Chapter 6. The Prime Suspect
On Christmas Eve, a vital break in the case came when the maul used as the weapon to kill the Marrs was recognised by Mr Vermilloe, the landlord of The Pear Tree. He reported that the initials I.P. were those of its owner John Peterson, a German carpenter from Hamburg who had recently lodged at The Pear Tree and left his tool chest there for safe keeping when he returned to sea.
This breakthrough led to to John Williams. He was twenty-seven, an ordinary seaman who had once sailed with Timothy Marr on the Dover Castle. Upon his return from sea, he had taken lodgings down by the river at The Pear Tree in Cinnamon Street, Wapping – still cobbled today as it was in 1811. Although superior in education to his colleagues and possessing a fastidious, even foppish concern for his appearance, he was of quick temper and easily provoked into brawls. As well as the connection to Mr Marr, he had been seen at the King’s Arms on the evening of the murder of the Williamsons and returning to his lodging that night after twelve, he requested his room-mates to put out the candle. This circumstantial evidence was enough to lead to his arrest and remand at Coldbath Fields Prison in Clerkenwell, pending further investigation.
That very evening, John Williams was brought to Shadwell for interrogation in front of the magistrates in a crowded courthouse. John Turner, the Williamson’s lodger who had seen the killer standing over Mrs Williamson’s corpse was there but although he recognised John Williams as a regular at the King’s Arms, he could not positively identify him as the killer. The questioning moved on to the laundress who washed John Williams’ clothes. She confirmed bloody finger marks upon a shirt but was unclear of the date of this discovery. Then Mrs Vermilloe took the stand (her husband was confined to Newgate Prison for debt) and when she was overcome with emotion at being asked to identify the maul, two little boys were sent for who had been playing with it.
At this moment, John Williams was questioned about his bloody shirt only to describe a fight he had with a number of Irish coal-heavers over a card game at The Royal Oak. Next, his fellow lodgers were asked about Williams’ mysterious request to put out the candle, and it became unclear which night this incident occurred. Next, one of the boys who had been playing with the maul, William Rice, aged eleven years old, arrived. He confirmed that the maul used to kill the Marrs was the same one from The Pear Tree and he had not seen it for a month.
It was now late on Christmas Eve, and the magistrates decided to adjourn proceedings until after the holiday. At this point John Williams could contain his frustration no longer and attempted to speak – calling out a question – but was forced to desist. We shall never know what he tried to ask. Instead, he was taken back to Coldbath Fields Prison and residents of the neighbourhood were able to sleep peacefully in their beds for the first time in many weeks, secure now in the widely-held but entirely tenuous assumption that the killer was under lock and key.
You may read a further report upon the resumption of the hearing on Boxing Day.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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