There have been many violent and disturbing crimes committed in the Capital over the centuries, some single incidents, and others of a more serial nature. The latter attract much more attention, sometimes with the culprits achieving cult status. Obviously Jack the Ripper is usually the first to come to mind, along with latter-day perpetrators, John Haigh and John Christie. The Limehouse Gollum is one that predates “The Ripper”, and spawned several other mythical beings, such as Spring-Heeled Jack. However, a much more unknown, and frankly bizarre character was at work in the late 1780’s.
Let’s start with a definition from the dictionary. The word is Piquerism.
Piquerism is a sexual interest in penetrating the skin of another person with sharp objects. The most targeted areas of the body are the breasts, buttocks, or groin.
During the late Georgian period, London’s streets became the scene for one of the most bizarre criminal cases in its history. A shady and elusive character stalked female members of the upper classes. His attacks took the form of verbally abusing them prior to stabbing them with a sharp instrument. For two years these attacks generated a wave of public hysteria, before unseen in the capital. Below is the chronological record of these attacks.
There is a small court just off of Fleet Street that exists to this day called Johnson’s Court. It was here that the man later known as the Monster attacked his first victim.
Mrs Maria Smythe reported that she had been followed as she walked home, by a thin man of vulgar appearance. For a while, she was unaware of him until he started shouting obscenities at her, these becoming louder and more offensive with every outburst. As she attempted to enter her house in the court her assailant accosted her, striking her near the breast bone once with a sharp blade. The attacker then calmly walked away without a word. The wound was not very severe, amounting to no more than a slight knick to the skin, with little blood loss. The authorities at the time treated the matter with little interest, but no one could imagine the hysteria that was to follow.
In a subsequent attack, Miss Mary Foster was assaulted on Dean Stree, just along from St Anne’s Church, Soho. A week later Mary was attending a play at the Covent Garden
Theatre when to her shock she recognised her assailant leering at her from an adjacent box. She quickly instructed some nearby gentleman to apprehend the culprit, which they did. However, the Management of the theatre refused to hold the man without a warrant, so Mary’s gallant gentleman drifted back to watch the play, leaving the accused man to make his escape, and so an early chance to apprehend the Monster was missed in somewhat farcical circumstance.
Pero’s Bagnio was a Hotel and Cold Bath establishment in St James. It stood roughly where Blue Ball Alley meets St James Street today. Following the celebrations to mark the Queen’s birthday the two daughters of the owner, Anne and Sarah Porter were attacked by the Monster. In a departure from his modus operandi, Sarah was knocked unconscious, while the attack on Sarah followed the same course as previous attacks. Obviously incensed and upset by the attack, their father Thomas Porter immediately went to Bow Street Public Office to report the incident. On arrival, he found that the Monster had enjoyed an extremely busy day, having attacked another four women. One of these was a Miss Felton who was attacked on Dover Street, very close to Berkley Square. This seems to have been a more frenzied attack than normal, with the unfortunate girls clothing being badly shredded. She was lucky to escape injury when her attacker stabbed her in the upper thigh, his blade lodging in an apple that she was carrying in her pocket.
Around this time the Monster takes a new approach to the attacks. The verbal insults seem to have disappeared. Instead, he takes to the streets carrying a Nosegay, a bunch of flowers used to help ward off the foul smells prevalent in Georgian London. Inside the Nosegay is concealed a stiletto blade or sharp spike. The victim is invited to smell the charming aroma of the flowers and the blade is thrust into their face. There are several instances of these attacks, one being on a servant girl on the Strand who is badly cut to the face during the malicious attack. Several victims report that the flowers looked and smelt artificial, something that would be significant later in the case.
Hysteria had risen to unprecedented levels, with daily attacks, sightings and even detentions of the Monster were commonplace. These all proved unfounded, and the Magistrates were coming under intense pressure to detain the culprit. Monster Clubs were formed in order to patrol the city, Gentleman vigilantes sporting a club tie pin were seen frequently patrolling the streets in the most fashionable areas. One such was the
wealthy Insurance Broker, John Julius Angerstein. He started a subscription for raising a reward for the capture and conviction of the Monster. There is evidence that his actions were not all public-spirited, as his endeavours to apprehend the perpetrator brought him into close contact with many of the fashionable young ladies of society and it is noted that he took the opportunity to call on them with great enthusiasm.
Early in the month, a chance to apprehend the Monster was missed, again in farcical circumstances. In Arlington Street, just behind where the Ritz is today during the early evening a young woman was attacked. A Dr Bush witnessed the attack and despite being advanced in years, valiantly attempted to intervene. Brandishing his cane he accosted the assailant, halting the attack. Unfortunately, he was unable to detain the man, who calmly walked off into the darkening streets. Two bystanders ran to the woman’s aid, and one of them accompanied Dr Bush in the pursuit of the attacker. They finally caught up with him on the corner of St James Street and Piccadilly, but just as they were about to apprehend the man, Dr Bush was grabbed by the arms by a portly individual, who accused him of being the Monster. Within a minute a crowd had formed all baying for the chance to extract retribution on the hapless Dr Bush. If it hadn’t been for the appearance of the victim, who assured everyone that they had got the wrong man, then Dr Bush’ fate could have been a lot worse than a light ruffing up at the hands of the mob. Meanwhile, the real culprit had melted away into the city’s gathering dark.
If anything the spate of attacks increased during May, however, it seemed that the Monster was becoming less discerning about the social status of his victims. One such was a Mrs Elizabeth Davis, a Holborn Washerwoman. She was approached by a man offering a nosegay and was invited to smell it, to which she refused, claiming the flowers looked artificial. The man became agitated and grabbing her by the throat slashed her thigh and chest with a blade. On returning home she summoned the Bow Street Runners and passed on a detailed description of a tall elegantly dressed man. It is interesting to note, that victims were now embued with a certain cache and Mrs Davis is reported to be a bit surprised and a little flattered to have been the target of the man’s attentions since he was known for targeting the Hoi Polloi only. Later the same day a watchman spotted a man fitting Mrs Davis’ description and deciding to follow him traced the man to an address in Castle Street. Noting down the address the watchman immediately turned on his heel to passed it to the Bow Street Runners. What he failed to notice was that the man did not enter the house. During the subsequent raid, no man fitting the description was found and the Maid recounted a tale from earlier in the day when attending a loud knock to the front door there was nobody there when she eventually opened it. This lead Magistrate Sir Sampson Wright to publicly declare that they were dealing with “… a criminal of superior intelligence”
Sunday 13th June
On the 13th June, Anne Porter, remember her from the Pero’s Bagnio attack, was walking in St James Park with her mother and an admirer, a Fishmonger called John Coleman. During their walk, Miss Porter was heard to utter a cry of anguish and then proceeded to fall to the floor in a swoon. Smelling salts were administered and the young lady coming to her senses said that she had seen her attacker walking a little way in front of them. The party set off at a brisk walk and several minutes later Miss Porter identified the man twenty or so yards in front of them. Pointing the man out to Coleman, it seems that in today’s vernacular he “Bottled it”. Instead of heroically tackling him to the ground and calling for the Watchmen, he decided on a plan of following the culprit at a distance without any great risk to his own person. This lead to a long and drawn-out pursuit at walking pace all through the St. James area. As the pursuit continued, it must have dawned on Coleman, that to return to the Porter’s without the capture of the Monster, was going to do untold damage to his courtship of Miss Porter.
Bizarrely Coleman decided on a ploy of trying to antagonise the Monster into some form of action that will result in a scene, to which supposedly a crowd would gather and help him detain the man. So Coleman quickens his pace, overtakes the man, then stops, delivering menacing glares to the man as he passes by. He even leans over the shoulder of the man when he stops to look in shop windows, shouting “Baah! or Booh!” in the mans face. This plan seems to have had no effect on the Monster, who saunters along until he reaches a house in South Molton Street. Coleman keeps watch and after a short time the man leaves. Instead of following him, Coleman decided to knock on the door of the house and after a protracted conversation manages to elicit a name and address of the man from the householder, “Mr Williams, 52 Jermyn Street”. Deciding that this information will help save face when he retraces his steps back to the Porter’s. It doesn’t take long however for the realisation to dawn on him that perhaps a man of cunning such as the Monster would not willingly give his identity away, after being so blatantly accosted by his would be pursuer.
The hapless Coleman then spends the rest of the day trying to locate the man he has let slip from his grasp. During the hunt, Coleman suddenly realises that the man he has followed is actually an acquaintance of his, having been introduced by a mutual friend some weeks earlier. I think it’s easy to comprehend the state that Coleman was now in, probably nearing blind panic, as whichever way this plays out, his chances in the matrimonial stakes seem to be reaching a very low level. You can imagine his delight when by complete accident he rediscovers the man walking towards him down Pall Mall. Again he shies away from physically detaining the man, but approaches him, and renews his acquaintance (what the man thought after Colemans strange tactics earlier in the day is a bit of a mystery). He suggests to the man that he has been accused of insulting a female friend of his, but as they know each other, all be it tenuously, he can’t imagine this to be the case. He suggests that the man accompany him to meet his lady friend and clear the matter up. To this the man meekly objects, saying that it was too late in the day, but when pressed, he agrees to go with Coleman without much resistance.
They return to Pero’s Bagnio, where the sisters Porter both faint on first sight of the man, Anne exclaiming “Good God, that is the wretch!” Their Father has none of Colemen’s qualms about detaining the man and pins him to the wall, swearing that he would regret moving a muscle. The man, now greatly alarmed at this turn of events, denies all knowledge of the attacks and even comes up with an alibi for the attack on the Porter sister.
Within an hour the man now identified as Mr Williams is in the custody of the Bow Street Runners, under the arrest of Runner John Macmanus, who had previously been bodyguard to King George III. Williams is taken to New Prison, Clerkenwell, where he gives his name as Rhynwick Williams and his occupation as a maker of artificial flowers. He lodges at a dingy Ale House, The George in Bury Street, where he shares a single room with six other men. Macmanus searches the room and finds clothing similar to the description given of the attacker, but no weapons which might have been used in the attacks.
Monday 14th June
The following day, Williams appears before the Magistrates at Bow Street and presents his alibi for the Porter attack, saying that he had spent the day working at the artificial flower factory of Mr Amabel Mitchell in Dover Street. As in those days, an identification parade was held before the Magistrates, however, the results were mixed. Several victims positively identified Williams as their attacker, while some said he only bore a resemblance to the man. A good number attested that Williams wasn’t their attacker. The Magistrates wanted more time to decide on the charges, and so Williams was driven back to Clerkenwell. Running the gauntlet of an angry mob who had gathered outside, he was nearly torn to shreds, but was retrieved from the mob by several of the Runners.
The Magistrates dilemma was with which crime to charge Williams with, a felony, or a misdemeanour. The first punishable by death, the second by prison, flogging, or pillory. The mood of the public was high on the Magistrates agenda and they sought for the felony charge, however common assault, even with the intent to kill was only classed as a misdemeanour.
Therefore an obscure and slightly ridiculous law from the 1720’s was used, which deemed it a felony to assault someone in the street with the intent to damage their clothing. This carrying the greater charge than the physical assault seems perverse to our eyes, but in the context of the times, the assault on property was given greater value than the assault on the person.
Williams was brought before the Magistrates again on the 18th June and charged with the assaults with intent to damage the clothing of the victim. He was then taken back to Clerkenwell and left to await his trial at the Old Bailey.
On the 8th of July Williams stood trial at the Old Bailey. Anticipation, rumour and speculation had reached fever pitch in the weeks leading up to the trial, and many images of the supposed Monster had been published, depicting him as a terrifyingly large aggressive, knife-wielding maniac. So it was somewhat of a shocking anticlimax when the small rather meek-looking Williams first appeared in the dock. Despite the large number of witnesses called, the Judge, Mr Justice Francis Buller seems to have wanted to get the trial over as quickly as possible and so it was on the same day that the jury were sent out to consider their verdict. It came as no surprise that after a short period of time, they returned the guilty verdict. Williams was returned to prison to await sentencing.
Williams had been languishing in the squalid conditions of Newgate for two months when some aid came to his cause through the publication of a pamphlet entitled, The Monster at Large. This had been written by Theophilus Swift, a relative of the novelist Jonathan Swift. The case he outlined focused on the obscurity of the law used to convict Williams, legal contradictions during the trial, and a defence of Williams’ character.
Swift was something of a self promoter, taking every opportunity of provoking the establishment, and would readily have seen the publicity that the release of this pamphlet would generate.
It was becoming clear that sentiment around the charge that Williams had faced was beginning to turn in his favour. Possibly because of Swift’s pamphlet; he was very vocal in claiming that it was, Twelve Judges met on the 10th November at the Serjeants Hall to consider the matter. They decided that the felony charge of damaging clothing was untenable and that Williams should be retried under the misdemeanour charge of willfully and maliciously cutting with intent to kill.
Williams appeared at the Old Bailey on the 8th December and was discharged of the felony by Judge Ashurst, with a new trial for the misdemeanour to take place.
On Monday 13th December, Williams appears at the Hick’s Hall on Clerkenwell Green charged with the misdemeanour of cutting with the intent to kill.
The trial would have been a modern newspaper hacks dream, it had it all, drama, pathos, and as is so typical in the whole case, farse.
Williams appoints the self-aggrandising Swift to conduct his defence, who realising Williams appearance and demeanour is a trump card has him making a pitiful and pathetic speech to the court. Williams bemoans his situation and the prejudice against him and even admits to deciding to plead guilty until talked out of it by friends on the morning of the trial.
Despite his pomposity, Swift seems to be a crafty man to have in your corner and uses Williams’ change of heart to tell the Judge that he had been given insufficient time to prepare witnesses for the defence but requested that he be allowed to call employees of the artificial flower factory to attest to Williams’ alibi. This granted, the witnesses arrived in very short time and it was reported by some observers that the whole exercise was a charade put together by Swift, as all the employees had been seen loitering in a tavern just across from the Hall before being called.
Swift aggressively and improperly questions the mostly female witnesses, and during the turn of Anne Porter accuses her and her family of running a Brothel at Pero’s Bagnio, to which the young lady duly faints, earning Swift a stern rebuke from the Judge.
Despite his aggressive manner and unsubstantiated claims, Swift comes off second best in the legal arguments and is outmanoeuvred by his adversary, Mr Pigot. After several hours of rambling speeches, the jury is sent out to consider their verdict. At a quarter to midnight, they return and find Williams guilty of the assaults on the two Porter sisters. The following day the trial continues, with Swift unable to combat the claims of further witnesses and Williams is found guilty of two further offences and is sentenced to six years in Newgate Prison.
Two years into his sentence, Williams decides that he must try and do something to clear his name, or at least start a campaign for a re-trial. He produces a self-funded pamphlet entitled, An appeal to the public by Rhynwick Williams, containing observations and reflections on facts relative to his very extraordinary and melancholy case. This was filled with spurious and pathetic ruminations on his current state, attacks on John Coleman who he called a “Cowardly and impotently [sic] creature”. Also, a rather far fetched claim that the Monster was still at larger and praying on the female population of both Bristol and Watford. Unsurprisingly, the pamphlet has no effect on public opinion. In another farcical twist to the tale, he is joined inside Newgate in 1795 by his former advocate Theophilus Swift, who is incarcerated for a year for Libel.
There a few documents relating to Williams remaining stay in Newgate, but it does look as if his life was not entirely without joy. In May 1795 his Son, conceived in Newgate with another inmate Elizabeth Robins was christened at St. Sepulchre’s church, opposite Newgate Prison. Having served his sentence, Williams faded from history and the only remaining record shows his marriage to Elizabeth Robins at St Pancras Old Church in 1797.