Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Ratcliffe Highway Murders

Good Suspect

Then, despite having no real police force, the crime appeared to be solved, although James and Critchley insist that the "culprit" was more likely an easy scapegoat than the actual perpetrator: "It became clear that the system of 1811 had done no more than pronounce a confident, convenient and ghoulish judgment on a corpse, while leaving the core of the Ratcliffe Highway murders wrapped in a continuing mystery." They use numerous documents from that period to substantiate this claim, including crime pamphlets (a mainstay in that society), a history of common law, newspaper accounts from the period, and Home Office papers, among others. They did not have records of the depositions (although newspaper accounts were said to be accurate by those who took the depositions). They consider De Quincey's essay on the matter over a decade later to be "fanciful," and they theorize that a mutiny on an East India Company ship, the Roxburgh Castle, a few months prior to the murders had some influence on the situation.

John Williams, portrait
John Williams, portrait

Let's look first at who came under scrutiny and then examine the arguments against his involvement.

It wasn't long before circumstantial evidence pointed to an Irish sailor, John Williams, whose roommate had noticed that he had returned after midnight to his room that night at the Pear Tree tavern on Cinnamon Street off Ratcliffe Highway. Williams had been an acquaintance of Timothy Marr's, according to de Quincey (but no one else), who describes him thus: "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." The Times was more specific: he was five-foot-nine, slender, had a "pleasing countenance," and did not limp.

The Shadwell Police office examined him, among several other suspects. He had two pawn tickets on his person for shoes, some silver, and a pound note. His last voyage had been on the Roxburgh Castle, an East India trading ship, where he had nearly gotten into trouble during a failed mutiny. He was educated and considered honest, always paying for his rooms, and popular with females. He shared a room with two other seamen, though he gave the impression that he had once seen better times. He was subjected to an intense interrogation simply because he'd been seen frequently at Williamson's tavern. On the Thursday night when the crime was committed, he had not shown up in his lodgings until around midnight (Wilson says it was after midnight). Granted, he was known to party, but given the circumstances, his behavior was now considered suspicious, especially since he had been seen near the Williamson home.

Williams admitted that he had indeed been at the Kings Arms tavern, and had even been there that night — he had never denied it — but that the family considered him a friend. Mrs. Williamson had touched his face that very evening in a motherly gesture. What went against him was that he had told someone who then reported it that he'd had no money, but after the murders he did have some. In fact, when he'd left the tavern on Thursday evening, he said, he had gone to consult a surgeon about an old wound, as well as a female with some knowledge of medicine. (No one checked.) The money found on him, he insisted, had come from pawning some of his clothing. The pawn tickets proved it. (No one checked the dates.)

Despite his insistence on innocence, Williams was remanded to Coldbath Fields prison, where another suspect was also still confined. That man remained in prison. Until this crime was solved, officials were taking no chances and no one was going anywhere. In fact, under the belief that Williams had not acted alone, they would round up yet a third suspect as well.

Coldbath Fields prison
Coldbath Fields prison

Then, on Christmas Eve, came the first real break in the case. It was now more than two weeks after the Marr murders and five days after the Williamsons had been bludgeoned to death. The police searched the Pear Tree lodging house, perhaps on a tip from the landlord, and found that a trunk belonging to a sailor out at sea was missing a maul. That sailor's name was John Peterson — J.P. The landlord recalled the maul in the toolkit, said he even had used it and had chipped it himself. That was a significant lead.

In an open forum of witnesses that day, John Turner was asked if he could identify John William as the man he had seen standing over the deceased Mrs. Williamson. He said that he could not, but that he knew the man from prior visits to the tavern. The woman who washed Williams' clothing was called to see if she had washed any bloody clothing. She said that about two weeks earlier, she had noticed that one shirt was torn, and another that had blood on the collar, as if from bloody fingers. She merely thought Williams had been in a fight, and as she had not washed for him since before the Williamson murder, she had nothing to say on that matter. Williams tried to give an account of his torn and bloodstained shirt as the result of a scuffle with acquaintances (Colin Wilson indicates it was a card-game brawl), but the magistrates silenced him. At the end of the day, he was removed again to the prison. It seemed that those in charge had already made up their minds on the matter. The next day was Christmas.