The London Monster: A Sanguinary Taleby Jan Bondeson
"The facts in this case are so bizarre that no novelist would have dared to invent them," said the Philadelphia Inquirer. Indeed. A century before Jack the Ripper haunted the streets of London, another predator held sway: a "vulgar-looking man" who slashed at female pedestrians with a knife while uttering profanities with a "tremulous/i>
"The facts in this case are so bizarre that no novelist would have dared to invent them," said the Philadelphia Inquirer. Indeed. A century before Jack the Ripper haunted the streets of London, another predator held sway: a "vulgar-looking man" who slashed at female pedestrians with a knife while uttering profanities with a "tremulous eagerness"over fifty victims during a two-year crime spree. The city was gripped with fear, outrage, and "Monster mania." The latter was abetted by a £100 reward and by the circulation of bawdy prints that capitalized on the Monster's tendency to slash his victims' buttocks. Armed vigilantes roamed the streets, and fashionable ladies dared not walk outdoors without first strategically placing cooking pots under their dresses. Finally, in June 1790, one Rhynwick Williams was arrested. After two long and ludicrous trials (at one of which he was defended energetically by the eccentric Irish poet Theophilus Swift), Williams was convicted. Was he guilty? Or just unlucky enough to fall into the hands of authorities when they needed someone to pay? Drawing on contemporary evidence and reinterpreting Monster mania in the light of historical and modern instances of mass hysteria, Jan Bondeson recounts with dry wit a tale that occupies a unique place in criminal history and imagination.
Bondeson, a physician, has written previously on individuals with physical abnormalities, describing their troubled interactions with the normal world. In The London Monster, focusing on the hunt for and the capture and trials of the Monster, he has made a major foray into serial crime and its psychological climate. In addition to being a compelling crime story, the book is rewarding history. Bondeson provides an excellent survey of London's social and sexual life, the interactions within and between classes, and the acute limitations of strictly amateur criminal investigations and police work.
As the author demonstrates, many things don't change in city life. The pressure for an arrest-any arrest-becomes an obsession whenever crimes against the person take on a serial form. Dubious identifications of possible perpetrators are egregiously buttressed; the authorities endlessly prevaricate and ever more clumsily attempt to cover their tracks when their flawed procedures are denounced.
What gives Bondeson's book additional interest is his analysis of the roles played by socially prominent individuals, including, in this case, the wealthy banker-collector John Julius Angerstein. As in today's political campaign contributors, the price for financial help is access to the inner circle, to the key players. Angerstein was not alone in expressing keen interest in the exact positioning and nature of the stab wounds suffered by the Monster's victims; the press eagerly joined him. The belated apprehension of the mild Rhynick Williams, a seemingly cultured artificial flower maker, as the suspect has all the elements of a farce. Frugality led him to share single beds with other men in lodging houses, which gave rise to "the apprehension of horrid propensities." These received a field day in the press.
Bondeson's accounts of Williams' two trials offer significant insights into late-eighteenth century England's legal and judicial systems and the social forces that all too often distorted them. These included stretching the facts, the testimony, and the law. The public, as always, had to be served. While the crowd cried for blood, Williams (if convicted), was likely to be guilty only of misdemeanors, not of felonies, which would significantly limit the severity of the sentence but not the anger of the public. Obscure criminal law statues were imaginatively examined in the hope that Williams' actions could be prosecuted as felonies.
The jury found Williams guilty, a decision that propelled the matter toward judicial review and renewed public interest. An influential pamphlet by the ever-interested Angerstein questioned the verdict and suggested that not one but a number of "monsters" had been stalking women through London's streets. Bondeson is at his best in detailing how a Papierkrieg by the intelligent but not entirely reputable lawyer Theophilus Swift (a collateral descendant of the famous Jonathan Swift) influenced public opinion in favor of Williams.
Sober judicial review found the statute-stretching first indictment invalid and a second trial ensued, in which Swift vigorously defended Williams. In bringing out the dynamic interplay of examination and cross-examination, Bondeson demonstrates that the courtroom-as-theater has a respectable history; it is clearly not a modern American invention. Despite Swift's efforts, Rhynwick Williams received a six-year jail term-and had the unlikely mid-term pleasure of being joined in jail by his lawyer. Once released, Williams began his own pamphlet war, but soon dropped from sight leaving but faint trace in the public record.
In his final three analytical chapters, Bondeson examines the phenomena of the imagined-attack syndrome, panic and hysteria, and, in the alleged Monster's case, factors promoting improper police work. Well-reproduced contemporary illustrations and notes that include bibliographical references add to this engaging book. (December)
"Using sensational newspaper accounts, pamphlets, broadsides, and best of all illustrated posters that virtually covered every house and lamppost, Bondeson . . . has written a thorough account of the attacks, the victims, the witnesses, the capture, the trials, and indeed the entire spectrum of such crimes right up to the millennium."—New York Times
"In addition to being a compelling crime story, the book is a rewarding history. Bondeson provides an excellent survey of London's social and political life, the interactions within and between classes, and the acute limitations of strictly amateur criminal investigations and police work."—Foreword Magazine
"Impeccable. . . . [Bondeson] is to be commended on the level of research that has obviously been undertaken to produce this fascinating boo. Highly recommended for crime historians."—Ripperologist
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Read an Excerpt
The London Monster
A Sanguinary Tale
By Jan Bondeson Da Capo Press
Copyright © 2002 Jan Bondeson
All right reserved.
St. James's Street
If in the Park, as usual, my walk I should pursue,
And civilly accost a Miss"My pretty, how do you do?"
So strange the times! Each Miss is sure my meaning to
And jumps and squeaks, and cries aloud"O Heavens! Here's
You nasty thing.
You'll surely swing!"
And then she'll swear,
Would make you stare,
She saw me ready toO rare!
To stab her thro' the pocket-holeexactly like the MONSTER.
Mr. Hook, "The Monster," from the World, May 31, 1790
If one wishes to go back in time more than two hundred years to study the daily life of the Londoners in 1790 and how it was disrupted by the terror and rage caused by the London Monster's crimes, the best resource to consult is the Burney newspaper collection at the British Library. Thiscollection was originally compiled by the Rev. Charles Burney, brother of the novelist Fanny Burney. (The Burney Collection today exists on microfilm, and one thus does not get the agreeable smell and feel of the huge, bedraggled-looking tomes of old newspapers in the Colindale Newspaper Library.) The year 1790 is reasonably well covered: long-defunct newspapers like the Argus, the World, the Oracle, and the Diary depict the metropolis, soon to be threatened by the Monster in its midst, with many curious details. These late-eighteenth-century newspapers were notoriously burglars, pickpockets, footpads, and highwaymen at large in the metropolis and its vicinity. There were rookeries where the police hesitated to arrest any criminal because his friends and any other ruffian standing nearby were sure to fall upon them with bludgeons, knives, and axes, to free him by the use of force. The many ale-houses, hotels, and seamen's hostels in London gave the brothels a roaring trade; the increasing wealth of the upper and upper middle classes attracted burglars, and the immense number of lanes, courts, and narrow alleyways gave street criminals great possibilities for concealment and anonymity. In 1782, after the American Revolution, robberies and burglaries increased, and pickpockets were more numerous than ever. By 1784, Londoners were fearful of going outdoors after dark, even in the well-lit main streets, due to the threat from the violent footpads infesting the city. Although the policing of London was notoriously lax and ineffective, the sheer number of crimes committed meant the prisons were nevertheless crammed full of villains of every description.
What could be done with all these criminals? The system of criminal law of this period, the Bloody Code, had originally contained just a few crimes punishable by execution, such as treason, murder, and rape, but throughout the eighteenth century, more than one hundred capital offenses had to be added. The moneyed classes felt inadequately protected in the absence of a regular police force; in a vain attempt to deter criminals, an increasing number of property crimes were made subject to the death penalty. By the 1790s there were more than two hundred capital offenses that were punishable by death. It was a capital offense to steal a sheep, to pickpocket more than a shilling, to illegally cut down trees in an orchard, to break the border of a fish pond so as to allow the fish to escape, or to break a pane of glass in a winter's evening with intent to steal. But the objective of the criminal law was to frighten and deter the potential criminal, and at the same time the number of capital statutes had been increasing in the mid-eighteenth century, the number of executions had been decreasing. An increasing proportion of the convicted felons had instead been deported to the American penal colonies. But after the American Revolution, this was no longer possible, and the prison hulks on the Thames and the penitentiaries for hard labor were woefully inadequate both as crime deterrents and as a way to get rid of the villains. After the crime wave in the early and mid-1780s, an increasing number of prisoners were executed, sometimes for very insignificant crimes. It was not until the Botany Bay penal colony in Australia was founded in 1786, and the first fleet of prisoners was sent there the year after, that the overpopulated prison system was able to recover.
The rising scale of punishment in the 1780s and 1790s meant that minor property offenders were whipped and/or imprisoned in houses of correction for six to nine months. More serious thieves, housebreakers, and pickpockets were usually transported to penal colonies. Finally, murderers, highway robbers, arsonists, and hardened burglars and robbers were hanged. Late eighteenth-century justice was overwhelmingly concerned with property, and pickpockets could be hanged after stealing trifling amounts. In December 1789, fourteen-year-old Thomas Morgan and twelve-year-old James Smith were convicted of stealing seven silk handkerchiefs from a shop; they were sentenced to death. On the other hand, many rapists walked free because their victims were disbelieved. In general, woman were considered untrustworthy witnesses, and a lower class woman in particular had little chance of winning a case against a gentleman of some social distinction.
Visitors to London, and many of the less fastidious Londoners, regarded public executions as major attractions. When, in 1789, a housebreaker named William Skitch was executed, the Times reporter on the scene was recounted that the rope slipped off the gallows and Skitch's body fell heavily to the ground. The crowd was moved by the condemned man's predicament, but Skitch simply stood up and said to the executioner and his assistant, who were getting another rope ready: "Good people, be not hurried; I can wait a little." Another writer in the same newspaper found it a melancholy contrast that from 1775 until 1787 just six people had been executed in Amsterdam and Utrecht, while during the same period of time 624 prisoners convicted at the Old Bailey had been hanged at Tyburn or Newgate. In 1790, a humanitarian writer in the Gentleman's Magazine blasted the laws of England as cruel, unjust, and useless. The number of people strung up on the gallows was sufficient proof that the laws were cruel; the fact that the same punishment was inflicted on the parricide as on a starving wretch who took three shillings on the highway proved they were unjust; and the frequency and multiplicity of serious crimes offered ample evidence that they were useless as a deterrent.
Long prison sentences were rare, and were reserved for "special cases," for example, a woman of good family who had murdered her child and who was protected from the gallows and transportation by family influence. A considerable percentage of London's prisoners were debtors, some of whom were incarcerated for protracted periods of time until their debts were settled. The pillory was irregularly used for crimes thought particularly heinous. To be pilloried for a sexual offence could literally be a death sentence in itself? When, in early 1790, two homosexual valets (caught "in the act") were put in the pillory, an enormous mob gathered to see them punished. The mob did not arrive empty-handed. A newspaper reporter was delighted to find that the valet named Bacon was pelted heavily with eggs. Potatoes, stones, and brickbats were showered over the two blood-spattered wretches in the pillory; the police took cover from the torrent of missiles; and the two valets were barely extricated from the pillory alive.
* * *
In London of 1790, several debating societies met to discuss the burning questions of the day. They had many female members, and some catered almost exclusively for the fair sex; thus it is somewhat surprising that one of the questions for late 1789 was whether women had no soul. During this time, women were regarded as defective men: little interested in public concerns, they were weak, imbecile creatures fit only for gossip and embroidery. In one newspaper comment prompted by the debate about the souls of women, a disgruntled man wrote that women who attended debating societies would be better employed at needle and thread. A question in another debating society was whether "the tender sensibility of the female heart lessened or increased the happiness of the fair sex." The 1780s and early 1790s were the height of the culture of sensibility. While courage and cleverness were seen as male attributes, kindness, attentiveness and delicacy belonged to the female sex. It was widely believed that a woman's weaker, finer nerves made her more timid and tenderhearted, liable to vapors and hysterical paroxysms when faced with strong emotions. It became fashionable among the ladies to weep, faint, and go off in hysterics at the slightest provocation as evidence of their refined, delicate nerves. The ideal woman in contemporary fiction was a pale, helpless, timorous creature with a nervous system strung as high as a violin. A banging door, a violent gust of wind, a peal of thunder, or the appearance of a toad or a mouse was enough to send her into hysterics. The contrast between the predatory male gallant, strong, fierce and sexual, and the innocent, passive young heroine who suffers endless crises of nerves, was particularly marked in the Gothic novels of Mrs. Radcliffe and her various imitators which were enormously popular in the 1790snot least among female readers.
The sexual world of London of 1790 was male dominated. The chastity of a young woman before marriage was considered of paramount importance. A woman's life after marriage was dull and respectable: she gave birth, took care of the household, and obeyed her husband in everything. Young men had a more interesting time. Sexuality was on public view everywhere in the metropolis: there were erotic novels, lewd songs, and pornographic prints in abundance. The most prominent feature in the female dress of the time was the décolletage. The newspapers advertised brothels, aphrodisiacs, and cures for venereal disease, and Jack Harris's popular Whoremonger's Guide to London listed a directory of prostitutes that detailed addresses, physical characteristics, and "specialties."
Sexual exploitation of maidservants was common: the image of the chambermaid as sexual fodder for the young master is a cliché, but it has its basis in reality. Even very young girl servants were raped or seduced by libertines who were aroused by pedophilia or fearful of venereal disease. Actresses, dancers, and serving girls in the taverns were considered sexually "easy"; some played along with the morals of the time and preferred to be well-kept mistresses of a string of reasonably attractive men to exploitation as a domestic servant or "respectable" wife.
There were brothels in every part of town. Mrs. Hayes's Seraglio in Pall Mall was famous for a live show with naked dancers of both sexes. At Mother Wisebourne's house off the Strand, girls were said to cost £250 a night. London at this time was home to 10,000 prostitutes who openly plied their trade in the streets, markets, and theaters. The district between Charing Cross and Drury Lane, and well into Soho, was the favorite haunt of these prostitutes. The Covent Garden area was particularly notorious: There, in addition to regular brothels, were many alehouses where prostitutes were available and a number of "bagnios," brothels disguised as bathhouses, some of which were veritable dens of vice and catered to varied sexual tastes. One constabulary raid on Covent Garden resulted in the arrest of twenty-two prostitutes, two of whom turned out to be men dressed as women.
If the sexuality of London of 1790 was earthy and abandoned, the popular amusements were of a corresponding vigor and brutality. Upper class rakes spent their time at racecourses and gaming parlors, bet on pugilists, and caroused around the streets, fighting, drinking, and whoring. One newspaper report states that it was a popular pastime of the "bloods"the young hooligans about townto blacken the faces of elderly, respectable people who passed through the West End, using a long brush and a bucket full of a mixture of eggs and lampblack. The common man of 1790 did not much care for a public reading from the works of Shakespeare, or indeed anything that hinted of intellectual activity, as long as there was hope of going down to the pub to have a jug of ale while watching a badger with its tail nailed to the floor being harried by three fierce fox terriers. Several rat pits in the city allowed bets to be made as to how many rats a dog could kill in a certain number of minutes. After a couple of sacks of squirming rats had been poured into the pit, an evil-looking cur was introduced in their midst to begin his gory work of destruction. When sewer rats were used, lady visitors used perfumed handkerchiefs to counteract the rodents' pungent smell. The champion dog Billy reportedly could kill one hundred rats in five minutes. His fellow champion Jacko once piled up one thousand corpses in an hour and forty minutes, but there were allegations that the rats had been drugged with laudanum beforehand. Henry Mayhew once spoke to a costermonger who sometimes took the dog's place, leaping down into the pit and killing the rats with his teeth: his face was badly scarred from the bites of the infuriated rodents. In March 1790, after a bet had been agreed to, a man drank five quarts of ale and then masticated and swallowed the earthen mug; he died two days later. In January 1790, after another bet had been agreed upon in a public house near Windsor, a man ate a living cat, tearing it to pieces with his teeth and leaving only the bones "as the memorials of the exercise of a brutal appetite, and the degradation of human nature." A few weeks later, the newspapers reported that the Windsor cat eater had once more revealed his brutality: suddenly and without reason he hacked off his own right hand with a bill hook. The reason he gave was that he was "disinclined to work" and hoped the overseers of the parish would provide for him in his maimed condition. This sinister outbreak of brutality in early 1790, heralding the coming of the Monster, even spread to the animal kingdom: "A Poney seized a sheep, and bit and kicked it till it died. The Poney then separated the head from the neck, and devoured near two quarters of the sheep."
* * *
At least at the outset, a sinister event in early 1790 was the queen's birthday on January 19. To celebrate the day, flags were up everywhere, church bells were rung, and guns were fired. The illuminations on the main streets were more numerous than on any previous royal birth night: the theaters on Drury Lane were splendidly lit, and the gunsmith's shop at Ludgate's Hill displayed a brilliantly illuminated storefront, with a transparency of the queen. The World published an exhaustive feature about the dresses of the ladies. The queen and princesses were soberly dressed and could not compete with such extravagant fashionables as the countesses of Westmoreland and Warwick and Lady Elizabeth Waldegrave, who were glittering with diamonds and fitted out according to the latest fashions. A huge crowd, some in the ballroom and some in the galleries, as befitted their respective social stations, had admired the dazzling crowd of courtiers and nobles. The prince of Wales made a brief appearance at the ball, wearing a Mazarine coat emblazoned with silver, before going out to his normal rake-helly nocturnal pursuits. The Princess Mary, her majesty's fourth daughter, made her first public appearance in the ballroom that night.
Among the crowd assembled in the galleries, consisting mainly of those who were not quite considered gentlefolk, were twenty-one-year-old Miss Anne Porter and her nineteen-year-old sister Sarah. Their father, Thomas Porter, did not belong to the nobility or gentry, nor was he of an old and respected family; he was a contented, relatively well-to-do member of the lower middle classes who kept a combined hotel, tavern, and cold-bath establishment called Pero's Bagnio, at No. 63, St. James's Street. This bagnio had existed since 1699; it was named for an early owner, a Frenchman named Peyrault. Unlike the rowdy bagnios of Covent Garden, Pero's was a reasonably respectable establishment, and if it served as a concealed brothel, that fact was kept well hidden. The area of St. James's was at this time not as fashionable as it had been in Restoration days, but at least the vicinity of St. James's Palace was still prosperous, and Pero's Bagnio was likely to have attracted a good deal of clientele from the gentleman's clubs nearby. Thomas Porter was prosperous enough to give his six children a good education. He also was not unwilling to give his four daughters, of whom Anne and Sarah were the two eldest, some experience of fashionable life. The Porter girls were all pretty and vivacious, and this was not the first time they had visited a ball. They liked to dance and were regular visitors to various dancing parties and assembly rooms, chaperoned, of course, to keep them out of mischief. But it was not just in the ribald novels of the time that a chaperone might be careless in her duty, or persuaded to let her young charges wander off by a bribe from the girl's wealthy admirer.
The pleasure-loving Anne and Sarah would have liked to stay at the ball as long as possible, but the queen retired early, at eleven o'clock, and the others followed her. Reluctantly, the two Misses Porter left the ballroom gallery. Their father had arranged to escort them home at twelve, but they were tired and did not want to stand about for an entire hour waiting for him. After consulting their chaperone, a stockily built, middle-aged lady named Mrs. Miel, Anne and Sarah decided to walk the short distance home to Pero's Bagnio, without waiting for any male companion to protect them. Neither of them was fully at ease with the situation, however; they set out on their short walk with some trepidation, for this was the time when the London Monster was known to prowl the dark streets of the metropolis.
* * *
To begin with, the Porters and their companion made swift progress. It was a quarter past eleven, but due to the festivities of the day, the streets were brightly lit and there were still quite a few people about. When they had come about half way up St. James's Street, and could see the bagnio just a few houses away, Anne and Sarah believed themselves safe. Some men carrying a sedan chair approached them, calling out "By your leave!" and the ladies moved aside. This cry apparently alerted a man who had been lurking nearby. He went up to Sarah Porter and stared her hard in the face. As the sedan bearers walked away, he cried out "Oh ho! Is that you!" and struck her a violent blow on the back of the head. Sarah pitched forward with the force of the blow, but managed to keep her footing. She ran toward Pero's Bagnio as fast as she could. To alert her sister and Mrs. Miel, she cried out, "For God's sake, Nancy, make haste! Can't you see thatthat wretch behind!" They all made a dash for the front door of the bagnio: the terrified Sarah in front, Mrs. Miel panting to keep up, and Anne bringing up the rear. Anne Porter had not quite heard what her sister had said, except that they should all make haste, and was not aware of the danger she was in.
The man did not, at first, pursue them, but as Sarah Porter was banging on the door of the bagnio to get in, he suddenly ran up and struck Anne Porter on the hip. It did not hurt much; she only felt "a strange sensation." Turning round to see who or what had struck her, she saw a man in an odd posture, with his legs stretched out. The man walked on to the next house, without any hurry, and then once more returned, to gloat at the sight of the terrified ladies. He stared Anne fun in the face and grinned at her. He stood close behind them as John Porter, Anne and Sarah's brother, finally opened the front door; in a wild stampede, the ladles rushed past him into the house. Their mysterious assailant remained standing outside looking at them, and made no attempt to run away. John Porter asked Sarah whether this gentleman was in their company, preparing to invite him inside. Sarah replied, "No; shut the door against the fellow," little knowing what had happened to her sister. Anne now complained about a sharp pain in her hip, and nearly fainted when she saw and felt that her dress was completely drenched with blood on one side. Blood dripped down from the garment and formed a growing pool on the floor. The London Monster had struck again!
The entire Porter family came rushing along, fun of concern for poor Anne. When Mr. Porter saw that his daughter had been dangerously wounded, he sent a couple of servants after her assailant, but the Monster had absconded in time. A local practitioner, Surgeon Tomkins of Park Place, was promptly sent for. As he dressed the wound, which was situated on the outside and back of Anne's thigh and buttock, he found it to be more than six inches long and three inches deep in the middle. Apparently, the incision had been made with a particularly sharp instrument. A few days after his daughters had been assaulted, Thomas Porter went to the Bow Street public officethe name of the main London police station in 1790to lodge a complaint about the attack. Sarah came with him, according to the record, she described her assailant as at least six feet tall, thinly built, with light brown hair and a large nose. He appeared to be about thirty years old. It is not clear whether this was Sarah's own observation or a composite view of the observations made of the Monster that fateful evening; it is likely that John Porter, Mrs. Miel, and Anne Porter herself had also seen him. Later, indeed, Sarah told Richard Bond, one of the Bow Street magistrates, that she herself was quite unable to describe the man who attacked her, and when her sister Anne was asked to describe the Monster for a newspaper account, all she could volunteer was that he had a very pale and fair complexion.
Excerpted from The London Monster by Jan Bondeson Copyright © 2002 by Jan Bondeson. Excerpted by permission.
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Jan Bondeson lives and works in London.
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