Tigers – Vampires & Mass Murders
The Highway, formerly known as the Ratcliffe Highway, dates back to Roman times. Today it is a fairly nondescript road in the East End of London that stretches from the City of London, bypassing the Tower of London in the east, and winds in a westwardly direction towards Limehouse and the Limehouse Link tunnel.
There are two notable exceptions to the blandness, which the Highway has now become enveloped in, and they are firstly, and most importantly, the church of St George-in-the-East, which was designed by the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, and first opened in 1729.
The second is the church of St Paul's Shadwell, which is an Anglican church that was first built in 1657. Not such a famous designer as St George-in-the-East, but the church has had a number of well-known members including Captain James Cook and Thomas Jefferson's mother. It became known as the Church of Sea Captains because of its links to the docks and maritime trade and there are over 70 sea captains buried in the graveyard surrounding the church. During its time, John Wesley preached here a number of times and indeed preached his last sermon from the church's pulpit before dying a few days later.
Most of this area was unfortunately bombed by the Germans during WWII, leaving very little of historical importance for the visitor to see. The few old houses and warehouses that were left standing have since been demolished to make way for supermarkets, offices and garages. The same applies to the old pubs and inns, which once dominated this area; they have nearly all been forced to close due to the smoking ban, which was introduced into the UK in 2007.
This rather sorry state of affairs has turned the Highway into an almost arterial road, a lifeless thoroughfare, carrying mostly heavy goods vehicles from the City to outer London and vice-versa; a place where pedestrians are a rare sight indeed.
If we travel back to the 19th century, the Highway was an altogether different place, with a notorious reputation for vice and crime. At that time it was known as the Ratcliff Highway, which takes its name from 'red cliff', referring to the red sandstone cliffs which descended from the plateau on which the road was situated down to the Wapping Marshes to the south.
Just off the Highway, stands Tobacco Dock, which was converted in 1990 into a shopping centre at a cost of £47 million and was intended to create the Covent Garden of the East End but the scheme was unsuccessful and it went into administration. The property is not in a major retail area and has only moderately good public transport access. Since the mid 1990s the building has been almost entirely unoccupied with the only tenant being a sandwich shop, and a plan to convert it into a factory outlet did not come to fruition, leaving this sad Retail Mary Celeste, empty and desolate. There is one thing however, that remains, and that is a 7 ft tall bronze sculpture of a boy standing in front of a tiger.
This strange sculpture has nothing to do with the origins of Tobacco Dock, it in fact refers to something which happened on the nearby Highway, where in the late 1800s, a man named Charles Jamrach, who became the world's most renowned dealer in wild animals, opened Jamrach's Animal Emporium on The Highway, close to where St George-in-the-East now stands.
The store became the largest animal store in the world, supplying zoos, menageries and private collectors. Even seamen arriving at the Port of London would bring back exotic animals they had bought or caught from other countries around the world, and sell them to Jamrach.
The name Jamrach became famous around the world, and an incident, which happened one day, was to make him even more famous. It started when a fully-grown Bengal tiger escaped from Jamrach's shop one day and bounded out into the street. A small boy saw the tiger, and as he had never seen such a big cat before, he approached it, and tried to pet the animal. The tiger opened it enormous jaws, picked up the boy and carried him off. By this time, Jamrach had been alerted to the escaped animal, and ran out of his shop, just in time to see the tiger carrying the lad off. Jamrach gave chase, caught up to the tiger and threw himself upon it, placing his hands around its neck and pressing two vital points behind its ears. This obviously had the desired effect, as it seemed to weaken the tiger’s grip on the boy, and without wasting any time, Jamrach prised open the animal's jaws with his bare hands and pulled the very frightened but otherwise unhurt boy from the jaws of what would have inevitably meant death for the boy.
In August 1886, which was not long after this bizarre incident occurred, workmen began road works in the area close to St. George in the East, at the junction of Cannon Street Road and the New Road. The workmen couldn’t believe their eyes, when six feet below the surface they unearthed a skeleton with a wooden stake protruding from the cavity in the ribcage where the heart was once housed. When the skeleton was brought to the surface, it is thought that the workmen sold its skull to the publican of the Crown & Dolphin pub nearby, who placed it behind his bar, where it stayed as a showpiece for many years, although it has since disappeared.
Being buried at a crossroads with a wooden stake driven through the heart, was normally the reserve of those thought to be a vampire, but as far as we know, there were little or no reports of vampire activity in London at this time, or indeed England as a whole. To find out more about how the remains of this gruesome corpse came to be here, we need to delve back seventy-five years, to the early hours of 8th December 1811.
Timothy Marr was a 24-year-old linen draper and hosier, who lived with his wife Celia, their three-month old son, an apprentice, James Gowan; and a servant girl, Margaret Jewell. Marr’s business was situated at 29 Ratcliffe Highway, where he and his family also lived in the rooms above the shop.
Marr had finished work for that day and was busy taking stock and preparing for the following day’s trading. He was very happy with the day’s takings, and decided to send Margaret Jewell, out to buy some oysters for their supper.
As Margaret opened the shop door to go out, she later alleged that she saw the figure of a man framed in the moonlight. She wasn’t particularly worried about this, as the entire area was usually busy after hours, and customers were always coming and going and staring in the shop’s window. Margaret made her way along the road to Taylor’s oyster shop, which was unfortunately closed, so she walked back past Timothy Marr’s shop, where, through the window, she could see Mr Marr still busying himself at work. Margaret continued past the shop and on to the baker’s shop, in the hope of being able to buy something to eat there.
By the time she reached the Baker’s shop, they were about to close and so she couldn’t get any food there either. From the time she had left the shop, until the time she returned there, empty-handed, she had been gone for a total of approximately twenty minutes, which probably saved her life.
The house and shop were in total darkness, and the street door locked, when Margaret returned. She knocked, thinking that maybe they had forgotten that she was still out, but there was no movement or sounds inside whatsoever. She listened at the door and knocked again, but then she heard a noise that sounded like footsteps on the stairs. This was quickly followed by the familiar sound of the baby upstairs, as it let out a little cry, but still no one came to the door.
By this time Margaret sensed that something was seriously wrong. The moon was now hidden behind a cloud, leaving the street scene in total darkness. She felt an air of icy horror creeping over her, as she heard the sound of footsteps approaching her on the pavement behind her. She slammed the knocker against the door as hard and as loud as she could, hoping and praying that someone would come to the door and let here in, while all the time listening to the footsteps growing ever closer.
Margaret almost fainted as she felt a hand upon her shoulder, but was relieved when she turned to see the figure of George Olney, the night watchman who called out the time every half hour. He had heard the noise she had been making by banging on the door, and had come to find out what was going on. Margaret explained the situation, and he also knocked and called out several times to Marr, whom he personally knew quite well.
While all this was happening, a neighbour, John Murray, who had a pawnbroker’s shop next-door, also came out to find out what was going on. Murray decided to help by returning back into his own house and climbing over the dividing garden wall into Marr’s house. The back door of Marr’s house was standing open, so Murrey entered and edged his way up the stairs, calling softly to the Marrs as he went.
After a few minutes of complete silence, he decided to return to the downstairs area and the shop. Murray was not however, prepared for the carnage he was about to behold, for as he got to the narrow passageway at the bottom of the stairs, the floor itself was coated with blood and gore, making it almost impossible to pick a blood free pathway to the front door. The first victim he saw was young James Gowan, the apprentice, who was lying on the floor, just inside the shop door, about six feet from the stairs. The bones in the boys face had been smashed, pulverizing his brain and causing it to be splattered around the walls and even across the shop’s counter, where it was then dripping onto the floor.
A strong feeling of nausea came over Murray. He rushed towards the street door, but stumbled across yet another corpse before he got there. This time it was Mrs Marr lying facedown, her head had also been severely battered like young James Gowan’s had, and there was blood still oozing from her wounds. Murray took a deep breath and ran to the door, but instead of being able to rush outside and take a breath of fresh air, he was almost pushed back inside again by George Olney, who was eager to help with the search.
A moment or two later and Murray and Olney continued to search for the rest of the Marr family, and within minutes had found Timothy Marr lying behind the shop counter, in much the same condition as the other victims, battered to death, with blood and bone fragments splattered everywhere. With three corpses now having been found, their concerns naturally turned to the baby, which certainly was not in the shop area. Murray and Olney rushed to the living quarters, which were in the basement, and it was there that they found the poor child. The boy was still in his bed, his little face hardly recognisable, with his mouth cut open and gaping. One side of his face was crushed and his throat had been slashed open so severely that his head was almost severed from his body. The tiny crib that he lay in was covered with blood and bone splinters from the frenzied attack. When Murray first saw him, he could not hold himself back any longer and made another dash for the door, but unfortunately vomited on the floor before he could reach there.
By this time, people in the neighbourhood had started to hear what had happened, and a crowd had started to gather outside, some of them even entered the home, and holding candles aloft, not only gathered to gaze at the bodies, but also searched for a possible murder weapon.
There was no formal police force In Britain in 1811, Sir Henry and John Fielding, had replaced what was known as the thief-takers, with the Bow Street Runners, whose main job was to track down known criminals and deliver writs of arrest. There was however, another body, known as the River Thames Police Office, which had been set up to protect ships and cargoes at anchor. It was to them that assistance was summoned, and it was their constabulary who rose to the occasion and attempted an investigation that night.
The first officer on the scene was Charles Horton, who immediately cleared as many onlookers from the house as possible, and set about looking for clues. Close to where the body of Timothy Marr had been discovered, he found a ripping chisel, which he thought might be the weapon used on the victims, but upon closer examination, it bore no blood. In the master bedroom upstairs, Horton found a long-handled iron mallet, known as a maul, which was covered with blood. He assumed this was almost certainly the murder weapon, especially when upon closer examination he saw that human hairs were stuck in the congealed blood on the flat, heavy end.
He then discovered two sets of footprints at the back of the shop, and because the tracks proved to contain not only sawdust from work done by a carpenter inside that day but also traces of blood, it became obvious that they were left after the murders had been committed, and more importantly, by two separate people, or killers!
There was however, one very important thing still missing, and that was a motive. No valuables appeared to have been taken; there was money left in the till, as well as in several drawers around the house. One possibility was that the culprit or culprits had been scared off by all the commotion at the street door, and had fled the scene before they had finished what they came for. The other possibility was that it might have been some sort of revenge attack, which would indicate that the perpetrator probably knew Timothy Marr and had a personal grudge against him.
Without any apparent motive, the authorities found it very difficult to pinpoint any suspects. The only clues they had to go on were a carpenter’s bloodstained maul, which was found at the scene of the crime, a chisel, and some bloody footprints. The nature of the crimes struck fear into the hearts of not just the locals, but to the population of London as a whole. The Government tried to quell the fears by offering a small reward of fifty pounds for any information leading to an arrest. A handbill was also drafted and nailed onto local church doors.
The suggestion of a reward led to a number of baseless arrests, all of which were released within days, sometimes hours. One of the carpenters who had worked in the shop that day was detained, but was quickly released owing to a lack of evidence against him. A servant girl who had worked for Marr some months earlier, was also arrested and questioned, but she too was released for the fact that she was deemed too small to have carried out the murders on her own, and she certainly didn’t have or know anyone in the criminal fraternity. At one point, even Marr’s brother came under scrutiny, since it was rumoured that he had had a disagreement with his brother. He was questioned for forty-eight hours, but released after his alibi was checked and proved that he could not have possibly been there that night
An inquest took place on December 10th in which the principal players retold their stories from that fateful night. When the servant girl, Margaret Jewell gave her evidence, it seemed apparent that someone had been watching the premises that night, and was waiting for her departure, but how anyone could have known that she would be sent out to buy food at such a late hour, was never discussed.
After the inquest had taken place, it was decided that the bodies should then be buried, but not before the general public had their final glimpse of them. During this time, no one thought about preserving a crime scene or respecting the dead; victims of crime were considered fair game and the public had a strong appetite for scandal and gore. The bodies of the four victims were laid out on beds in the house at 29 Ratcliffe Highway and the general public was allowed in to view them. People came from all over London to stare at the horribly mutilated corpses, for their wounds were not sutured (stitched up), leaving gaping holes in their flesh; even their eyes had not been closed.
The ghoulish infatuation with the poor victims didn’t end there, for literally hundred more turned up, alongside genuine mourners, when they were given a memorial service at the church of St. Georges in the East, where the Marrs had proudly baptized their firstborn three months earlier.
Even after the victims were dead and buried, the people of London and especially the local populace, did not easily forget the case, for with the crime unsolved, the big fear was that the perpetrator could strike again at any time.
They certainly did not have long to wait, for on 19th December, John Williamson, a publican at the Kings Arms Tavern at 81 New Gravel Lane, just off Ratcliff Highway, along with his wife Elizabeth, their fourteen-year-old granddaughter and a servant girl named Bridget Anna Harrington. They also had a boarder, John Turner, who had been there for approximately eight months. That night John Williamson, his wife, and the servant girl, were all murdered in much the same fashion as the Marrs had been.
Earlier on that evening, Williamson had noticed a man who he thought looked very suspicious; he seemed to be watching the pub and at one point, listening at his private door. Williamson mentioned it to one of the parish constables and asked him to keep an eye out for the man.
A short while after this, the constable heard the cry, “Murder” coming from the direction of the Kings Arms. As he neared the pub a crowd had started to gather. A man dressed only in his shirt was lowering himself down from a second floor window on some knotted sheets. As he let go of the sheets and fell the last few feet to the ground, he was grabbed by members of the crowd that were gathered there. The constable rushed in and saved the man before the crowd could have ripped him apart, thinking he was yet another murderer. The man quickly explained that he was John Turner, who boarded at the Kings Arms, and that he had just witnessed a terrible sight.
Upon hearing what Turner had described to the constable, the crowd wasted no time in battering down the doors of the tavern and forcing their way inside. The first sight to greet them was the body of Mr Williamson, lying on its back on the steps leading into the taproom. Williamson’s head had been caved in, his throat slit from ear to ear, and one of his hands had been nearly hacked off. Blood was running from his wounds and soaking into the steps next to him, where an iron crowbar was lying beside him.
In the parlour, Williamsons wife and the servant girl were found in a similar condition, both with their skulls smashed in and the throats slashed. The servant girl was lying in front of the grate, as if she had been preparing the fire for the morning when the killer had struck. One of the onlookers, a middle aged woman, fainted as she bent down to get a better view of Mrs Williamson, and then noticed that her neck had been severed to the bone.
The crowd started to arm themselves with whatever they could find and rushed about from room to room in the hope of finding the perpetrators still on the premises. The killer or killers had gone, but in an upstairs room they came across Kitty Stillwell, the young granddaughter, in her bed, alive and untouched. She had slept through the entire attack and had no idea what had just occurred downstairs. Given what had happened to the Marr family, including their baby, just twelve days earlier, it seemed miraculous that this young girl was still alive.
The Government realised that something needed to be done or they could end up with riots on their hands. The investigation was widened, with the Bow Street Runners and the River Thames Police lending their full support. This in turn, led to almost anyone who happened to be in the vicinity of the crime that night, becoming a suspect.
The main suspect to begin with was John Turner, the lodger who had escaped the building that night by climbing down a sheet from a second floor window. He said he had seen a tall man bending over Mrs Williamson's body. When other witnesses insisted that they had also seen a tall man loitering outside the tavern that night, it gave credence to Turner’s story, and he was more or less eliminated as a suspect.
Blood had been found on one of the windowsills, which indicated the killer’s escape route. A footprint in the mud below the window outside confirmed this, and the killer got away by apparently running along a clay-covered slope, using the same escape route that the Marr family killer had taken.
It now started to look like the Marr killer and the Williamson Killer might well be one and the same person. The Shadwell Police office started rounding up everyone who had a possible connection to both sets of victims. One such person was an Irish sailor, named John Williams, who had been an acquaintance of Timothy Marrs. There were rumours that he held a grudge against Timothy Marr since they had sailed at sea together some years earlier.
When Williams’ roommate was questioned he said that Williams had returned to his room at the Pear Tree tavern, just off Ratcliffe Highway, after midnight that night. Other witnesses said that Williams was a regular at Williamsons’ tavern, and so it seems that armed with just these two very circumstantial pieces of evidence, John Williams now became the number one suspect in both cases.
Williams didn’t deny he had been to the Kings Arms tavern, in fact he admitted that he had even been there that night, but he insisted that he got on very well with the Williamson family, and that they treated him almost like a son. When another witness came forward to say that he had told them that he had no money that night, this went against him, as when he was arrested after the murders he most certainly did have money on him, although he insisted that the money found on him had come from pawning some of his clothing. Pawn tickets found on him bore this fact out.
Despite the fact that no real evidence had been offered up against him, Williams was remanded to Coldbath Fields prison, where another suspect was also being held. Officials believed that Williams had not acted alone; in fact they were still searching for a third suspect as well.
On Christmas Eve, after a tip-off from the landlord of the Pear Tree lodging house, the police searched the room of a sailor, John Peterson, who was at this time away on a sea trip. The landlord showed them a trunk belonging to Peterson, which he said had contained a maul, but which was now missing.
The landlord said Peterson had often let him borrow the maul, which had been in a well-stocked toolkit inside the trunk, but when he had gone to borrow it again this time, it was no longer there. A significant fact here was that when the maul found at the Marr’s hose had been cleaned of the hair and blood, the initials “JP” had been found, clearly etched into the metal.
The ‘facts’ against John Williams were now starting to add up. He had had the opportunity to take the maul; he had no money before the murder but did have money after the murder, and had returned to his room just after the killer had fled the second crime scene. He also, according to a woman who washed his clothing, had a bloody and torn shirt. There was no forensic evidence in those days, courts had to rely on so called logic and eyewitness testimony, although they did attempt to identify the maul and to ascertain whether Williams’ shirt did in fact have bloodstains on it. The best they could do was surmise what probably happened, taking into account the spoken words of witnesses, and then leave it for the courts to decide.
When the lodger, John Turner was asked if he could identify John William as the man he had seen standing over the body of Mrs Williamson, he replied that he could not, but admitted having seen Williams on a number of occasions at the tavern.
While all this ‘evidence’ was piling up against him, Williams was still languishing in Coldbath Fields prison, awaiting trial. On 28th December he was summoned to Shadwell Magistrates Court for a hearing, where the officials and public had gathered to hear more testimony and to ask him more questions. When Williams’ name was called, instead of him appearing, a prison guard stood up and informed the court and all those present that Mr John Williams had been found hanging in his cell that morning, having apparently taken his own life. His death came as a great surprise, although many years later, people would speculate whether he had in fact been murdered to prevent the authorities from having to cast their investigations further afield in the search for the ‘real’ culprit.
Upon hearing of Williams’ untimely death, the people of East London felt they had been cheated. Such was the outpouring of their rage, that the Home Secretary ordered Williams’ body be paraded through the streets, which was a common practice at this time; although Williams was one of the last to receive this somewhat dubious ‘honour’
It was finally taken as read, that Williams was guilty of both sets of murders, and that he had delivered his own form of justice by taking his life, which seemed at the time to be a clear statement of his guilt.
To make sure Williams could never repeat these terrible crimes again, a mob of local citizens took the body, which was laid out on the back of a cart, in a huge procession along the Ratcliffe Highway, pausing for fifteen minutes opposite the late Mr Marrs house. It then moved on to the Kings Arms tavern, where it stopped for ten minutes.
The procession then advanced to St. Georges Turnpike, where the road is intersected by Cannon Street, where they stopped upon reaching the grave, which had already been dug, six feet deep, but not very wide or long, as they wanted the murderer to feel uncomfortable even in death. John Williams’ body was tumbled unceremoniously out of the cart and lowered into this hole, but not before the coachman had also whipped him three times across the face. Before his grave was filled in with earth, a wooden stake was hammered through his heart.
In other words, Williams was buried at a crossroads where four roads meet, as a so-called vampire might be. The idea was that one who was buried is such a way could never rise up from the grave again to attack more victims. Crossroads were believed to confuse evil spirits, in the event that if they did break free and rise from the grave, they would not know which direction to take. Quicklime was also added to William’s grave before it was finally covered over.
The motive of the Ratcliffe Highway murders remains a mystery and a source of constant debate for historians and crime buffs to this day. Yet in a city that often seems fixated on the macabre, the brutal nature of these crimes, and their unsolved nature, has propagated the mystery even more so over the centuries and will in all probability continue to do so.