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Chapter 9. A Shallow Grave

December 31, 2021
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

I am indebted to PD James’ ‘The Maul & The Peartree’ which stands as the authoritative account of these events. Thanks are also due to the Bishopsgate Institute and Tower Hamlets Local History Archive.

You may like to read the earlier instalments of this serial which runs throughout December

1. The Death Of A Linen Draper

2. Horrid Murder

3. The Burial Of The Victims

4. New Sanguinary Atrocities

5. Indescribable Panic

6. The Prime Suspect

7. Three Wise Magistrates

8. A Verdict

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Carolyn Hooper permalink
    December 31, 2021

    Oh, dear…… What a gruesome story but it tells us clearly that although many say other races are cruel etc etc etc…..the cruelty and craziness is in every single race on earth.

    Even though many laws today are not nearly effective enough, thank heavens we do have them! Imagine if it was left to “society” to exact punishment on those they believe are the lowest of the low.

    From a rainy Brisbane Australia, I wish you, gentle author, and all your readers, the very best for 2022. May peace, health and blessings flow.

  2. December 31, 2021

    Thank goodness we don’t have this sort of thing anymore. I think that, over 200 years later, people would still flock to a horrible spectacle like this. The anger and resentment and pent up passions of the crowd having resurfaced on the last twenty years via the rise of social media.

  3. Catherine Morris permalink
    December 31, 2021

    Wow, that was gruesome! The body was hopefully dissolved by the quick lime as I pity any person digging up the roads in years hence.

  4. paul loften permalink
    December 31, 2021

    But can we be sure that John Williams did it ? History holds the key for eternity. Tonight’s revellers at The Crown and Dolphin should take care not to exceed one over the eight. A shallow grave allows a vengeful hand to reach out .

  5. December 31, 2021

    Will another murder take place? Will people shake with fear once more? Gruesome, perhaps, but not unexpected. Happy New Year, dear G.A. And thank you, and thank you. I can imagine the effort needed to publish every day.

  6. Christy permalink
    December 31, 2021

    Chapter One surprised me: (Isn’t THIS an unusual kind of Christmas story?), but then I was completely drawn into the tale and raced to my local library to get the PD James book.

    It is as much a tale of everyday life as a tale of crime.

  7. Theo Bane permalink
    August 29, 2023

    What a charming custom.

    No doubt Mr. Williams continued to annoy Londoners as he decomposed and the roadbed sank somewhat.

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