THE LONDON MONSTER
In 1790, nearly a century before Jack the Ripper haunted the streets of London, another predator held sway. The Monster, as this mysterious miscreant was soon dubbed, used to walk up to a beautiful, well-dressed lady, insult her with coarse and earthy language, and then stab her in the thigh or buttocks. He struck at regular intervals, wounding a number of young and attractive women in the London streets: in a ‘sextuple event’ on January 19, his tally was not less than six victims. Since this kind of sadistic behaviour was unheard-of at the time, there was general outrage among the Londoners and the capital’s female world was in a turmoil.
Throughout the first half of 1790, the newspapers were full of the Monster’s latest outrages. Long-defunct papers like the World, the Argus and the Diary did much to emphasise the sense of an elusive outside threat, and the need for vigilante action. The police was roundly criticised for their failure to capture the Monster, and it was even hinted that they were deliberately sheltering the culprit, a gentleman of wealth. In early April, a £100 reward was posted for the capture of the Monster, by the Lloyd’s insurance broker John Julius Angerstein. Large posters were pasted up all over London to announce that a bloodthirsty, inhuman Monster was on the prowl, attacking young and beautiful women in the streets. These posters accomplished what the newspapers had started, namely to create a veritable mass hysteria. Both the police and various amateur Monster-hunters were out in force. Innocent men were beaten up by the mob after being pointed out as the Monster by mischievous people, and the fashionable ladies did not dare venture out into the streets without wearing copper petticoats or other forms of protective clothing.
The Monster attacks continued throughout April and May, although it was notable that the descriptions of the culprit varied greatly, with regard to height, dress, complexion and hair colour. The Monster-hunters suspected that the fiend was wearing several coats, one on top of the other, and that he made use of a collection of wigs and false noses to disguise his appearance. Mr Angerstein disagreed, pointing out that there was good reason to suspect that more than one of these wretches were infesting the streets. Some ladies faked Monster attacks to gain sympathy and compassion: his propensity to attack only young and beautiful ladies made it highly fashionable to pose as one of his swooning, tearful victims, basking in the newspaper publicity and receiving visits from manly, muscular Monster-hunters eager to obtain a description of the mystery assailant. At this stage, some newspaper journalists, aghast at the Monster they had helped to create, suggested that the attacks might well be the handiwork of some inept pickpockets, who were aiming to cut open the ladies’ skirt pockets, but stabbed the flesh instead. Such calls for moderation were lost in the general hubbub: it was instead speculated that the Monster was a master of disguise, an insane nobleman bent on maiming every beautiful woman in London, or even a supernatural being who could make himself invisible to evade detection. The tally of victims soon reached fifty: some were cut with a sharp object, others kicked from behind with spikes fastened to the Monster’s knees, and some stabbed in the nose with a stiletto hidden in a nosegay they were invited to smell at by the elusive fiend.
Finally, on June 13, a suspect was arrested by the vigilante John Coleman after he had been pointed out in Green Park by Anne Porter, a young lady who had been attacked by the Monster in January the same year, in front of Pero’s Bagnio, the family home at 63 St James’s Street. He was the 23-year-old Welshman Rhynwick Williams, a native of Beguildy in the county of Radnor. The son of a respectable apothecary, he had become a ballet dancer, but was sacked from the theatre after being suspected of theft. The young Welshman then sank low in the London underworld, supporting himself by various odd jobs. For a few months, he worked as an artificial flower maker at a factory owned by the seedy Frenchman Aimable Michelle, but by early 1790, he was unemployed and out in the street again. He lived at a disreputable public house, where four men shared two beds in a tiny room. That the Monster actually slept in the same bed as another man was considered highly significant to explain his bloodthirsty crusade against the female sex. When Williams was questioned at Bow Street, the police only with difficulty prevented the mob from lynching him. Anne Porter, the Monster victim who had pointed out Williams in Green Park, was certain he was the man who had cut her. She was seconded by her three sisters, all of whom testified that the Welshman had been in the habit of stalking them in the streets, making use of the most horrid and insulting language. Several other Monster victims could not pick Williams out, however; others declared themselves certain he was not the man who had cut them.
In the meantime, the judges were contemplating for what crime Williams should be prosecuted. At this time, crimes were either felonies or misdemeanours. The former were ‘serious’ offences, punishable by death or transportation to the Australian penal colonies. Misdemeanours were relatively milder offences, punishable by prison, pillory or a public flogging. To cut or stab some person with an intent to maim or kill them was a misdemeanour, and the judges were uneasily aware that the general mood in London demanded that the Monster should be severely punished. They found an ancient statute from the time of George I, intended to prevent weavers from destroying imported foreign clothes, saying that it was a felony to maliciously spoil and destroy any person’s garments. Rhynwick Williams was tried at the Old Bailey and convicted for destroying the clothes of Anne Porter on January 19, in spite of an alibi provided by his fellow workers at the flower factory. The Judge, Sir Francis Buller, nevertheless found the stretching of the law to make the Monster’s crimes a felony somewhat questionable: had he not cut the clothes to make way to the flesh underneath?
The matter was referred to the Twelve Judges of England, who decided that Rhynwick Williams should be tried again, this time for a misdemeanour. Although energetically defended by the eccentric Irish poet Theophilus Swift, who bullied Anne Porter and the other female witnesses mercilessly, the young Welshman was again convicted and sentenced to six years in Newgate. The trials served as a ceremony of exorcism; there were no more attacks, and London had been cleansed of its Monster. At the time, many people saw it as an anomaly that Williams was not hanged, flogged within inches of his life, or at least transported to Australia. After all, it was punishable by death to steal a sheep or to pickpocket more than a shilling. Today, one is instead concerned that there may well have been a miscarriage of justice, and that Williams was just a scapegoat who had to play the role of the Monster in these two farcical trials. Many of the victims had given descriptions of the mystery assailant that did not fit Williams at all. And for the attack where the evidence against Williams was considered the strongest, he had seven alibi witnesses stating that he had been hard at work making artificial flowers at the time. The veracity of Anne Porter and her boyfriend John Coleman who had caught Williams was cast into doubt by Theophilus Swift, and it is certain that Coleman got his hands on the Monster reward and that they married not long after. There is also evidence that the police deliberately coached at least one Monster victim to pick out Williams as the man who had attacked them. It is thus quite possible that the Welshman was just a scapegoat, unlucky enough to fall in the hands of the authorities when they needed someone to pay for the Monster’s crimes.
The London Monster mania of 1790 is just one example of what can be called the phantom attacker syndrome. In 1819, Paris was terrorised by piqueurs who stabbed women in the behinds with sharp instruments attached to their umbrellas. The French police tried everything, even detectives dressed up in drag to act as potential victims, to find the culprits, but to no avail. In 1938, the Halifax Slasher cut a number of people with razor blades. The newspapers were full of the Slasher’s latest outrages, vigilantes roamed the streets, and the local women carried lengths of hosepipe filled with lead shot as protection against the Slasher. After the local police had declared themselves baffled, Scotland Yard was called in. The experienced detectives found that many Slasher victims had faked their own injuries to gain sympathy and recognition, just as at least one Monster victim had done in 1790. They declared themselves convinced that there had never been a Slasher: the whole thing was a typical example of how an urban community could react in an erratic and inexplicable way to an elusive outside threat.
These phantom attackers are still with us. In May 2001, speculation was rife in India after a mysterious being had attacked several people in or near New Delhi. The Monkey-Man, as he was soon dubbed, climbed the roofs and savaged people who were sleeping there; he swiftly bounded away if any person tried to grab him. There was speculation whether this threatening, sharp-clawed monster was an extraterrestrial, a mutant monkey escaped from a zoo, or a sadistic hoaxer dressed in a gorilla costume. There were soon more than seventy victims, and a reward of 50 000 rupees was posted for the capture of the Monkey-Man. Armed police patrolled the streets of New Delhi, vigilantes were out in force, and several innocent people were beaten up or lynched after being pointed out as the Monkey-Man. But when the case was properly investigated, it turned out to be yet another episode of mass hysteria: people had faked their injuries and invented sightings of the elusive attacker. Just like the Monster-Mania of 1790, the Monkey-Man scare died out as suddenly as it had begun.
Was there a Monster at all back in 1790, or was the entire scare just a case of mass hysteria? No woman was killed or seriously injured by the fiend and some alleged victims were proved to have faked their injuries. Other purported victims may well have been injured by clumsy pickpockets, as was suggested at the time. Rhynwick Williams might have been one of the roughs habitually insulting women in the London streets, but he was hardly the Monster, as judged from disparity of the descriptions of the prowling miscreant. It is obvious that there were several copycat Monsters at large, imitating the original attacker; this in fact constitutes the earliest known example of copycat crime. The Monster-mania of 1790 has striking parallels to our own time: an inept police force unable to find its man, a ‘moral entrepreneur’ creating an urban panic by posting a huge reward, and a press frenzy that generated a climate of fear and a need to convict some person at all costs, even if the evidence was questionable.
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Jan Bondeson is a retired senior lecturer and consultant physician at Cardiff University. His book The London Monster: Terror on the Streets in 1790, is available from the History Press.