Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Ratcliffe Highway Murders

Death Strikes Twice

In the same part of town just down the road on 81 New Gravel Lane, Mr. and Mrs. Williamson ran the King's Arms tavern. They had done so for 15 years. John Williamson (accounts are not clear on his first name) was 56, and his wife Elizabeth was four years older. Their 14-year-old granddaughter lived with them, as did servant Bridget Harrington. They also had a boarder, John Turner, who had been there for approximately eight months. The Kings Arms was a tall building, looming two stories, but it was no place for a rowdy party. The Williamsons liked to retire early.

On this night, Williamson had told one of the parish constables about a man wearing a brown jacket who seemed to be sneaking around the place, listening at his door. He asked that the officer keep an eye out for him and arrest him.

Thomas de Quincey, portrait
Thomas de Quincey, portrait

Not long after, that same constable heard the cry, "Murder!" in the streets. A crowd gathered outside the Kings Arms, and he knew that something was amiss with his friend. A nearly naked man was descending from the second floor on some knotted sheets, an odd sight indeed, and he let go of the sheet that supported him and dropped to the street, whereupon he was grabbed. From his incoherent crying, the neighbors gathered that he was the Kings Arms' boarder, John Turner, and he had just witnessed an awful sight.

The crowd beat at the tavern doors to get inside, and once they did, they saw the body of Mr. Williamson, lying on its back on the steps leading into the taproom. "Mr. Williamson," writes de Quincey, "lay at the foot of the stairs with a violent contusion of the head, his throat dreadfully cut, and an iron crowbar by his side." It appeared that he had been beaten with the same iron bar that lay next to him, but his throat had also been cut with a sharper implement and his blood ran freely over the steps. One hand appeared to be nearly hacked off. Then in the parlor, Williamson's wife and the inn's maid were found laid out with smashed skulls and slit throats. Bridget's feet were beneath the grate, as if she had been getting the fire ready to burn in the morning when struck down. As people drew closer, they saw that the wife's neck had been thoroughly severed to the bone.

People armed themselves with whatever they could find and went up the steps in search of possible perpetrators. They came across Kitty Stillwell, the granddaughter, in her bed, alive and untouched. Given what had happened to the Marr family 12 days earlier, it seemed miraculous. She had slept through the entire attack and had no idea what had just occurred downstairs.

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