I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
There was panic in the streets of Georgian London over a man who attacked women. He insulted them, slashed their dresses, and sometimes stabbed them, although not fatally.
The First Attacks
In 1788, a report came in that a large man was in the habit of accosting wealthy women who were alone. He used foul language and, sometimes, he stabbed them with a sharp object such as a pin. On other occasions he slashed their dresses with a knife that took some flesh with it. Some were slashed across the face. Women took to wearing various forms of armour to protect themselves.
A common feature of all these assaults was that the perpetrator got away before help could arrive. In two years, there were reports of 50 attacks but descriptions of the culprit varied quite widely.
A huge reward was offered for his capture and armed vigilantes patrolled the ill-lit streets hoping to take down the maniac. With their customary skill at calming things down the news sheets of the day dubbed him “The Monster.”
Even the Bow Street Runners, what passed for a police force in those days, were unable to apprehend the villain.
The Fiend is Captured
In June 1790, a lady called Anne Porter was strolling through St. James’s Park with her gentleman admirer, one John Coleman. Suddenly, she said she recognized the knife-wielding ogre. One imagines a sharp intake of breath, a small squeak of alarm, and a nosegay raised quickly to the nostrils.
Any red-blooded swain worthy of the hand of a fair lady would have to act, and John Coleman was up to the challenge. He followed the suspect at a discreet distance to his home where he confronted him and challenged him to a duel.
Let the imagination take flight again in recreating unrecorded dialogue. “You are a mountebank and a scoundrel Sir, and I demand satisfaction. My seconds will call upon you on the morrow.”
The man accosted turned out to be a 23-year-old called Rhynwick Williams, and he had no interest in duelling. Coleman hauled him back to young Anne Porter who fainted on seeing him.
Charges Are Laid
Williams admitted to once approaching Anne Porter but denied categorically that he was the London Monster, of which he was now accused of being. He had iron-clad alibis for all the other alleged attacks, but, in the climate of hysteria that prevailed, his protestations of innocence were useless.
The authorities thought it was difficult to convict Williams of a felony so they dug an ancient statute out of the dusty law books. A long lost battle had taken place between British weavers and importers of foreign cloth. The weavers had taken to pouring a corrosive liquid on imported fabrics so the crime of defacing cloth was instituted.
Rhynwick Williams faced this grave charge, which was a more serious accusation than that of stabbing someone in the buttocks.
A Travesty of a Trial
Rhynwick Williams hired an incompetent lawyer who baled out on his client the day before the trial. The courtroom was filled with jeering spectators who howled for blood.
Several alleged victims failed to identify Williams as their attacker. The man in the dock hardly fit the profile of a deranged slasher. He had been a violinist and dancer but neither profession provided him with a living so he worked in a factory making artificial flowers.
No matter, someone had to assuage the anger of the population and Rhynwick Williams was made to serve that purpose. He was sentenced to six years in Newgate Prison. This was actually a fairly light sentence given that thieves in the era routinely went to the gallows. Perhaps, the judge had doubts about his guilt.
Innocent or Guilty?
When Williams went to prison the attacks on women stopped. This does rather point to his guilt but not conclusively so.
Anne Porter and John Coleman married and collected the reward offered for the capture of the London Monster. This led Williams to claim the couple had set him up so they could get their hands on the money.
Some women who claimed to be victims of the London Monster later changed their stories saying they had not been attacked at all. Such was the level of panic that any knife attack was likely to be attributed to the Monster when it might have been the work of someone else.
The Monster’s targets were usually young, attractive, and wealthy women. So the allegation has been made that some females who fit this profile gave themselves puncture wounds as a way of proclaiming their beauty, youth, and riches.
Others have speculated there were no attacks and that the whole affair was a case of mass hysteria. There have been many occurrences of this throughout history.
The London Monster may have had a condition known as “piquerism.” This involves a desire, usually driven by a sexual impulse, to puncture the skin of victims with sharp objects. In June 2007, a 25-year-old American called Frank Ranieri was arrested and charged with assault. Allegedly, he paid women large sums of money so they would allow him to stab them in the buttocks with nails, pins, or pens.
Whipping Tom was the name given to several offenders in seventeenth century England. Their modus operandi was to lift the skirts of ladies and smack them on their bottoms. One of these characters would yell “Spanko” as he performed his ritual. A few men were arrested and convicted of assault but, given the loose way in which the law was applied, there’s no guarantee any of them were guilty.
One wonders what those weavers who defaced cloth might think of one of today’s fashion trends.
- “The London Monster: Terror on the Streets in 1790.” Jonathan Sale, The Independent, December 2, 2003.
- “Whores and Highwaymen: Crime and Justice in the Eighteenth-Century Metropolis.” Gregory J. Durston, Waterside Press, November 2012.
- “Monster Who Beat Ripper by 100 Years.” Paul Harris, The Guardian, December 24, 2000.
- “Before Jack the Ripper, There Was the London Monster.” Lyn Kelly, History 101, May 26, 2018.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on January 22, 2019:
I would have to agree that Mr. William was a sacrificial lamb. This is certainly an interesting story, and I thin mass hysteria was sure at play.
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on January 21, 2019:
Thanks DW Davis. Rhynwick Williams joins a long and sad collection of others who have been made sacrificial lambs and those that have yet to have the distinction bestowed upon them.
DW Davis from Eastern NC on January 21, 2019:
It would appear that Mr. Williams was naught more than a sacrificial lamb given over to calm the people's nerves. Thanks for a great story.