Friday, 8 April 2016
The Wilful Walks of Vigor and Duffy 4 (The London Chronicles)
As the impressive clash of past and present falls behind us Dave and I head off across the red iron structure that folds over the water, The Thames below us and Wapping Highway in front. The Highway hasn’t always had that name, or rather it hasn’t always been known as Wapping Highway but was once, back in the early 1800’s, called Ratcliffe Highway a name that refers to the red sandstone cliffs that used to exist here possibly in Roman days. The road dates back to then and evidence of a Roman bath house was uncovered in 2004. There is another, a more gruesome slice of history that Wapping Highway nee Ratcliffe Highway is remembered for and that is the murders that took place on 7th December 1811 at number twenty-nine. Between Cannon Street Road and Artichoke Hill there used to be a drapers shop which sat in front of 29, Ratcliffe Highway. It was here that the body of Timothy Marr was discovered along with his wife Celia, their infant child of three months and their shop boy, James Gowan.
On Saturday 7th at about 11.30 in the evening, Timothy Marr began to shut up shop. He sent serving girl Margaret Jewell of to fetch some oysters for his supper. When Margaret returned she found the house in absolute darkness but could hear noises coming from inside. A baby crying, someone moving about and then deathly silence. She continued to knock at the door but no one answered. She even kicked in frustration against the door but to no avail. At about half past midnight she gave up just as the parish night watchman, George Olney, called the hour of 1am. Margaret explained her concerns to George suggesting he investigate. George repeated Margaret’s actions and knocked on the front door. There was not the slightest sound or movement to be detected and his efforts woke neighbour John Murray. Murray said that he had heard some odd noises earlier on but had thought little of it. Together they investigated with George remaining by the front door whilst Murray went around the back. Upon finding the door open Murray went in calling out the names of his neighbours as he went. What he stumbled across shook him to the core of his being: slaughtered in a horrible, violent way and laying in a pool of blood was the body of young James Gown whose head had been so smashed in that his features were unrecognisable. What remained of his head was a smashed, ruined pulp of bone and flesh with his skull splintered into smaller fragments.
Murray’s fear overcame him and he stood shaking in the muted candlelight then, as his grew more accustomed to the gloom he saw another body lying dead. Celia Marr too had been severely beaten about the skull and she, just like James Gowan lay face down with blood still flowing from her cracked skull. Murray took hold of himself and opened the front door shouting at the alarm and his horror as loud as he could: “Murder, murder. Come see what murder there is here.” A crowd had been steadily growing outside and some of the group pushed forward to help. Margaret Jewell started sobbing and screaming uncontrollably. Someone asked where Timothy was and then another enquired of the baby. They found Timothy dead on the floor and then, upstairs in the Marr’s bedroom, the body of the baby. The infant’s throat had so savagely been cut that its head hung by a thread.
The side of its head had also been severely beaten. In those days, Londoners were a tough old breed but not even they had ever seen a sight such as this.
By now such a hullabaloo had gone out that local Wapping policeman, Charles Horton arrived on the scene and took charge of the incident. A strong, robust man but even he found it hard to stomach such sights of sheer barbaric violence. Horton then commenced the grisly task of searching the house. He found a chisel lying on the floor which was later proven not to have been used in the murders, loose change in the till, money in Marr’s pocket but no sign of a blade or anything sharp enough to have slit the baby’s’ throat. Even beside the bloodied cot, there was not a single sign of any weapon. Going into Marr’s bedroom he found a heavy shipwright’s hammer that was known as a maul. It was covered in blood. Upon further investigation, he found £152 in a bedroom drawer. The murders were not robbery related. After further investigations blood stained footprints were found and, having sought witnesses in the neighbourhood it was found that a number of men were seen running down New Gravel Lane (Glamis Road). Exhausted, Horton returned to Wapping Police Station with the horrors of what he had seen firmly in his mind. The case was passed over to Thames Magistrate, John Harriott.
The Eastend and all of London were in an uproar. The pressure on Harriott was immense; he had to find the killer and sooner than later as public outrage was liable to boil over into civil unrest. For a fortnight the case plodded on with little or no clear indication of finding the murderer then, having re-examined the maul initials were found on the handle of the hammer: JP. Then, just as this murder was lying quietly in the publics mind another set of vile murders were found.
On the 19th December 1811 at the Kings Arms public house, a further three corpses were discovered. Publican John Williamson, his wife, Elizabeth along with barmaid Bridget Harrington was found brutally murdered. Again their heads had been bashed in and their throats cut in what we would call today a carbon copy of the previous murders. The only difference, this time, was that John Williamson was found hanging by a rope from the ladder in the cellar. Oddly, though, one potential victim escaped certain death as she slept throughout the whole gruesome business: fourteen-year-old Kitty Stillwell, granddaughter of John and Elizabeth. Another odd fat to bear in mind was John Turner was seen climbing naked down a knotted sheet screaming out for help. John Turner was a resident at the tavern. Forced entry was found to have happened, as at the Marr’s, at the rear of the property.
The uproar and indignation of Londoner’s became so great that the Home Secretary was forced to appoint a Bow Street Magistrate: Aaron Graham joined the hunt for the killer or killers.
At this point, John Turner gave a description of a man who he thought may have been the serial killer. There was no evidence to suggest that his description was flawed or inaccurate but as things turned out his description did not get taken into account. With pressure now at a boiling point with the fever pitch rage of Londoner’s reaching a critical climax, arrests were made. On the 21st December 1811, John Williams was arrested. He had been seen drinking at the Kings Arms with another man but his physical aspects were nothing like that of the description of John Turner. He was described as being of average height with a slight build but was notably of a dissolute character.
No incriminating evidence could be found against Williams but he was held in custody in Cold Bath Fields prison, Clerkenwell with the intention to interview him later.
Williams arrest did highlight two other characters both of who may have been involved but one who most certainly fitted Turner’s description. Cornelius Hart was a carpenter and one who had lost a chisel. He had enquired of Timothy Marr if he had it in his shop which Marr had said, after searching, that he did not and yet a chisel was found by the investigating officer. Hart was also thought to have had dealings with John Williams but denied any association whatsoever. The other man was William ‘Long Billy’ Ablass, a seaman who had sailed with Williams and his description fitted Turners to a T. Eventually, on December 24th, 1811, the engraved hammer was identified as belong to one John Peterson, a seaman of little import and with no previous criminal record.
The public was now demanding the killer be caught and with pressure now at breaking point, John Williams was brought from the Clerkenwell prison he was languishing in and taken to Shadwell Magistrates office where he was interviewed again. It was now Boxing Day, 26th December and the interviews went on until the 27th. When Williams had been caught his shirt was bloodied and he had an unusual amount of money on his person, however, just as the Magistrates summoned him to speak, a policeman announced that John Williams had hanged himself in his cell. This action was seen as Williams’s confession in that he had no stomach for the gallows and would prefer to end his own life than face the hangman’s knot or the Eastend population’s wrath.
It has to be said that although Williams was probably involved in the killings there was no hard evidence to prove him guilty but his suicide was all the Home Secretary and the police needed. His death gave them their murderer and the crowd their body to hurl abuse at. It was agreed that a public display of the dead man’s body would be a good act of placating the increasingly angry mob. The Home Secretary ordered the public display but insisted that the Thames Police along with the Bow Street Mounted Patrol and the local Wapping police attend the display to oversee the ‘parade’
As the morning smog lifted off of the cold roofs of London on New Years Day, 1812, so the body of John Williams was driven through the streets in a macabre procession that passed by each location of the gruesome murders. Ten thousand people lined the route jeering and throwing abuse as it passed.
As the grim carnival cortege arrived near to Nicholas Hawksmoor’s St. George’s church the corpse was removed from the cart, a stake driven through its blood dried heart and the body thrown into an open grave in the kneeling position where it stayed for another one hundred years until re-discovered by labourers as they dug a gas main.
The Thames Police site suggests that modern police would not have allowed such an obvious miscarriage of justice as there was only circumstantial evidence against Williams. They say that there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute let convict. They also say that they believe he was involved in the murders in some way but was not the killer. He did have some questionable associates, though, men more than capable of committing such a heinous crime.
The things that I found revealing though was the ritual played out after his suicide when the crowd was baying for blood, even though Williams was dead, they still felt the need to run a stake through his heart. The other thing that I find odd is the way that Jack the Ripper, only a short walk from Wapping, didn’t commit his atrocities for another eighty years; surely this makes these murders, whoever the real killer was, the first documented serial killer case. It is often suggested that Jack opened the doors of hell onto the 20th century and introduced the world to serial killing but surely this killer or killers beat him to that unwholesome record?
all words and art are copyright © of C.J. Duffy.