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The Ratcliff Highway murders
 
Classification: Mass murderer
Characteristics: Robberies?
Number of victims: 7
Date of murders: December 7/19, 1811
Date of birth: 1784
Victims profile: Timothy Marr, 24, his wife Celia, their 3-month-old son, Timothy, and James Gowan, their shop boy / John Williamson, 56, his wife Elizabeth, 60, and Bridget Anna Harrington in her late 50's, a servant
Method of murder: Beating with a pen maul / Cutting their throats with a razor
Location: London, England, United Kingdom
Status: Committed suicide by hanging himself, in Coldbath Fields Prison, on December 28, 1811
 
 
 
 
 
 

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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.

Murders

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 perpetrator.

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 below.

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.

Signifiance

Fear

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.

Media

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 murderer.

Police

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.

Wikipedia.org

 
 

The Ratcliffe Highway Murders

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, London."

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 inside.


Carnage

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 foul deeds.

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.


Investigation

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.


Public Reaction

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 evening.


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 early.

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.


The Lodger

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 to spot.

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.


Moving Forward

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 Tree.

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.


Good Suspect

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 mystery."

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 Roxburgh 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 Ratcliffe Highway. 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 Roxburgh 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.


Case Closed

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.

In 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 mother's death.

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.


Overlooked Evidence?

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.

CrimeLibrary.com

 
 

Thames Police: The Ratcliffe Highway Murders

The Ratcliffe Highway Murders
December 1811

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 been raised.

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 bounds."

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 murderers.

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 date.

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 murders.

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 maul itself.

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 Turner.

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.

ThamesPoliceMuseum.org.uk

 
 

SEX: M RACE: W TYPE: T MOTIVE: CE

MO: Home invader who slashed/bludgeoned robbery victims.

DISPOSITION: Suicide by hanging prior to trial, 1811.

 

 

 
 
 
 
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