Chapter 8. A Verdict
As the magistrates took their seats in Shadwell on 27th December 1811, the first snow of the Winter began to fall upon London. It did not cool the enthusiasm of the crowd in the street outside, eager to catch a glimpse of the major suspect in the Ratcliffe Highway murders, John Williams, as he arrived in manacles from Coldbath Fields Prison of which this fragment of old wall in Clerkenwell Close is now the only visible remnant.
Once the hour passed at which Williams was due to arrive and when the door of the courtroom eventually opened, those inside were surprised to see not the prisoner and his guards but instead a solitary police officer with a grim expression. When the turnkey at the gaol had gone to prepare the suspect for his trip to Shadwell that morning, he discovered Williams suspended by the neck from the iron bar which crossed the cell, provided for prisoners to hang their clothes. The body was cold and lifeless, and the universal conclusion was that John Williams had passed judgement upon himself. Thus the days proceedings were undertaken on the assumption that his guilt would now be revealed.
Mrs Vermilloe was questioned again but acted strangely – she would not confirm that the maul her husband and nephew William Rice had identified was the one from John Peterson’s tool kit. Asked when she was first suspicious of John Williams, she explained it was when the socks claimed to have been worn by Williams were discovered to be bloodstained. When pushed as to why she had not revealed this before, she admitted to fearing he (or some of his acquaintances) would murder her.
Told that she need not fear John Williams any longer because he had hung himself, she exclaimed “Good God! I hope not!” The magistrate asked her why she hoped not and she replied “I should have been sorry, if he had been innocent, that he should have suffered.” Mrs Vermilloe knew more than she was prepared to say.
Once she learned Williams was dead, she changed her story, saying that it was the discovery of the initials I.P upon the maul that first drew her suspicion to him. In this transparently convenient alteration, Mrs Vermilloe began a prejudicial trend adopted by each of the other witnesses that day, which was to take the easy path of pinning guilt upon a dead man. But even this could not erase the names of those morally ambiguous individuals associated with John Williams who will always remain at the periphery of this story. John Cuthperson, John Harrison and John Richter, his room-mates, Cornelius Hart and Jeremiah Fitzpatrick, carpenters, John Cobbett, a coal-heaver and Williams’ only intimate friend, William Ablass, a tall stout seaman, commonly called Long Billy, who was lame. This last individual, Ablass, had once sailed with Williams from Rio de Janeiro on the Roxburgh Castle and witnesses had seen them together at the King’s Arms on the evening of the Williamsons’ murder. Though Ablass had an alibi for the rest of the night given by a woman at his lodging house, which led to his discharge, it was a weak piece of testimony.
Lacking any clear evidence implicating anyone else, the belief that John Williams was the sole murderer of both the Marrs and the Williamsons grew. With this belief came a powerful realisation that so monstrous a villain, multiple murderer and self destroyer, must be made into an example for the whole nation because in the end he had cheated the majesty of Law. Few had any doubt that John Williams was getting his just deserts in the next world but they also wanted to see him receive punishment here on earth too. If there was not to be the spectacle of an execution, then something else had to be devised quickly before the year’s end, because public vengeance had to be satisfied.
There will be a further report on this case before the year’s end.
Coldbath Fields Prison by Thomas Rowlandson
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