Friday, 13 June 2014

The Ratcliffe Highway Murders (3); John Williams (1784-1811) buried at the crossroads at the junction of Cable Street and Cannon Street Road


This photograph looks from the railway bridge on Cannon Street Road to the cross roads where John Williams was buried with the Crown and Dolphin still standing on the corner and the tower of St Georges’-in-the-East showing above the roof tops.

On the 21st December, just a couple of days after the murder of the Williamson’s and Bridget Harrington at the Kings Arms Tavern, an Irish or possibly Scottish seaman by the name of John Williams (or perhaps John Murphy) was arrested at the Pear Tree Inn after information was received from an anonymous source. He had been seen drinking at the Kings Arms on the night of the murder and there were other circumstantial details too which linked him to the crimes. He was remanded at Cold Bath Fields Prison to appear before the Shadwell magistrates to answer questions on his possible involvement in the murders. On the day of the hearing the magistrates sat waiting in their packed court room when a messenger appeared from the prison – Williams had committed suicide, hanging himself in his cell. The magistrates went ahead and heard the testimony of the other witnesses in what now appeared to be an open and shut case. Their verdict, hotly disputed to this day, was that John Williams was solely responsible for the Ratcliffe Highway Murders.    

To appease public opinion and In lieu of a public execution the Home Secretary Sir Richard Ryder, accepting the conclusions of the Shadwell Magistrates that John Williams was solely responsible for the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, ordered that his body be publically paraded around the streets at the scenes of his crimes. Once the local residents were satisfied that the monster was indeed dead he was to be interred at a crossroads with a stake through his heart. The crossroads chosen were at the junction of Cable Street and Cannon Street Road, close by the Crown and Dolphin public house.

On New Years Eve 1811 accompanied by the Thames Police and the Bow Street Mounted Patrol as well as local constables and watchman John Williams’ body was arranged on an open cart along with the maul, a chisel and a crowbar that he had used in committing his crimes and driven slowly through the streets of Wapping and Shadwell, stopping outside the Marr’s shop at 29 Ratcliffe Highway and the Kings Arms Tavern. 10,000 spectators lined the route and the normally unruly east end crowd was unusually subdued. When the procession reached the crossroads the grave had already been dug. The driver of the cart whipped Williams’ body three times in an unscripted act of revenge and then it was removed from the cart and placed on its knees in the open grave. A stake was placed at the point of his back judged to be above the heart and then driven through it with a mallet before the earth was piled over the corpse.
 


In 1902 gas mains were being laid in Cannon Street North and Cable Street. The labourers digging the trenches uncovered a skeleton with a wooden stake driven through the ribcage. The labourers adjourned to the Crown and Dolphin while their bosses debated what to do. They may well have adjourned carrying John Williams’ skull which was undoubtedly exchanged for a few pints when the landlord took an interest in it. Certainly by the time the authorities arrived to take Williams’ remains away the skeleton was headless and once the mains had been laid, the road repaved and official interest in the site had waned a skull purportedly belonging to John Williams’ went on prominent display in the saloon bar.            

Thomas De Quincey described John Williams as "a man of middle stature, slenderly built, rather thin but wiry, tolerably muscular, and clear of all superfluous flesh. His hair was of the most extraordinary and vivid color, viz., a bright yellow, something between an orange and a yellow colour." Even the police agreed he had a “pleasing countenance” which was sketched post mortem by Sir Thomas Lawrence. Sir Thomas would no doubt have preferred to sketch Williams alive but the sailor was so impatient to hang himself that the artist had to content himself with the corpse. The incident was recorded by Miss Croft in her “Recollections of Sir Thomas Lawrence P.R.A. During an Intimacy of Nearly Thirty Years”:

“Sir Thomas had an insatiable curiosity as to the countenances of murderers and persons capable of great crimes. He got permission from the home-office to go to Cold Bath Fields Prison to make a drawing of the man Williams, who was the murderer of the Maw family about 1812 or 1813, and also of another family of the name of Williamson, both in the neighbourhood of Ratcliffe High-way. The presumption of his guilt was confirm'd by his destroying himself in Prison the day after he was taken. Sir Thomas brought the drawing to shew me, and laid it before me without a comment. It instantly struck me that it was Williams, for the subject was fresh in every one's mind. I never saw a more beautiful head. The forehead the finest one could see, hair light and curling, the eyes blue and only half closed ; the mouth singularly handsome, tho' somewhat distorted, and the nose perfect. I ask'd what became of the science of physiognomy, when such features could belong to such a monster; for he destroyed not only the father and mother, and I think a maid servant, but an infant a few weeks old in its cradle — and all this for the purpose of rifling the till in a little haberdasher's shop!”