John Williams

The Ratcliff Highway Murderer

The murder of the Marrs in Ratcliff Highway stands at the head of murders in shops. It was elevated into a classic by De Quincey, who in his essay On Murder considered as one of the Fine Arts, took the crime as his theme, and suggested possibilities as to the dramatic side of murder of which later writers made ample use. De Quincey’s masterly treatment of the murder of the Marrs at once rendered the Newgate Calendar style obsolete. Mystery hung over the crime, and had not the assassin, emboldened by his success, proceeded to further enormities, in all probability he would never have been detected. The story cannot be passed over, though it may be urged that it is slightly outside the general scheme which we had in mind in planning the present book.

At No. 29 Ratcliff Highway, some years ago, was a linen draper’s shop kept by a Mr. Marr. Besides himself, his household comprised his wife, his baby, an apprentice (a lad of fourteen), and the servant, Margaret Jewell.

It was Saturday night, and the shop was, as usual, kept open rather late. However, the shutters were at last put up, and Mr. and Mrs. Marr began to think about supper. They had a fancy for oysters, and Margaret was sent out to fetch them.

As she left the house a singular-looking man passed her. His complexion was almost cadaverous in its leaden hue. The hair was of an extraordinary yellowish tinge, the face was fringed by sandy whiskers, and the eyes had a glazed, fixed look, which gave the countenance a terribly sinister expression.

This man glanced at the servant girl as she was hurrying by, and the look somehow filled her with dread. She determined to go back to the house as quickly as she could; but this was not so easy, for the first oyster shop was closed and she had to go to another one. Altogether she was away about twenty minutes.

After Mr. Marr had put up the shutters​—​in which operation a watchman passing on his beat lent him a hand​—​he left the door open, and Margaret Jewell expected to find it ajar when she returned. To her surprise it was closed and locked.

In a state of agitation for which she could not account, she both rang and knocked. There was no reply. She knocked again, and tried to listen for some signs of movement. She could hear nothing, and the silence seemed to instil her with an icy horror.

Again she violently rang the bell, and listened with beating heart. Maybe her terror intensified her sense of hearing, for she could not only distinguish footsteps, but she felt convinced they were not the footsteps of either her mistress or master. Nor did the footsteps ascend from the kitchen, where Mr. and Mrs. Marr would most likely be. She heard them on the stairs leading to the bedrooms above​—​a stealthy, creeping sound.

The sounds gradually became a little louder. The footsteps were descending and not ascending the stairs. They came nearer to the door​—​so near, indeed, that the girl could hear the noise of someone breathing.

She seized the bell-pull and gave it one violent despairing jerk, and then rushed to the door of the next house full of a sickening fright. In the next house lived Mr. Murray, a pawnbroker. Jumping out of bed, he hurried down, half-dressed, and heard the girl’s story. Seizing a poker, he ran into the back-yard, with the intention of breaking into the Marr’s house.

Over the wall he went, and there saw the back door of Marr’s house wide open. A candle was burning in the room at the back of the shop. He entered the silent house, and on reaching the shop started back in horror. Mr. Marr was lying dead, with a horrible, gaping wound in his throat and his head smashed in. A few yards further on were the bodies of Mrs. Marr and the apprentice. They had been killed in a ghastly and barbarous fashion.

Murray instantly raised the alarm. A crowd rushed into the house, made further search, and in the kitchen found a smashed cradle, and underneath, the poor little baby, also a corpse.

In a very few minutes a whole family had been hurried out of existence and murdered in a ghastly and barbarous fashion. Why the poor little child should have been murdered it is impossible to explain.

The motive of the murderer, it is clear, was robbery, for though he had only taken a couple of sovereigns there was £150 in the house for which he had not time to search. Margaret Jewell had come back too soon and hindered him in his work.

In so great a hurry had the murderer taken his departure that he left behind him what promised to be a most important clue, had the authorities pursued only ordinary steps.

This clue consisted of a ship’s carpenter’s mallet, and on the mallet were pricked two letters​—​“J. P.” Stupidly enough, while a description of the mallet was issued, these two letters were not mentioned, and so nothing at first came of the enquiry.

In the meantime London was in a complete state of panic. There was something so completely atrocious in the deed and so stealthy and crafty in its execution that a wave of terror went over the metropolis, and even spread to distant country places. Scores of men were arrested on suspicion and discharged. The tramps on every great road in the kingdom were taken into custody and detained. Vigilance associations were formed, and a strict watch was kept at every seaport over persons setting out on voyages.

For eleven days nothing else was talked or thought of but the murder of the Marrs, and underlying this was a terrible presentiment that the monster who had perpetrated one wholesale murder would not stop in his vile career.

On the evening of Thursday, twelve days after the tragedy at No. 29 Ratcliff Highway, Mr. Williamson, the landlord of the King’s Head, a public house at the corner of New Gravel Lane, which turns out of Ratcliff Highway, noticed a man roaming about the passages on the ground floor.

“What are you doing here?” asked the landlord.

The man made some incoherent reply and retreated to the taproom. This was about seven o’clock in the evening. About half-past seven this man left the taproom and went out of the house. He came back about nine and sat in a corner of the room, without, however, taking part in the general conversation. This man was noticeable by the leaden hue of his countenance and his bright yellow hair.

About eleven o’clock Mr. Williamson came into the taproom and said he was going to close the house.

“It’s time for all you fellows to be off home,” said he.

One by one they went out, the yellow-haired man among the number.

Although the landlord had practically shut up so far as the drinking on the premises was concerned, he kept his door open, as the neighbours frequently sent for beer after his closing hour.

There happened to be a man lodging at the King’s Head named Turner, a journeyman carpenter. Turner, who rose early, went to bed early, but was not able to sleep. He was in the neighbourhood of the murder of the Marrs, and the ghastly tragedy had fixed itself in his mind. He lay tossing and turning, uneasy and restless.

Suddenly he heard the street door fiercely shut to. He started up in bed, oppressed with a nameless fear. It was then half-past eleven o’clock.

In an instant the whole scene of the murder of the Marrs and the method pursued by the assassin came with horrible vividness before his mind’s eye, and he was bathed in an icy perspiration. A minute of agonised suspense, and he stole from his bed, though why he did so and what he was going to do he did not know.

He crept noiselessly on to the landing and leaned over the rails of the staircase. There he heard sounds which appalled him. That which stuck in his memory was the terror-stricken cry of a girl, followed by the broken accents of Mrs. Williamson:

“We shall all be murdered!”

The words fell like the blows of a hammer upon his heart. He knew not what to do, yet some horrible fascination drew him onward. He descended a stair or two and then heard the sound of repeated blows, and the tragic cry:

“I’m a dead man!”

Then followed one faint, prolonged wail, and all was silent.

Though he might be going to his own death Turner could not resist descending the staircase. He was attracted to the scene of murder as though he was under the influence of some horrible spell. Step by step he went down, and at last was sufficiently near the room to see through the doorway. A terrible sight met his eye.

On the floor were lying the dead bodies of the landlord and his wife. He could hear the sound of a man’s footsteps, and now and again the jingle of keys. The murderer was evidently trying the various locks. Once the murderer came to where Mrs. Williamson was lying dead, and put his hand in her pocket and took from it another bunch of keys. The first bunch, apparently, had not enabled him to open the various cupboards and drawers.

Had the murderer chanced to look through the doorway he would have seen the white face of the solitary witness outside. But he was absorbed in his ghastly work, and he stepped behind the door where there was a sideboard.

Turner saw the miscreant distinctly. He saw his bright yellow hair and his corpse-like face. He appeared to be dressed in a tight-fitting suit, the better, no doubt, to elude capture. The horrified witness could have screamed with terror had not his tongue clove to the roof of his mouth.

With the disappearance of the murderer Turner’s consciousness returned. He recognised that his fate might also be that of the Williamsons, and, turning, he fled noiselessly to his own room.

In another apartment on the same floor Williamson’s grandchild, a girl of twelve or thirteen, was sleeping, but he had no time to think of her. There was also a maidservant in the house, but where she was Turner did not know.

All his thought now was to escape from that blood-stained house. The window was his only resource. He put his head outside. A dense fog prevailed, and he could scarcely see a yard before him. How far he had to drop he did not know. Then he rushed to his bed, tied the sheets together with feverish haste, and dragged the bedstead to the window. Tying his rope to the post, he lowered himself.

A few stragglers who were going home late that night in Ratcliff Highway were astounded to see a figure dangling at the end of a white rope. The man was some twelve or fourteen feet from the ground.

“What are you doing there?” shouted one fellow.

Turner could only answer with an inarticulate cry, but it was a cry of unmistakable terror, and, the man below shouting for help, a crowd soon collected, and down dropped the trembling young fellow.

Then in a gurgling voice he gasped out, while his trembling finger pointed at the house:

“Marr’s murderer is in there at work.”

The words were electrical. They spread from mouth to mouth. The news was taken up in the main thoroughfare, in the side streets, in the courts and alleys. People rushed half dressed out of their houses. Soon a wild, surging mob crowded round the house shouting for vengeance.

Blows began to thunder on the door, and there was the sound of the crashing and splintering of wood. Then the chief constable, who had arrived on the scene, took charge of the proceedings.

“Hold your row!” he shouted. “If you are silent we shall hear the villain and know in what part of the house he is!”

In an instant there came a dead hush over the surging multitude, all the more dramatic by reason of its contrast with the shrieks of fury which had preceded it. In the midst of that silence came the noise of the smashing of glass. It proceeded from the back of the house.

A mad dash was made by the avenging crowd. They burst in the door and rushed up the staircase. One of the bedroom doors was locked. In a twinkling it was smashed in, and at the moment a man hurled himself from the window, crashing through the glass and the frame.

He disappeared in the dense fog, and an angry yell went up from the baffled pursuers, for at the back of the house was a large piece of vacant ground which had been cleared for the extension of the London Docks.

Once more had the murderer escaped.

His second crime was no less atrocious than the first. Besides Mr. and Mrs. Williamson, the poor maidservant was found in the kitchen, a corpse. She had been laying the fire for the following morning, and was struck down as she was kneeling on the hearth.

The terror of the metropolis now arose to a perfect frenzy. Never was there such a panic, never such a universal search. Carts and carriages, waggons and vehicles of every kind, boats on the river, were stopped and examined, every house in the neighbourhood was ransacked, but in vain. A reward of £1,500 was offered by the Government and by the parish of St. George’s-in-the-East.

By this time it occurred to somebody in authority that it might be as well to amend the description of the mallet left behind in the Marr’s house and accordingly fresh bills were issued giving the letters “J. P.” And these letters, in the most unexpected way, led to the discovery of the villain.

It so happened that the landlord of the Pear Tree public house, Shadwell, was in prison for debt, and while there read the description of this mallet.

“Why,” he exclaimed, “that tallies exactly with the mallet which was left at my house with some other tools by a Norwegian carpenter. His name was John Petersen.”

This was very significant, for the initials on the mallet were identical with the initials of John Petersen. The man also recollected another important fact. Among his lodgers, soon after Petersen left, was a man named John Williams, a sailor, and John Williams had a face of cadaverous hue and bright yellow hair.

This information was sufficient for the police officers, who immediately went to the Pear Tree and apprehended Williams. He was at once brought up for preliminary examination, a huge crowd thronging the court and another still larger howling and yelling outside.

In the pocket of a waistcoat worn by Williams was found a French knife of peculiar construction, exceedingly sharp. Now it was stated by the surgeon who examined the bodies that some weapon other than a razor had been used, and this French knife was a very possible instrument for the perpetration of such murders.

It was also shown that after the murder of the Marrs, Williams cut off his whiskers. Significant also was another incident. About half-past one on the night of the first murder he came into his bedroom, where also slept some Germans. The Germans were reading in bed.

“For Heaven’s sake put out that light!” growled Williams fiercely, “or something will happen!”

The next morning a fellow lodger told him about the murder.

“I know it!” he said surlily.

This was, to say the least, remarkable, for he was at that time in bed and had not been out for anyone to tell him the news.

A tremendous crowd assembled to see him taken to the court for his second examination, but they were disappointed. The murderer had hanged himself the night before in Coldbath Fields Prison.

John Williams, one of the most atrocious criminals in the annals of crime, thus cheated the hangman.

It is a curious thing that, despite his blood-thirstiness and callous heart, he had a peculiarly soft voice. At his first examination he asked the daughter of one of the witnesses, called to identify him, whether she would be afraid if she woke up at night and found him standing at her bedside. Her answer was:

“Not if I knew it was you, Mr. Williams.”

Williams received the penalty meted out not so many years ago to a suicide. He was buried at a crossroads​—​in this case, at the point where the New Road crosses the end of Ratcliff Highway, and Cannon Street Road begins​—​and a stake was driven through his body. Sir Thomas Lawrence made a water-colour sketch of the miscreant, which for some years was to be seen at the Room of Horrors at Madame Tussaud’s and may be there still.