The sudden deaths of seven people created hysteria in London long before Jack the Ripper. These horrific acts were the subject of essayist Thomas De Quincey in the legendary On Murder as Considered One of the Fine Arts, the In Cold Blood of its time.
According to Dean Nicholas in Londonist, all were brutally killed in London’s East End, long before London even had the Metropolitan Police (the Met). No one would ever be held accountable for the crimes that terrorized London in 1811.
The crimes took place on Ratcliffe Highway, which is now known as The Highway on the East End of London. This is the story of the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, some of the most horrifying, but now forgotten murders in British history.
The first attack
On December 7, 1811, on 29 Ratcliffe Highway, Timothy Marr, a linen draper, his wife, their baby, and an apprentice were killed in their shop. The adults and the apprentice all had their heads killed by blunt trauma, while their baby had his throat cut by the culprits.
According to the Thames Police Museum, all would be brutally murdered, and another apprentice, Margaret Jewell, who had been out purchasing oysters, was the one who discovered the dead bodies upon her return. She tried to ring the bell while home, but could not hear from anyone — she alerted a night watchman and Marr’s neighbor. The neighbor, John Murray, found the bodies of the Marrs and the apprentice in the house, and screamed:
“Murder, murder. Come and see what murder is here!”
A crowd gathered and Jewell started screaming in shock. Someone ran into the house and found the body of the baby with his throat slit. L. Rabinowicz in The Cambridge Law Journal described the strangeness of the crimes — nothing was stolen from the Marr residence, including 160 pounds laying around. The crime produced substantial horror in the community, stoking fear even a week later during the funeral, described as some of the worst murders in human history by some witnesses.
But it would not be the last attack on Ratcliffe Highway that year, or even that month.
The second attack
Rabinowicz notes a second attack happened on December 19, in the neighborhood of New Gravel Lane. A man named John Turner in an inn named King’s Arms yelled “murder!” He escaped the inn using sheets knotted to get out the inn on the outside. A crowd then gathered at the inn to address the commotion.
The crowd found a dead 72-year-old, Mr. Williamson, who was the proprietor of the inn. His skull was fractured, his leg was broken, and his throat was slashed. His wife, Mrs. Williamson, was also found dead with a fractured skull and slashed throat. A maidservant was also killed in a similar manner.
Only the watch of Mrs. Williamson was taken, and authorities released a description of the watch for people in the neighborhood to be on the lookout. Otherwise, the inn was left untouched. The circumstances of those deaths were very similar to the attack on the Marr house, where heads were brutally fractured and throats were slashed.
A magistrate made the link — the perpetrators of the Marr murders were the same perpetrators of the King’s Arms murders.
The East End of London was very alarmed, but the entire country was also alarmed. Someone from Birmingham similarly declared they were looking for the murderers. A church offered a 50-pound reward for the murderers, while the government offered a 100-pound reward the next day. On December 21, the award rose to 500 pounds.
According to Rabinowicz, some believed the crime was committed by foreigners. Portuguese sailors were one particular scapegoat. Next, when those theories were disproven, many blamed the Irish.
A big clue was a tool left at the King’s Arms: a mallet with the initials “J.P.” on it. Soon, an Irish or Scottish sailor man named John Williams was apprehended. Williams had a personal animus with Marr from the time they were shipmates, according to de Quincey. He lodged in Wapping and shared his room with two men. Authorities found a knife in his coat, stained with blood. Investigators also discovered that “J.P.” was John Peterson, was a man who had been at sea.
Before Williams could even be held for trial, however, he was found dead in his jail cell on December 27 from suicide. However, the public still wanted justice. Many saw suicide as an admission of Williams’s guilt. Although Williams needed to be buried, a practice at the time was parading a dead murderer’s body through the streets and the neighborhoods a crime had taken place. In front of the King’s Arms, someone even whipped Williams’s body.
Williams’s body was taken through this procession through East End on December 1, 1812. Once Williams was buried, he had a stake put through his heart because of the stigma against suicide at the time — people who died by suicide were believed to have their souls wander and have their ghosts come out of the grave. Needless to say, once Williams was dead, he was just dead.
Much has changed in London and the world since 1811, but the Ratcliffe Highway Murders were a particularly brutal episode in the history of England and London. Who actually killed all seven people is still inconclusive. Some believe it was solely Williams, while others believe Williams did not act alone. Some believe Williams was not even responsible.
Regardless, the Ratcliffe Highway murders had a significant legacy. There was no forensic evidence at the time and eyewitness testimonies were the sole source of evidence. Williams had alibis and the evidence was still very circumstantial. Historian T.A. Critchley notes the Marrs were very ordinary people — if they could be brutally murdered, it meant nobody was safe.
This episode of British history was crucial in the establishment of a more organized police force, created in the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829. Forensic analysis would develop throughout the century as well.
By today's standards, the evidence of Williams’s guilt was very lackluster. Pamela Ringer at JSTOR notes coverage of the Ratcliffe Highway murders, popularized by De Quincy, was a form of sensationalist literary true crime, comparing the murders to the philosophical theories of Immanuel Kant. Detective mysteries based on empirical evidence, and the actual forensic techniques themselves, would not develop until much later, but the horrific Ratcliffe Highway killings served as a catalyst in how society dealt with crime.
Originally published on May 4, 2021 on CrimeBeat.