Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Ratcliffe Highway Murders

Overlooked Evidence?

Marr murder weapon
Marr murder weapon

In January 1812, the magistrates still wanted to conclusively prove that Williams had done these killings. They wanted to find the weapon, either a razor or knife, that he had used to cut the throats of the victims, and they wanted to link it clearly to Williams. One police officer said that he had found such a knife in the pocket of Williams' coat, but had not seen it since. The newspaper accounts following this testimony shifted from calling the weapon a razor, as per the surgeon's reports, saying that the wounds had been clearly opened with a sharp knife. Eventually a knife was indeed found, and was said to have blood on it, but whether it had actually belonged to Williams or had been planted in his room to confirm his guilt is still up in the air. James and Critchley found the entire incident suspicious.

In tracking down more leads, they researched an incident that had occurred on a ship called the Roxburgh Castle, which involved Williams and another man named Williams Ablass, who had also been detained as a suspect in the murders. They had mutinied unsuccessfully, with Ablass being placed in confinement and Williams thought merely to have been led astray by his shipmates. On shore, Ablass had been  Williams' drinking companion for a time, which had brought him into contact with the Kings Arms tavern. In confinement before his release, he had been unable to account for some of his time on the nights of both murders.

In fact, some people took the time in the months following the Williams burial to inspect the case more closely and concluded that two, perhaps three, perpetrators must have been involved. Another man from the ship had returned to his rooms at around the same time as Williams had. He was detained but later freed. These suspects, who were allowed to answer for themselves only vaguely, may have been very good suspects indeed. However, the investigation was so uncoordinated and so filled with irrelevant testimony while ignoring productive leads that there was little chance of achieving real justice.

The authorities had chased down only one lodger at the Pear Tree, when there were other viable suspects living there as well. In addition, they were never able to explain why, when Williams came home to the Pear Tree that night, he drew attention to himself rather than going right to bed. The person to whom he spoke did not notice a bloody shirt, but it's a wonder that Williams would have even put himself in such a position. His actual behavior suggests innocence. And no one checked the date on his pawn tickets or ran down his alibi witnesses. Nor were several suspects, including a carpenter working in the Marr residence the day they were killed, adequately interrogated.

James and Critchley conclude that while the facts more closely match Ablass, a man with a history of aggression who was also lame, "it now seems unlikely that we shall ever know the full truth." Perhaps the violence on Ratcliffe Highway did begin with the mutiny, or at least with those mutineers, but the log of that ship was lost. Yet these authors insist, justifiably so, that Williams was convicted and vilified throughout history on evidence so paltry it should never even have been considered for trial. They think it's even plausible that someone else murdered him, and they consider him the eighth and final victim of the Ratcliffe massacres.

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