantial. Today it would not even see him prosecuted, let alone
convicted. However, modern murder investigation teams would be able to
apply any number of forensic and tests, particularly to the maul itself.
I suspect that modern scientific analysis would reveal that John
Williams was indeed connected with the murders, although he most
certainly did not act alone. Williams was a man of medium height and
slight build, he was said to be something of a ladies man and, as far as
we know, he had no history of violence. On the face of it he would not
appear to be a good candidate for seven of the most brutal murders ever
to be committed in the capital. On the other hand, he did have some
particularly unsavoury drinking partners. He also seems to be the
recurring theme, linked as he was with both Timothy Marr and John
Williamson. Lastly, residing at the Pear Tree, he would most certainly
have had easy access to John Peterson's tool chest and therefore to the
Assuming that Williams was connected with the murders
in some way, and assuming that he did not act alone, who would be the
lucky prime suspects to benefit most from the authorities' unseemly
haste to close the case as quickly as possible? James and Critchley
seemed to think that Cornelius Hart, the carpenter, had a case to answer.
His chisel, which had so mysteriously vanished prior to the murder of
the Marrs, seems to have equally mysteriously reappeared in the shop on
the morning after the murder. The obvious implication is that Hart
brought it back to the shop with him, indicating that he was involved in
the burglary. Also, if Williams was dammed by his being seen in the
Kings Arms late on the night of December 19th then his drinking partner,
Ablass, must be every bit as suspect. In addition, Ablass bears a far
more striking resemblance to the man seen standing over the body by
Finally, what about Williams himself? Why should he
choose to commit suicide before his second court appearance? The answers
he had given at his initial interrogation had explained away most of the
questions that he had been asked. Even if he were involved, he would
surely have hoped to deflect suspicion away from himself a second time.
Witnesses from the prison gave evidence that he did not seem overly
distressed on the evening prior to his court appearance. Would he have
even been aware of the fresh, albeit circumstantial evidence, which had
been gathered against him? Also, given that he was manacled, how easy
would it have been for a man secured in such a fashion to hang himself
across a beam in his cell? We shall never know the truth, but could it
be that Williams was in fact the eighth victim of the Ratcliffe Highways
Murders? His death being an attempt to silence him and therefore prevent
him from incriminating other gang members?
The simple fact is that we will never know the full
story concerning John Williams and the Ratcliffe Highway Murders. They
will always remain one of the bloodiest and most brutal episodes in
London's criminal history.
SEX: M RACE: W TYPE: T MOTIVE: CE
MO: Home invader who
slashed/bludgeoned robbery victims.
DISPOSITION: Suicide by hanging
prior to trial, 1811.