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Chapter 9. A Shallow Grave

December 31, 2011
by the gentle author

John Williams was buried here outside The Crown & Dolphin at the junction of Cannon St Rd and Cable St on 31st December 1811. It was a tradition for a murderer who committed suicide while awaiting execution to be buried at the crossroads nearest the scene of their crime, with a wooden stake driven through the heart – and this was the ultimate fate of John Williams.

This practice – which was not unusual at the time – had its roots in folklore and the superstitious belief that only by driving a stake through the heart could the ghost of the murderer be prevented from returning to earth to plague the living. Even if the spirit were able to break free of the impaling stake, it would hover eternally irresolute at the crossroads. Although there was no legal authority for this custom, it was in this instance sanctioned personally by the Home Secretary, along with permission for a procession displaying the body publicly, prior to burial.

Londoners had been cheated of the spectacle of a public execution, so instead they were able to enjoy a parade. On the night before, the Deputy Constable of St George’s-in-the-East sat alone in a hackney coach with the dead body, transporting it from Coldbath Fields Prison in Clerkenwell over to Shadwell. The blinds of the coach were shut because if the body were exposed to the eyes of the mob there was little chance that it would survive intact. It must have been a grim ride.

On the morning of New Year’s Eve, John Williams’ body was attached to a cart specially rigged with a raked platform allowing maximum exposure to the crowd, and with the maul and the chisel displayed on either side of his head. Above his head was affixed the iron bar used to kill Mr Williamson and at the back of the neck, the sharpened stake was placed ready for use at the burial. Travelling along the Ratcliffe Highway past the Marrs’ draper’s shop, the procession set out on a journey around Wapping, taking in The Pear Tree and The King’s Arms along the way. When the cart reached the draper’s shop it halted because Williams’ head lurched unexpected to one side, as if he were taking a last look at the scene of his crime. Once someone had climbed up and straightened the head, the procession went on its way. It was estimated that ten thousand people turned out to witness the parade and although the Home Secretary feared the crowd might seize the body to exact direct physical vengeance, he was mistaken because the entire proceeding passed off in macabre silence.

At the crossroads, a grave four feet deep, three feet long and two feet wide had been dug and once John Williams’ body was tumbled into this hole – made deliberately too small – one of the escorts drove the stake through his heart. As the stake entered John Williams’ heart, the silence of the crowd was finally broken and cathartic shouts and cheers filled the air. A quantity of quick lime was thrown into the hole, it was hastily filled up with earth, and the paving stones were replaced and hammered down at once.

As darkness fell upon East London, people at last felt more comfortable to venture from their homes into the dark streets of Wapping, Shadwell, Whitechapel and Spitalfields as the New Year’s celebrations got underway. But the confident verdict of the Shadwell Bench, that John Williams was the sole murderer of both the Marrs’ and Williamsons’ families, could have deceived no-one for long.

Early in the New Year, you may expect the final report on this case.

The procession passes The King’s Arms.

The procession arrives at the crossroads with The Crown & Dolphin in the background.

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 have collaborated with Faber & Faber, reporting on these crimes on the exact anniversaries of their occurrence.

The Map of the Ratcliffe Highway Murders – In collaboration with Faber & Faber, Spitalfields Life commissioned this map from Paul Bommer. 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.

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

Chapter 1. Two Hundred Years Ago Tonight …

Chapter 2. Horrid Murder

Chapter 3. The Burial of the Victims

Chapter 4. New Sanguinary Atrocities

Chapter 5. Indescribable Panic

Chapter 6. The Prime Suspect

Chapter 7. The Three Wise Magistrates

Chapter 8. A Verdict

4 Responses leave one →
  1. sarah correia permalink
    December 31, 2011

    I have read elsewhere that all suicides at that time were denied burial in a consecrated cemetery or churchyard & were buried with a stake through their heart at a crossroad

  2. CornishCockney permalink
    December 31, 2011

    Another cliff-hanger ending! This truly is a fascinating story and glimpse into the psyche of the time.

  3. Mrs. Cruz permalink
    January 6, 2012

    I have enjoyed this so much. Thank you and keep up the good work. I would love to know what happened to Williams’ skull.

  4. Jen Tucker permalink
    January 12, 2012

    I love the map. It is gorgeous. Such an interesting story. Thank you.

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