Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Ratcliffe Highway Murders


Bow Street Court
Bow Street Court

The first officer on the scene was Charles Horton. In 1811, Britain had no formal police force. Criminal investigation methods initially emerged during the eighteenth century, but it was a crude system of making arrests. Sir Henry and John Fielding, successive magistrates at the court at Bow Street, had replaced the "thief-takers," a primitive breed of bounty hunters, with the Bow Street Runners in 1749, the first official constables in London. They publicized thefts and other crimes to raise public awareness. The six original Bow Street Runners had been parish constables, and their job was to track down known criminals and deliver writs of arrest. They were so successful that the office had been expanded and proposals were made for routine patrols around the city. Yet it would not be until 1829, almost two decades after the Ratcliffe Highway situation, that the Crown would affirm Sir Robert Peel's Metropolitan Police Bill, which would offer London an organized, fulltime police force. And not until the 1840s would there be a separate organization of detectives. For the time being, in 1811, parish constables, magistrates, and coroners dealt with local crimes.

John Fielding, sketch
John Fielding, sketch

Still, despite the fact that the Police Office had been set up to protect ships and cargoes at anchor, those citizens who were part of the constabulary did rise to the occasion and attempt an investigation. The police magistrates assisted them, but none were trained in investigative procedures. This sort of thing was taking place in France, with the introduction by Francois Eugene Vidocq and his Brigade de la Sureté, the first undercover detective agency, but even that would not be officially sanctioned by Napoleon for two more years.

So Horton arrived at the scene and went looking for clues about who had done this brutal deed. At first, he believed that the weapon used on the unfortunate victims had been a ripping chisel. One was found in the shop, but upon closer examination, it bore no blood. In the master bedroom (some say upstairs, some downstairs), leaning against a chair, he found a long-handled iron mallet covered with blood. He assumed this was the weapon, probably abandoned there when Margaret Jewell's knocking had scared the perpetrator away. He carried it into better light and saw that human hairs were stuck in the drying blood on the flat, heavy end. But the tapered end, used for driving nails into wood, was chipped.

Portrait of Francois Eugene Vidocq
Portrait of Francois Eugene

There didn't seem to be a motive. Nothing appeared to have been taken, and money was still left in the till and in several drawers in the home. Perhaps the thief had been scared off before he'd finished what he came for. The other possibility was some sort of revenge, which would indicate that the attacker probably knew Timothy Marr and had a grudge.

Then two sets of footprints were discovered at the back of the shop, and because the tracks proved to contain not only sawdust from work done by a carpenter inside that day but also traces of blood, they appeared to belong to two killers. As citizens followed the tracks, they came across a man who claimed that he had heard a number of people in an unoccupied house next to him. So perhaps there were more than two involved. It now looked like the work of some nefarious gang.

When Horton brought the bloodstained maul back to the police office, he found that three men were already in custody. As James and Critchley indicate, they were sailors who had been seen in the area that night, which was not unusual. One appeared to have spots of blood on his clothing. However, they all had convincing alibis, so they were released. Others were picked up, based on witness reports, and those cases fell apart as well. A small reward of 50 pounds was offered for information and, to notify area residents, a handbill was drafted and stuck on church doors.

A coroner's jury was organized on December 10 with Coroner John Unwin, in which the principal players retold their stories from that fateful night. It seemed evident that someone had been watching the place for the servant girl's departure, as if they knew that she would be sent out — an odd thing for Marr to do at such an hour. And their crime had been committed between 11:55, when she left and 12:15, when she returned. Murray did say he had heard bumping noises around 12:10, so the examiners decided that the killers had still been in the home when Margaret returned and began to knock and call out. When they heard her, they had fled through the back door.

One idea was to attempt to trace the origin of the maul via the chip in its blade. Perhaps someone knew something about that. Another was to ponder the chisel. While there was no blood on it, Margaret's story indicated that Marr had been looking for such a chisel that very evening and had it been in such plain view, he would have noticed. So perhaps someone brought it in to use as a weapon. In fact, one of the carpenters who had worked in the shop that day was detained, but there was no real case against him, so he'd been released (perhaps too quickly). A previous servant girl who'd been let go was also questioned, but she seemed to lack motive as well as criminal companions, and she was too small to have performed such deeds herself.

The next grim task was to bury the dead.