So begins “The Maul and the Pear Tree” by P.D. James and T.A. Critchley, a thorough account and re-thinking of the notorious Ratcliffe Highway Murders, committed in London’s East End in December, 1811.
The slayings are well-known to Britons, particularly Londoners, although less so to Americans.
On Dec. 7, the 24-year-old clothing merchant was gruesomely murdered in his combination shop and home along with his wife Cecilia, their three-month old son Timothy and the young lad Gowen. Three of the victims were bludgeoned to death with a heavy long-handled iron hammer, a maul, found matted with blood, hair and brains in one of the rooms.
Someone called out, “The child, where’s the child?” and there was a rush for the basement. There they found the child, still in its cradle, the side of its mouth laid open with a blow, the left side of the face battered, and the throat slit so that the head was almost severed from the body.
The slayings and their brutality shocked the nation. Even the Home Secretary, a member of the Prime Minister’s cabinet, got involved in the search for the culprit or culprits, albeit at a distance.
Then, 12 nights later, three more people in a nearby tavern, the King’s Arms, died in similar horrific circumstances —John Williamson, the owner; his wife Elizabeth; and their servant, Bridget Anna Harrington. A blood-covered iron bar, discovered near one of the bodies, had been used to crush the skulls of each of the three. And a razor or knife, not found on the premises, was used to slit their throats.
One lodger, John Turner, escaped by climbing out a third floor window and lowering himself by sheets tied together. He shouted out an alarm, and the killer fled before discovering Williamson’s 14-year-old granddaughter, Kitty Stillwell, asleep in a bedroom.
Three days before Christmas, John Williams, “a somewhat frail and shabbily elegant seaman” who lived nearby in the Pear Tree public house, was arrested, one of dozens of men to be detained on suspicion of involvement in the killings.
At 27, Williams had a pleasant manner, especially with the ladies.
He was superior in education and dress to the ordinary seaman, wrote a good hand, and was fastidious about his clothes and appearance. Not surprisingly he was occasionally mistaken for a gentleman, an impression he did nothing to dispel…Nothing was known of his family and antecedents, but it was generally agreed that a young man so superior in person and in education …must have some secret in his past to account for his present way of life.
The amateurish investigation of the slayings was a disjointed, inefficient and inexpert process. (The British had long feared that a professional police force would be used as an arm of repression by the government, as it was in Paris.) Suspicion began to narrow on Williams. He had yet to be charged although a mishmash of somewhat conflicting circumstantial evidence seemed to point his way.
Then, on the morning after Christmas, Williams was found dead in his cell, hung from an iron bar.
His apparent suicide was taken as an admission of guilt. Because it was felt that Williams had cheated the hangman, his body was paraded through the East End streets and buried at a crossroads with a stake driven through the heart.
Even though it had been thought that, in at least one of the bloodbaths, two men had been involved, the investigation petered out.
Mystery solved. Case closed. London sighed in relief.
Four decades later, in 1854, Thomas De Quincey, in a postscript to his essay, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” revived the story of the Ratcliffe Highway Murders with a telling that was long on atmosphere and sensation and short on accuracy.
He wrote: “Never, throughout the annals of universal Christendom, has there indeed been any act of one solitary insulated individual armed with power so appalling over the hearts of men as that exterminating murder by which, during the winter of 1811-12, John Williams, in one hour, smote two houses with emptiness…and asserted his own supremacy above all the children of Cain.”
Later accounts were deeply colored by De Quincey’s. The slayings became a legend.
Until 1971 when James, the well-known detective-story novelist, and Critchley, a police historian, took a fresh look at the case, employing a more analytical approach and putting to use some newly available documents from the Home Secretary’s office of the time of the murders.
The result is a very satisfactory recounting of the slayings and detailing of the mystery — and, then, in the final pages of the book, a speculated solution which, if not air-tight, provides some sensible answers to the very nettlesome questions of the case.
James, of course, knows how to write compellingly about crime. She and Critchley have brought together a mass of newspaper accounts and government documents, and, with her novelist’s eye, James brings the people, buried in those long-ago-written words, back to life. And brings to the mind’s sight the look and feel — and fear — of those dockside streets two centuries ago.
She and Critchley even find someone they think was probably, either directly or indirectly, the killer’s eighth victim.
Not bad for detectives working at a distance of seven or eight generations.
Patrick T. Reardon