Chapter 5. Indescribable Panic
At Dove Cottage in Keswick, three hundred miles north of London, Robert Southey and Thomas de Quincey were reading the national newspapers with feverish excitement – as, like thousands of others, they followed every turn in the saga of the murders in Shadwell in December 1811. Southey declared it a rare example of “a private event of that order which rose to the dignity of a national event.” De Quincey wrote “the panic was indescribable. One lady, my next neighbour, whom I personally knew, living at that moment, during the absence of her husband, with a few servants in a very solitary house, never rested until she had placed eighteen doors (so she told me, and indeed satisfied me by oracular proof), each secured by ponderous bolts, and bars, and chains, between her own bedroom and any intruder of human build.”
In London, the question was raised how John Turner, the lodger at the King’s Arms, could have seen the murderer and then abandoned the infant Kitty Stilwell to her fate in seeking his own escape from the building. But De Quincey, having read the newspaper reports, launched into a powerful imaginative identification with the lodger. In justification of leaving the child sleeping, De Quincey surmised that the lodger “felt sure that sure that the murderer would not be satisfied to kill the poor child whilst unconscious. This would be to defeat his whole purpose in murdering her at all – to be an epicure of murder.” A startling creative leap.
At the inquest, Turner explained in his own words, “I went to bed and had not been there above five minutes before I heard the front door being banged to: very hard. Immediately afterwards I heard the servant exclaim ‘We are all murdered’ or ‘shall be murdered’ two or three times, I cannot be exactly sure which of the expressions she made use of. I had not been asleep. I heard the sound of two or three blows, but with what weapon I cannot say. Shortly afterwards, I heard Mr Williamson cry out, ‘I’m a dead man.’”
Although he knew of the murders a week earlier, astoundingly, Turner unlocked his door and crept downstairs where he spied through a doorway upon the murderer in the dark rifling through the pockets of a victim. “I did not see his face, and I only saw that one person. I was fearful and I went upstairs as quick but as softly as I could. I thought first of getting under the bed, but was fearful I should be found. I then took the two sheets, tied them together, tied them to the bed post, opened the window and lowered myself down by the sheets.”
No-one knew where the murder or murderers would strike next. “Many of our readers” wrote Thomas Macaulay years later, “can remember the state of London just after the murders of Marr and Williamson – the terror which was on every face – the careful barring of doors – the providing of blunderbusses and watchmen’s rattles. We know of a shop keeper who on that occasion sold three hundred rattles in ten hours.”
Regular reports will be forthcoming here during the Christmas holidays.
Thomas de Quincey
Click on Paul Bommer’s map of the Ratcliffe Highway Murders to explore further
The Maul & The Pear Tree - P.D. James’ breathtaking account of the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, inspired me to walk from Spitalfields down to Wapping to seek out the locations of these momentous events. Commemorating the bicentenary of the murders this Christmas, I am delighted to collaborate with Faber & Faber, reporting over coming weeks on these crimes on the exact anniversaries of their occurrence.
The Map of the Ratcliffe Highway Murders – In collaboration with Faber & Faber, Spitalfields Life has commissioned a map from Paul Bommer which will update throughout December as the events occur. Once you have clicked to enlarge it, you can download it as a screensaver or print it out as a guide to set out through the streets of Wapping.
Ratcliffe Highway Murder Walk – Spitalfields Life will be hosting a dusk walk on Wednesday 28th December at 3pm from St Georges in the East, visiting the crime scenes and telling the bone-chilling story of Britain’s first murder sensation. The walk will take approximately an hour and a half, and conclude at the historic riverside pub The Prospect of Whitby. Booking is essential and numbers are limited, so please email email@example.com to sign up. Tickets are £10.
Thanks to the Bishopsgate Institute and Tower Hamlets Local History Archive for their assistance with my research.
You may like to read the earlier installments of this serial which runs throughout December