The London Monster: terror on the streets in 1790 by Jan Bondeson

A slasher at large in Georgian London
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The London Monster of 1789 was halfway between Jack the Ripper of 1889 and Whipping Tom of the 1680s. He was a lot less evil than the Ripper, but more dangerous than the flagellant Tom, who got his kicks out of pulling up the skirts of unaccompanied women, smacking their bottoms and crying "Spanko!" As with both villains, the Monster's identity is still unknown.

Someone was sneaking around the West End to cut the clothes, and often the skins, of respectable females. Rhynwick Williams, a weedy florist, was convicted. But the legal process which put him behind bars was monstrous too, according to The London Monster by Jan Bondeson, whose previous books include Buried Alive, and who has again dug up some excellent material,

The attacks followed a pattern. A man would insult, stalk and harass a lone woman. Hitting out with a sharp instrument, he would slice into the victim's dress and sometimes slash into her flesh, although not fatally. Finally, he would stroll away. If caught, he could temporarily fool the mob which gathered that it was not he, but his pursuer, who was the Monster.

Monster-mania brought a reign of terror to the ill-lit streets of the capital. As protection, women wore copper armour or cork padding or a large pot shoved up their drawers. A massive reward was offered for the molester's capture. Saucy songs and cartoons, generally featuring rounded female bottoms, celebrated his actions.

The Monster's language was constant (filthy) but his height varied between short and tall. Some suggested he was a syndicate of different Monsters. One newspaper questioned his very existence: was he just an urban legend? Finally a victim declared that she had recognised him in the street and Rhynwick Williams, a small ex-dancer who made artificial flowers, was apprehended.

A second victim identified him, although he did not resemble her previous description. A third stated he was definitely not the man who had assaulted her. Saved from the mobs eager to tear him to pieces, he was shredded by the legal system. His solicitor bottled out on the day before the Old Bailey trial and the replacement was unable to get him off, despite an alibi provided by workmates. Williams was tried only for damage to clothes, which, thanks to punitive legislation connected with a long-forgotten weavers' dispute, incurred a greater penalty than damage to buttocks. A retrial was ordered, on the grounds that weaving played little part in the case.

This time a new barrister volunteered his services, a man as loopy in his way as the actual Monster. Theophilus Swift, an excitable descendant of the satirist Jonathan, had accused the Prime Minister of plotting to assassinate the Royal Family. His defence of Williams was fairly off-the-wall too, although he made some forceful points.

Williams was again found guilty and sentenced to six years in Newgate prison, where he was later joined by Swift himself, convicted of libelling a clergyman. He might have been the real Monster, but seems to have been in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong lawyers. It happens.