Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Ratcliffe Highway Murders

Case Closed

The facts against John Williams were that he'd had the opportunity to take the maul, he had money after the murder but not before, he'd returned to his room just after the killer had fled the second crime scene, and he allegedly had a bloody and torn shirt. The courts in those days generally relied on logic and eyewitness testimony over forensic evidence, although they did attempt to identify the maul and to ascertain whether the shirt in question did indeed have bloodstains on it. If a narrative could be devised that fit the facts and made sense, then more than likely a person could be found guilty. Investigators did not yet think about or possess ways to process and match blood evidence, interpret blood-spatter patterns, look for fingerprints, or make a soil analysis. The best they could do was surmise what must have happened, given what they knew, and then leave it for the courts to decide.

However, Williams never got to trial. Three days after Christmas, on December 28, he used a scarf to hang himself from an iron bar in his cell at the Coldbath Fields prison. No one discovered this until just before he was scheduled for a hearing. The officials and public had gathered to hear more testimony and to ask him more questions, but a lone police officer announced to the magistrate that the accused was dead and his body was cold. It surprised everyone who had spoken to the man, and several prisoners and a warden said that he had appeared in good spirits only the day before his suicide, believing that he would soon be exonerated and released. His death came as a surprise. (Much later, people would speculate whether he had in fact been murdered to prevent authorities from casting their gaze elsewhere for the culprit.)

John Williams body on display
John Williams body on display

Even as Williams was laid out, the scheduled hearing went forward, and it seems that, given Williams' inability to defend himself, people were suddenly much freer with information. How accurate it was in anyone's guess, especially given the case's notoriety. While the overall reports were consistent with previous accounts, more details were added and some are fairly damning. The Times reported that a secret correspondence was discovered in the prison between Williams and one of the other suspects, "which clearly connects them with the shocking transactions." It's not clear whether this was true.

Another man who shared a room with Williams said that he had found his own stockings muddied and hidden behind a chest. Upon confronting Williams, he concluded that Williams had worn his stockings out that night and had gotten them dirty. Williams then took them into the yard and washed them. The landlady affirmed this and added that while the stockings were quite muddy, she had also seen blood on the top of them. She said she had not brought this information to the attention of the magistrates before this day because she feared that Williams would murder her. A female witness who knew Williams well connected him with a chisel that proved to have been taken from the same seaman's chest that had yielded the missing maul.

Finally, the forum declared that Williams was their man and that he had delivered his own form of justice by taking his life. That seemed a clear statement of his guilt. In fact, the case against the other suspects collapsed, and Williams was deemed the sole perpetrator of both atrocities (although no one had done anything to connect him with the Marr murders). Preparations were made to bury him, pay out the rewards, and bring the case to a close.

"On the last day of the fatal year," writes de Quincey, "the remains of this sanguinary assassin were privately removed at 11 o'clock at night." Someone made a drawing of the procession and the body, which can be seen in prints today, showing Williams not as a slender man, the way accounts later reported, but a stocky laborer. In his pockets was a piece of metal that he apparently had ripped off a wall to use to stab himself in the event he was unsuccessful at hanging. Or so people surmised.

That Williams had killed himself was not sufficient for those who were still frightened by the crimes. Just to make sure he could never repeat them, a mob of citizens took the body in a procession ("an immense concourse of persons") up the Ratcliffe Highway. "When the cart came opposite the late Mr. Marr's house a halt was made for nearly a quarter of an hour. The procession then advanced to St. George's Turnpike, where the new road [new in de Quincey's experience in 1827] is intersected by Cannon Street. Those who accompanied the procession arrived at a grave already dug six feet down [one account says four]. The remains of John Williams were tumbled out of the cart and lowered into this hole, and then someone hammered a stake through his heart." In fact, the procession had also stopped for ten minutes in front of the dark Kings Arms tavern as well. Also, the grave hole was made too small for the size of the corpse, so that this murderer would feel uncomfortable even in death. (The coachman had also whipped him three times across the face, according to James and Critchley, while the procession was holding vigil before the Kings Arms.)

In other words, Williams was buried at a crossroads where four roads meet, as a vampire might be, so that he could never rise up from the grave to attack. At that time, says Lane and Gregg, the people believed that a stake through the heart would keep the restless soul of someone who had committed suicide (i.e., damned himself) in his final resting place. The crossroads was believed to confuse evil ghosts, in the event that they did break free and rise from the grave, as to which direction to take. Quicklime was added, the pit was then covered over, and the "solemn ceremony concluded."

In August 1886, a gas company began to excavate a trench in the area where Williams had been buried. They accidentally unearthed his skeleton, and reports claim that the stake was still visible. "It was six feet below the surface of the road where Cannon and Cable Streets cross at St. George in the East," states the unknown author of "Stepney Murders."

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